Care Is a Practice; Care Is Pedagogical

How can we be together online?
By Jesse Stommel

This article is part of a series, "Reflections on Faculty Life in a Pandemic." 

My mom had a brain hemorrhage and a pulmonary embolism just before Thanksgiving last year. She is now recovering, very slowly. During the worst moments—several days after the hemorrhage, in the midst of a pulmonary embolism, pneumonia in her lungs and blood clots threatening to travel to her brain—my brother and I had to have a conversation about if and when we’d remove her breathing tube. I had to tell my three-year-old daughter that her grandma might die and what that meant. “Grandma’s sick,” Hazel would say for months.

In March, Hazel’s preschool “pivoted” online. And the playgrounds in our Baltimore neighborhood closed. We had to explain to her why she couldn’t see her friends or teacher and what it meant for a playground to be closed. By the third or fourth time we walked past the empty playground, she seemed to understand. I wrote a letter to Hazel’s school: “As someone whose research specializes in online learning, I commend everything you are doing. I am talking regularly to higher education institutions across the country about this pivot, and it is indeed an enormous challenge. Meanwhile, we do not feel online learning is appropriate for Hazel at three years old.” In the midst of the pandemic, it felt more important that she be three years old and not trying to learn how to learn online.

At the beginning of April, Sean Michael Morris and I launched “Open Online Office Hours,” an ongoing series of discussions about pedagogy and online learning open to educators at all levels, across the world. During one of the first sessions, in which we were talking to educators and administrators about how to navigate education in a time of crisis, I heard a knock at the door. A letter had arrived confirming that my husband was officially laid off from his job. This is the kind of thing that happens on camera now, during open discussions with colleagues and during online courses. I’ve talked with students who find themselves taking online classes from their childhood bedrooms. I’ve heard from others who have no homes from which to safely shelter in place—no homes from which to turn on their cameras inside a Zoom classroom.

The boundaries between the personal and the professional have blurred. Some of our most private spaces are now on camera. Some of our most private moments are recorded: joys, tragedies, exhaustion, bewilderment. And our children, animals, and partners are surprise guests for meetings, classes, and keynotes. In fact, these moments are increasingly not a surprise and often are born of necessity. I do not get to take a break from being a parent. When our cat died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in July, I could not keep that loss private—because so much of my public life has been let into my home. His name was Odin. Hazel called him “Meeskers.” “He’s sick in his tummy,” she still says. I think Hazel understands that he isn’t coming home from the hospital. We have tried to explain this to her.

In the last several weeks, our family moved across the country, from Baltimore to Colorado, to be closer to all of Hazel’s grandparents. And also because being a dad, being a husband, being a teacher has gotten harder. These things were always hard, but as much as I have found my personal and professional boundaries blurred, I have also found myself frequently feeling isolated and lonely. I know this is how many of the students I work with are feeling. I know this is how many of my colleagues are feeling. I have heard from teachers around the world that they aren’t sure they want to be teachers anymore if this is what the work continues to look and feel like. I have heard from faculty members who feel overwhelmed by administrative indecision and continuing bureaucratic hurdles at their institutions. I have talked to students who have found that the challenges of just living have made their schoolwork an afterthought. And I have also talked to students who feel even more anxiety about their schoolwork, grades, and GPAs, because these have become so conflated with their futures.

Many of the students we work with don’t know where they will find their next meal. The most marginalized students at our institutions are finding themselves and their work increasingly policed—by faculty members, by administrative policies, by ed-tech “solutions,” and by the actual police. The majority of faculty members in higher education are precariously employed. And many are now afraid their institutions could close. Or they worked at institutions that have recently closed. More institutions will close. Staff will be laid off. Students will get sick. Grandparents will die. Cameras will be installed in classrooms, and disabled students will be made into flies on the wall for live-streamed lectures. Teachers will require homeless students to turn on their cameras during Zoom sessions. Some of those students will be marked absent if they refuse.

In a recent podcast interview with Bonni Stachowiak for Teaching in Higher Ed, about being together online, I was asked to make a recommendation, something for listeners to read or watch to help them grapple with the hard time we are all having making connections. I encouraged them to read every single word of their campus’s reopening plan (or one from another campus, for those at institutions remaining fully online). This signaling shows what institutions value, and in many cases, it is not faculty, staff, and students. These reopening plans are the clearest declaration we have right now of what our colleges and universities are. How many dead students is enough to close a campus? How many dead grandparents? (To be clear, I’d say that even just one who is made critically ill is too many.) Does student privacy and security matter enough that we will refuse to install cameras in classrooms and agree not to require that students turn on their cameras for live Zoom sessions?

I published a book in early August, Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection (coedited with Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris), containing chapters from forty contributors, written over the last ten years. In the introduction, Chris, Sean, and I write, “Education must be a practice done with hearts as much as heads, with hands as much as books. Care has to be at the center of this work.” As humans, as teachers, and as members of learning communities, we need to look around and be honest about the damage the last six months have wrought. We have to be patient with ourselves and with each other. And we need to talk openly about ways forward.

Jesse Stommel is cofounder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy, the journal of critical digital pedagogy. Stommel has taught for twenty years in higher education pedagogy, film, and digital studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin‒Madison, and the University of Mary Washington. He is online at and on Twitter @Jessifer, and his email address is [email protected].