John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Joy Kills Sorrow

John N. Gardner

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I just spent a week or so at the annual Spoleto Arts Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, a peak yearly experience for us. One of the many events we went to was a concert by the Boston based indie music group, Joy Kills Sorrow. They are, as the local newspaper described them, a “…fusion of folk, blues, and pop….” with “…a woman’s touch….” The band’s name is taken from a 1930’s radio station with call letters WJKS, which played the music of bluegrass legends, the Monroe Brothers. Betsy and I really loved Joy Kills Sorrow and recommend you check them out.

I take my stimuli for inspirations about framing transformative experiences for college students from any sources that occur to and then move me. And this group did. How could we move college students from sorrow to joy? Why would we need to? Because many students do not experience joy in the beginning college experience, especially after reality settles in around mid-terms, or even earlier, and buyer’s remorse sets in, and homesickness, frustrated aspirations and very high doses of anxiety. Many first-year students experience a genuine degree of sorrow early in the first term. How could we move them to joy—and not the joy of one good party, but something much more lasting, substantive, and transformative? That is my question.

About two decades ago I discovered a woman who had fairly recent begun teaching at a small, liberal arts college in Ohio, The Defiance College. Because she was new and untenured, one of her appointment conditions was the teaching of that college’s first-year seminar. She related to me that she had come to be a college teacher after serving as a psychologist in an inner city Ohio hospital for many years, dealing largely with individuals and families with high levels of anxiety and grief. So she, Dr. Davina Brown, was a self described expert on grieving and how to alleviate it. She knew it when she saw it—or in the case of Defiance College—when she read it. And that was the point she was making to me: as a faculty member in the college success course as she read the required journals submitted by her first-year students, she noted widespread consistent patterns of emotions reflecting grieving—grieving for a lost former life that could never be put back together again. Ironically, she had left her hospital grief counseling work in search of what she thought was a “more normal” population—traditional age college students. And there she found again plenty of grief. I was so moved by her experience that I asked her to write her theory about the first-year grieving process which we published in the Journal of the First-Year Experience.

I invite my readers to accept the assumption that many beginning (and continuing) college students do not experience the “joy” that a good college experience can produce, and, for lots of reasons, experience instead “sorrow.”

So what could we do to further increase the probability that our new college students have the kind of experiences that would produce “joy”? I am not seeking a constant state of joy, of course, but mean by this a sense of deep satisfaction, accomplishment, appreciation, affirmation, that is extremely gratifying, enjoyable, and sustainable? Such outcomes would have to come in processes of self-discovery and development, in the curriculum, the co-curriculum, and relationships. And those are what we are responsible for creating and executing. This is another way for me to look at our charge.

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