Yesterday, I learned that bell hooks passed away. And I, like so many others, was gutted by her loss. I didn’t know except through her writing. I never got to hear her speak. I only encountered her on the page. When I first picked up one of her books, I didn’t realize the impact that she would have on me. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. hooks demanded reckoning with our world, and she transformed me and other readers too.
There was the thinker that I was pre-hooks and the thinker I was after.
hooks’ writing made me a better thinker, scholar, and person than I was before I read her.
Teaching to Transgress, in particular, made me think hard about the purpose of education, how we educate now, and what education could be. Often education, as it is now practiced, isn’t the liberatory project that hooks told us it could be. It’s about domination and control not care and freedom. But education as liberation that she wrote about is still possible, if we work to make it so. Teaching to Transgress can be the blueprint to more life-affirming, radical, and humane from of education. Here’s my 2016 essay on that powerful book and what I learn about what teaching often is and what it can be.
Rest in peace, bell hooks. I will miss you. We will miss you. We are more than lucky to still be able to meet you, think with you, and learn from you in your writing and grateful for all that you have given us.
Is teaching about liberation or domination? This question has been chasing me for months now. It grabs my interest. It dominates my conversations. It colors my approaches to my own children’s school and preschool curriculum. Freedom seems elusive. Discipline and habit appear required and expected.
Liberation or domination is another way of asking: What is education supposed to do? What are the possibilities of education? What are the realities? At colleges and universities, how are faculty approaching students? Do they practice education as a way to free students or control them? I’m unsure if faculty know what approach to take. These questions about the goals of education weigh heavily upon me as I hear complaint after complaint about all the things students do wrong (email, studying, reading, test-taking, attendance, etc).
What are the possibilities of education?
If we are to believe the complaints, students appear hopelessly unprepared for colleges and universities. Professors and instructors lament teaching students the basic skills that students supposedly should have acquired in high school or elsewhere. They worry about all the time taken away from course content. They exclaim that they are professors, not life coaches or therapists. (I wonder why faculty bristle at the mere mention of teaching student skills that they don’t know.)
Teaching anything beyond the subject matter of the course emerges as an unpleasant chore, or worse, appears as an indictment of a student’s character or ability. Courses seem separated from the lives of the students. I shouldn’t be surprised by the disdain and distance, yet I am.
How can we expect students to know what they have not yet been taught? How did compliance become a virtue? I’m disheartened by the attitudes about students that populate higher ed. Students cannot learn if we refuse to engage them where they are. I’m bothered, no, furious, about the devaluation of teaching, which appears as a secondary concern for institutions. I can’t help but ponder what faculty imagine teaching will or won’t be. Many professors seem to despise interacting with students. If teaching is not the most important work of the university, then what is? (I fear what the answers may be.)
How can we expect students to know what they have not yet been taught?
At the beginning of the summer, I attempted to grapple with the state of teaching in higher ed by picking up bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1994) again. Despite the book being over 20 years old, hooks is prescient about the modern university. She recognized the consequences of the devaluation of teaching, the corporatization of institutions, and the increasing reliance on contingent faculty. She analyzed the way universities and colleges work before it was cool..
hooks is also a trailblazer in analyzing and critiquing pedagogy. Her collection of essays allows readers to think along with her about how academia understands teaching then and now. Classrooms continue to be under-analyzed spaces in higher ed in spite of the robust discussions about pedagogy happening now. Teaching philosophies emerge as documents thrown together for job dossiers rather than thoughtful statements of what we do in our courses. Academics teach, but often don’t pause to reflect upon their teaching practices.
Teaching to Transgress is an intervention academia still needs. hooks interrogates her own pedagogy and academia with both force and wit as she hopes to convince all of us that teaching matters. Education provides the potential for liberation for not just students but ourselves too. Self-actualization emerges as the first step to quality pedagogy. Academics, she explains, are not particularly good at knowing or analyzing ourselves. We can’t know our students without first having a clear understanding of ourselves. We also have to learn to comprehend that students are individuals with differing needs and interests, not a homogenous category of people.
Teaching to Transgress is an intervention academia still needs.
Students are full-fledged human beings; hooks requires us to reckon with this truth. This shouldn’t feel radical, but it does. To imagine students as human with lives, bodies, ideas, and emotions inside and outside of the classroom takes effort, time, empathy, and compassion. Academia seems to place limits on all of these. Students appear as distractions from our real work, whatever that is, and our classrooms as afterthoughts instead of spaces of possibility.
We must do better. Students want knowledge. They need it. Yet, this knowledge needs to be more than “bits” of information they are forced to remember. The knowledge they gain should be relevant to their lives. Teachers should care not only about the mastery of subject matter, but how that content engages a life. Our courses should “offer knowledge of how to live in the world.”
hooks describes an “engaged pedagogy,” based in feminist pedagogy, which focuses upon the well-being of both professors and students. Teachers have to take care of the students and themselves. Classrooms become communities that work to recognize that every student is a valued member. With emphasis on shared vulnerability, mutual respect, and collegial efforts to learn, classrooms become spaces of liberation. This doesn’t negate the teacher’s expertise or experience, but recognizes that even an expert’s knowledge is limited and finite.
Engaged pedagogy is a way to learn from one another and learn together. Education offers students the ability to navigate not only the topic of study, but their lives.
Classrooms shouldn’t be “mini-kingdoms,” in which the teacher’s exercise of power and authority is sacrosanct. We shouldn’t teach to shore up our egos. She also cautions that education should not focus solely on the liberation of minds, but bodies too.
The life of the mind tends to ignore the body.
The life of the mind tends to ignore the body, but our bodies aren’t so easily avoided. Our bodies matter in how we experience the world, so they cannot be separated from our discussions of it. This attempted separation, hooks writes, convinces “professors and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors.”
If we want courses to matter to students, we have to show them how the subjects that we teach matter to both minds and bodies.
hook’s practice of education as a way to freedom is a reaction to the courses that she took as both an undergraduate and graduate student, in which professors were dictators. Graduate education, in particular, was about disciplining both bodies and minds in ways that replicated the norms of academia: masculine, white, middle-striving-for-upper class, and able-bodied. Academia, she shows us, is not an inherently safe space for students or faculty. The classroom only seemed safe for those who fit its mold. Diversity appears threatening because it makes the preferred norms visible. Some of us never had the illusion of fitting in. Education became about compliance and keeping your head down.
Is this what we want education to be?
In my next-to-last semester as a lecturer, I had a particularly challenging course with a very diverse group of students. Our discussions often became tense. Students left angry. I occasionally cried in my office after it was over.
hooks wants us to choose liberation.
In one class, we wandered away from course content, religious intolerance, and started discussing the functions of the university. What does the university train us to do? What is its purpose? The students offered up that the university provided them with majors, so they hopefully could get jobs. A few students offered up “education” as a vague goal. A student asked me what I thought the university did, and I responded without hesitation: “It tries to make you into compliant, middle class citizens.”
I’m not sure who was more stunned by my moment of agonized honesty—me or them. They looked at me waiting for the punchline. I looked back. The student followed up, “What do you want us to do?” I paused and said, “Question everything, and don’t let the university win.”
I returned to that day again and again as I finished Teaching to Transgress. hooks wants us to choose liberation. In that moment, I did, and I would again.