Reading: Teaching to Transgress

bell hooks

Much like the writing of her pedagogic mentor Paolo Freire, bell hooks’s book Teaching to Transgress is concerned with how, at it’s best, education can be an empowering and inspiring processes, and how equally when conducted in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons it can be an oppressive and depressing experience for students and teachers alike. Combining Freire’s critical pedagogy with feminist and post-colonial theory, and drawing on hook’s own experiences as both student and teacher, Teaching to Transgress identifies some of the reason that classrooms and lessons inspire or don’t, and offers something of a toolkit of ideas and inspiration to counter some of these problems.

In the introduction hooks sets out her own experiences of being taught, recounting how during her early years at a segregated American school she was educated by black female teachers for whom teaching was itself a political act against the white male hegemony of the southern United States. The efforts of these teachers meant that school was for hooks a space where she was able to transgress the expectations she faced at home and in wider society, and consequently it became ‘a place of pleasure, ecstasy and danger’ [p.3]. However, following the desegregation of southern schools she increasingly encountered teachers, predominantly white, for whom education was functional rather than political, and who looked on her as a precocious black student not with encouragement, but with suspicion. She recounts how this continued at college, where she was taught by professors who seemed to have little interest in teaching and who in some cases were manifestly unequipped for the task. Entering the class room as a teacher herself, hooks responded to these experiences, and her encounters with the ideas of Freire and feminist pedagogy to deploy her own approach to teaching. She covers a huge amount of territory in the two hundred or so pages of this book, and so I will just briefly summarise a few of her ideas here that seem particularly cogent to my own experiences and aims as a teacher.

Throughout the text hooks challenges a variety of common assumptions about what makes for good or bad teaching. She challenges the denigration of the teaching profession, not least from within academia where teaching is sadly sometimes seen as subsidiary to or a distraction from the real business of academic research or artistic practice. This seems vitally important, if teachers are to teach effectively they need to enjoy and own the process in much the same way we often encourage students to enjoy learning and own the knowledge that results. Hooks also questions the invariably unspoken but prevailing wisdom that teachers who are geniuses in the classroom are those who are necessarily damaged in other areas of their life, whether emotionally damaged, hard drinking, sexually inappropriate, or something else, and argues for a shift away from this towards self-actualisation and wholeness as a pre-requisite for good teaching. She argues against the need for teachers to be dictators in the classroom, and the value of an openness with students which many lecturers might feel uneasy about (one chapter indeed analyses the erotic and sexual dynamics of teaching). hook’s mantra that ‘In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share.’ [p.21] is one I have often repeated to students myself, albeit formulated in different ways.

hooks challenges in other ways, for example suggesting that practices and ideas often viewed with scepticism by teachers or students can be vital to the energy of a classroom and the value of learning. Two seemingly diametrically opposed examples which I will discuss briefly are fun and theory. For hooks, fun, excitement even, must be an important element of teaching, even if that runs counter to traditional thinking that often views fun as disruptive. For hooks excitement about ideas was not necessarily enough to generate an exciting environment, it must also come from the relationships within the group. She views it as important to get away from the relatively narrow relationship between students and teacher, and for tutors to both know students and what motivates them and for students to know each other. Institutionally the success or failure of a classroom environment is usually seen as the responsibility of the teacher, but hooks argues that everyone in the room plays a part in this process and teachers also have to be realistic about what they can achieve with a given group, recounting a class she found immensely hard to motivate as an example.

While fun might sometimes be viewed with doubt by teachers, theory is often viewed sceptically by photography practitioners including some students when they enter the classroom. While some students engage with questions of ethics, representation or interpretation vigorously, the urge to ask what the point of this all is can sometimes to be on the lips of others, a question I often feel is as important to vocalise and discuss as the topics that have given rise to it. Drawing on feminist theory hooks argues that theory isn’t inherently ‘liberatory or revolutionary’ [p.61] but can become those things when we ask it to be. It can as easily be oppressive, entrenching forms of power and privilege, and ‘often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place’ [p.62] or which may become ‘a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice that most seeks to create a gap between theory and practice’ [p.64]. As well as calling out the inappropriate use of theory, hooks also calls for an emphasis on personal experience as the basis for theory, and inversely, an integration of theory into everyday life and action, an echoing of Freire’s ideas about the importance of praxis in teaching and learning.

In short hooks covers an immense array of ground which I feel I’ve hardly begun to summarise here. The experiences and anecdotes are often highly personal and in some respects specific to a US system but regardless there is much here of relevance to my own experiences and aspirations as a teacher and a documentary practitioner. In particular hooks’s belief that teaching can conjoin with the other elements of practice, and her assertion that teaching ‘has been essential to my development as an intellectual, as a teacher /professor because the heart of this approach to learning is critical thinking’ [p.202]. hooks is candid about the reality that engaged pedagogy is not a solution to all of the problems that face teachers and students, indeed within universities these approaches can sometimes create new problems even as they help to resolve old ones. Still the overarching mood of her book is one of hopeful optimism and as she concludes, ‘the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility’ [p.207]

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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