[T]here can be, and usually is, some degree of pain involved in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing and learning new approaches. I respect that pain. And I include recognition of it now when I teach, that is to say, I teach about shifting paradigms and talk about the discomfort it can cause.

bell hooks

‘I teach what I like’ is pretty much the model I followed for what were the best years of my 20-year teaching career. Those were probably the middle 10, give or take a few. Much of what I owe to whatever semblance of a teaching philosophy I have, I owe to bell hooks. The closest thing I wrote to a Master's thesis was on her book Teaching to Transgress. To go beyond with the connotation of being out of bounds, sinning, crossing a moral line. But it’s the subtitle that really gets me: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Practice—the repetition of a thing to make it more permanent, more a part of, to inculcate it into the very fiber of our beings. And what are we repeating—Freedom!

It is the juxtaposition of “transgression“ and “freedom” that make hooks’ writings so profound, so eloquent, so mundane and practical, while at the same time so healing and cathartic and invigorating. And why her passing is so very profound. My hope is that these few words will either reignite your freedom born of her words or cause you to transgress into her words for the first time and to practice once again the true meaning of education.
 
I could fill my word count with just the introduction, and be assured I have not gone back and reread her book, but rather looked at what I highlighted and noted (where I could still make out my handwriting). I wanted to see if the same things still rung true for me today as they did 25 years ago and if they at all changed their meaning to me now. Much still rings true.
 
She begins her last paragraph of the introduction with, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy" (emphasis is mine). It is not the admin’s office, the department meetings, the institute days, the assemblies, or even the hollowed athletic field; all of which are important. It is the classroom where the possibility of radical change can take place. Her choice of using revolutionary language is not by chance but because she understands that what saves us, what heals us, what advances us, what unites us, and what far too often divides us, takes place in the classroom. A place that routinely becomes mundane is the place that can and should ignite the student to not live small but embrace their fullness. It begins with a “professor [who] must genuinely value everyone’s presence" (emphasis her’s), and she goes on to acknowledge that there “has to be some deconstruction of the traditional notion that only the professor is responsible for classroom dynamics.” It is the full ‘Us’ that makes the classroom work. The full acknowledgement of the paid authority, the professor, that everyone belongs there. This coupled with the citizens, the students, working together to transgress by practice and excitement the fullness of what we can collectively create.

I have often joked in all seriousness that instead of saving for kids’ college funds we should be saving for therapy. Regardless of our level of privilege, none of us gets out of childhood unscathed. Often privilege just provides more avoidance tactics and often a dose of illusion that success was well-earned. hooks, when addressing the notion of the classroom as a kind of therapy acknowledges, “while utterly unreasonable for students to expect classrooms to be therapy sessions, it is appropriate for them to hope that the knowledge received in these settings will enrich and enhance them.” This enrichment is meant to go beyond the skills by which to perform a certain job, or to improve the ill-termed soft skills. Rather, to transform the core of individuals by engaging them in the complexities of the subject, instructor, and student in the context of the community of the classroom. Merely gathering data to matriculate to the next level is a failure. Therefore to experience the fullness of what the classroom could, and possibly should be, there will need to be risks taken. Risk beyond ‘Will I get the answer wrong in front of my peers?

 

hooks believes that when classrooms “[employ] this holistic model of learning…teachers will grow, and are empowered by the process.” Again, none of this can take place without risks, but not solely on the part of students. “It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives of academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material.” After all, if a professor has nothing to profess, they are not fulfilling the root of the job.

 

These risks are not to decenter those whose voices default to privilege, and center the marginalized ones in some “nonconstructive” ways. But to be intentional about discussing the dynamic. Feeling like the outsider when one has only felt like the insider and vice versa, only creates a bit of familiarity with the feeling but not a solution to take to the world outside of the classroom. And this is at the core of what hooks is trying to do: create a classroom that instructs in a way that changes the world as a result.

 

As I read back through the ubiquitous notes and underlinings, I wondered if the only thing that would be the same was the poorness of my handwriting. I wondered if I had inculcated any of what once was so important to me. I wondered if my classroom was, at least at times, a place where freedom was practiced. My handwriting was at least as bad then as it is now, but much of what I underlined still rang true today. I wonder now if what hooks wrote would ring as true to her today as when she first wrote it.

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bell hooks in her apartment

in Greenwich Village in 1997
JOYCE DOPKEEN/THE NEW YORK TIMES