Summer Reading Series: Teaching to Transgress

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the fifth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here.

Title: Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (published in 1994; $45; available for purchase HERE).

Author: bell hooks

Context of Creation: The author, a Black feminist teacher and scholar, wrote this book of essays during a period of sabbatical, her first in 20 years of teaching in a college classroom. hooks is currently Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, which also hosts the bell hooks Institute. At the time of writing, she was Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York.

Context of Reception: I read Teaching to Transgress over the course of two days at my home in Austin. It is one of those texts I’ve known about for a long time and was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t yet read, as someone supposedly invested in liberatory and radical pedagogies. In the process of reading hooks, I had to confront myself repeatedly — to pause, close the book, and think honestly and critically about myself as a White woman, feminist, and scholar. At the same time, I also found myself over and over again as a teacher, and felt a really profound joy at having so many of my own pedagogical values and experiences reflected back to me in such strong and affirming language. That discomfort and that joy did not dilute each other or cancel each other out; if anything, they reinforced one another, allowing me to access deeper levels of both discomfort and joy.

Overview of Structure and Content: Teaching to Transgress contains an introduction and 14 essays. hooks includes a great deal of personal narrative about her own practice as a teacher in classrooms that have become increasingly more diverse over the course of her career as well as her experiences and observations as a Black female student and scholar from a rural, working class, Southern background, who experienced the racial integration of schools. Some of the topics she addresses (always through a lens of race and gender) include engaged pedagogy; multicultural education and diversity; the authority of experience in the classroom; feminist solidarity, thinking, and scholarship; affect in the classroom (specifically joy, pain, and eros); and issues of class and language. hooks writes that she had initially imagined the book as being primarily for teachers, but that — after a humbling experience with a course she felt she was unable to make work as a learning community — she came to understand that the book was also for students, who also bear a responsibility in co-creating the learning environment (9).

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers

  1. Pleasure

Teaching to Transgress is anchored by joy, with both the introduction and the final essay, “Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning without Limits,” structured around this idea. In fact, to value and encourage pleasure in learning and teaching is the first form of “transgression” that hooks describes, and the first one she embraced in her own teaching: “To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress” (7). Her interlocutor in the essay “Building a Teaching Community,” Ron Scapp, explains the transgression of joy simply: “Pleasure in the classroom is feared. If there is laughter, a reciprocal exchange may be taking place,” directly challenging a top-down, hierarchical educational paradigm in which the professor exists only to impart knowledge, never to learn with and from students (145). And regarding the pleasure of mutual love, hooks writes, “Well-learned distinctions between public and private make us believe that love has no place in the classroom. . . . Teachers who love students and are loved by them are still ‘suspect’ in the academy” (198).

  • How often do you experience pleasure, joy, or love in the classroom?
  • How often do you believe your students experience pleasure, joy, or love when they are in your classroom?
  • What enables and/or impedes pleasure, joy, and love in your teaching practice?

2.  Pain

However, the road hooks takes to circle back to pleasure in Teaching to Transgress is full of pain. Even as hooks insists that the classroom can and should be a space in which students experience healing from harm, she acknowledges that excitement and joy in the classroom are not always immediately accessible: “I learned to respect that shifting paradigms or sharing knowledge in new ways challenges; it takes time for students to experience that change as positive” (“Embracing Change,” 42). The inevitability of discomfort and struggle in the learning and teaching process, to and through the point of real pain, is emphasized again and again: hooks talks about the “anguish” of having to confront Paulo Freire’s sexism in the midst of her deep excitement over his ideas (“Paulo Freire,” 49), the “will to struggle” that is necessary for real change (“Building a Teaching Community,” 143), and the value of theorizing from a location of pain (“Theory as Liberatory Practice,” 74).

Ron Scapp offers, “Sometimes it’s necessary to remind students and colleagues that pain and painful situations don’t necessarily translate into harm. . . . Not all pain is harm, and not all pleasure is good” (“Building a Teaching Community,” 154). And hooks reminds us dissatisfaction or thirstiness is in itself a value: Sometimes, she writes of herself and her students, “we are just there collectively grasping, feeling the limitations of knowledge, longing together, yearning for a way to reach that highest point. Even this yearning is a way to know” (“Essentialism and Experience,” 92).

  • How can we help students distinguish between pain-as-harm and pain-as-discomfort, or as a necessary condition of growth?
  • How do you personally distinguish between the two?
  • What is the value of yearning? How do you work to create (or allow) yearning in your students? Yourself?

3. Praxis 

hooks introduces early on the critical question educators must ask themselves over and over: “What values and habits of being reflect my/our commitment to freedom?” (“A Revolution of Values,” 27). This focus on integrated praxis and full engagement, including attention to mind, body, and spirit as inseparable, reverberates through all the essays in Teaching to Transgress. hooks identifies the following as the central problem in achieving real transformation: “I know so many professors who are progressive in their politics, who have been willing to change their curriculum, but who in fact have resolutely refused to change the nature of their pedagogical practice. . . . Professors may attempt to deconstruct traditional biases while sharing that information through body posture, tone, word choice, and so on that perpetuate those very hierarchies and biases they are critiquing” (“Building a Teaching Community,” 140-41).

To connect this idea to the previous two, we might consider a salient example of this failure, which might simultaneously be interpreted as an investment in a superficial, sanitized form of “pleasure” in the classroom. This would be what hooks describes as “the comforting ‘melting pot’ idea of cultural diversity, the rainbow coalition where we would all be grouped together in our difference, but everyone wearing the same have-a-nice-day smile. This was the stuff of colonizing fantasy” (“A Revolution of Values,” 30-31). To invest in “feel-good” fantasies of this nature — including the fantasy of a classroom of content and satisfied learners, whatever their identities, reflecting back exactly the progressive ideas we have endeavored to impress upon them — is to reinforce in practice the structures of domination we work to deconstruct in theory and vote against in policy. And at the same time, and thinking back to Chris Adamo’s chapter in Teaching Through Challenges to EDI from last week’s reading, proclamations on the part of the instructor that the classroom is inclusive and welcoming might indeed be backed up by a carefully curated syllabus of diverse texts, only to be undone by the way they actually interact with students.

  • Visualize yourself in the classroom. Where are you usually standing or sitting? How often do you change that location? What do you think your location and movement within the classroom might communicate to students?
  • Imagine your own professors in college. In whose class did you feel engaged and welcome and affirmed, and in whose class did you feel unseen, unwelcome, or disengaged? How did each of those professors move, speak, and act in the classroom?

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

The Authority of Experience, without Essentialism

In “Essentialism and Experience,” hooks critiques the feminist scholar Diana Fuss’s problematization of essentialism in the classroom, in which (according to Fuss) individual students use the “authority of experience” to promote essentializing characterizations of the groups they represent and silence students of other groups. hooks acknowledges this as a problem, but reminds us that “systems of domination already at work in the academy and the classroom silence the voices of individuals from marginalized groups and give space only when on the basis of experience it is demanded” (81). That is, often the only valuable form of knowledge that minority or marginalized students are believed to be able to offer is experiential, and Fuss, according to hooks, fails to acknowledge this reality.

“If I do not wish to see these students use the ‘authority of experience’ as a means of asserting voice, I can circumvent this possible misuse of power by bringing to the classroom pedagogical strategies that affirm their presence, their right to speak, in multiple ways on diverse topics. This pedagogical strategy is rooted in the assumption that we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge. . . . If experience is already invoked in the classroom as a way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence” (84).

hooks describes one such strategy as follows: she assigns all students to write an autobiographical paragraph regarding a personal experience with the topic at hand (for example, she asks them to write about an early experience with race when teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye). Students then go one-by-one to read that paragraph aloud to the class.

Another strategy is to attend to language, and to invite and affirm the use of “nonstandard” or marginalized forms of English and other languages in the classroom. If you are yourself a native speaker of a marginalized variety of English and/or another language, you can also choose to model its use (and be honest about whatever discomfort that might bring to you, if you like). And if and when students use non-English languages and non-dominant language varieties with which you are not familiar, you can also model embracing the discomfort of not understanding. “I suggest,” hooks write, “that we do not necessarily need to ‘master’ or conquer the narrative as a whole, that we may know in fragments. I suggest that we may learn from spaces of silence as well as spaces of speech, that in the patient act of listening to another tongue we may subvert that culture of capitalist frenzy and consumption that demands all desire must be satisfied immediately, or we may disrupt that cultural imperialism that suggests one is worthy of being heard only if one speaks in standard English” (“Language,” 174).

Model Dialogue across Difference with Other Faculty

The tenth essay in Teaching to Transgress presents a dialogue between hooks and Ron Scapp, a White, male professor of philosophy. In her introduction to their conversation, hooks explains, “It is fashionable these days, when ‘difference’ is a hot topic in progressive circles, to talk about ‘hybridity’ and ‘border crossing,’ but we often have no concrete examples of individuals who actually occupy different locations within structures, sharing ideas with one another, mapping out terrains of commonality, connection, and shared concern with teaching practices” (129-30). hooks emphasizes dialogue as a simple (if not always easy) way to cross those boundaries.

This is precisely what our Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community endeavors to do, but I am inspired by the way in which hooks makes her dialogue with Scapp publicly available “to provide a model of possibility” (131). I wonder about inviting a willing colleague into my classroom, someone who teaches something very different from what I teach, who comes from a very different intersection of identities than I do, and/or who teaches very differently from how I do, and allowing students to observe and respond to our conversation. Or recording such a conversation on video, as hooks does in writing, and bringing it to the classroom.

One In-Depth Activity:

A Dialogue with the Self

hooks emphasizes the need for self-actualization in Teaching to Transgress, and one of the most intriguing essays, to me, was “Paulo Freire,” in which hooks interrogates herself regarding her relationship to Freire’s pedagogy, scholarship, and voice. She addresses herself, in a simple Q&A interview format, exactly as a “real” interviewer would, pushing herself to discuss her first reactions to Freire, links between her work and Freire’s ideas in specific contexts, the impact of her identities on her ability to relate to his work, and more. I love the notion of asking students to engage in critical, reflective dialogue with themselves, early on in the semester, as a way to put them in touch with their own voices and values, teach dialogue skills like inquiry and deep listening, and foster compassion and appreciation for the contradictions everyone has by critically self-reflecting. Thus, the activity linked above asks students to craft a dialogue with the self, in which they interview themselves regarding core qualities, passions, values, or identities, focusing on apparent tensions or contradictions. I think this activity would be most useful if students were able to see at least an excerpt of hooks’s essay and/or the instructor’s own version of the assignment.

Next Week . . .

We will be reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2019).












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