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Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks — A Reflective Review

On pedagogy and liberation

…the academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

bell hooks (p. 207)

Book review by Siddesh Sarma

Introduction

For bell hooks, the above quote marked the conclusion of the book, but for me, it has kindled hope for a new beginning. Throughout her book she stresses on students needing to interrogate their location in terms of their histories. I have attempted to do just that over the duration of reading this book and the process of writing this essay. On hindsight it seems that my reasons for selecting this book are very much rooted in my history and I would like to briefly mention that in order to express why I chose this book. As a student of psychology, my interests were drawn to critical psychology, specifically the post-modern (post-Lacanian and Foucauldian turn in psychology) critique of mainstream psychology. For my master’s dissertation I used some of Erich Fromm’s work to locate some of my findings. My motivation to actually study ‘education’ was rooted in my experience as a Teach For India fellow and what brought me specifically to TISS was Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. As a follow-up I began reading works by Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux and Michael Apple as well (all white males). Over the duration of my MPhil in Education, I kept feeling the need to engage more with material that deals with post-structuralism and education, or at least deals with concepts within education in a post-structural manner. Understanding the need to widen my horizons within feminist, post-modern and educational scholarship, I read the introductory chapter of Teaching To Transgress and was instantly, if you excuse the pun, ‘hooked’. Over the duration of my MPhil in Education, I kept feeling the need to engage more with material that deals with post-structuralism and education, or at least deals with concepts within education in a post-structural manner. Understanding the need to widen my horizons within feminist, post-modern and educational scholarship, I read the introductory chapter of Teaching To Transgress and was instantly, if you excuse the pun, ‘hooked’.

On reading about bell hooks I found out that ‘bell hooks’ is actually a nom de plume for Gloria Jean Watkins. I learnt that she is an award winning American social activist, feminist and author who has also written on topics of mass media, art and history. Her influences include the American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Paulo Freire, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Guitierrez, Erich Fromm, the American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the Vietnamese monk Thicht Nhat Hanh, the American civil rights radical Malcolm X and the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This obvious overlap of influences along with the introduction of unknown names drew me to read her work on education.

Borrowing from bell hooks’s post-structural conversational style, I was tempted to write this book review as a conversation either with my alter ego or with the reader, but I was unable to come up with a character that was convincing enough. So, I settled for writing this in a reflective style. I have made a conscious effort to incorporate my personal background as a student of psychology and education, coming from my location (a privileged male student from India), in the way I understand this book and its concepts. I hope to be able to articulate that through this review.

Origins and Agenda

bell hooks states that, through the book, she intends to ‘share insights, strategies and critical reflection on pedagogic practice… [as an] intervention to counter the devaluation of teaching’ (p. 10). As I understand it, the main agenda of the book is to encourage all those who are involved in the learning process, focused but not limited to university teachers and students, to open their hearts and minds to understand and ‘perform’ teaching and learning differently from what the norm was, within higher education, circa 1994 in the United States. Maybe the norm isn’t much different 20 years later hence, in the present, neither there nor here, but it is helpful to locate its intent in its time and place. bell hooks saw this norm as ‘a crisis… where students don’t want to learn and teachers do not want to teach’ (p. 12). Thus, she intends her voice to add to the call that ‘celebrates teaching that enables transgressions- a movement against and beyond boundaries… which makes education the practice of freedom’.

bell hooks articulates the aforementioned difference mainly by using concepts of engaged pedagogy, theory as liberatory practice, building teaching and learning communities and confronting ‘Eros’ and ‘fun’ in the classroom. Within this is interspersed her emphasis on understanding and practicing feminism that confronts issues of language, race and class. I will proceed to give a brief summary of these concepts and their relation to the practice of education envisioned by her, since my review will chiefly focus around these concepts.

She introduces ‘engaged pedagogy’ by problematizing the division of the public and private in the role of the professor, and somewhat, the student to make a case for ‘self-actualization’ or well-being of the teacher so as to be able to teach in a manner that empowers students. In doing so, she sets up the role of the teacher as a healer of the uninformed spirit. Before we jump to point out that this rings similar to the banking model with teachers writing on blank slates that are the minds of passive students, I must point out that, despite such phrasing, she emphasizes that engaged pedagogy brings in narratives and personal experiences of both the teacher and students to decenter teachers as the all-knowing, silent interrogators. Thus she sees teachers doing this as integral to embracing the challenge of self-actualization, which in turn is central to making their teaching a site of resistance (p. 21). The mission, according to her, is to encourage students to self-actualise, to connect ‘the will to know with the will to become’.

Her view of theory as liberatory practice is closely linked to engaged pedagogy. Just as she sets up teachers as healers, she constructs theory as a healing practice that talks to our pain and helps us name our pain because “we know things with our lives and live that knowledge, beyond what any theory has yet theorized” (p. 75). She insists that theory cannot be divorced from lived realities because that creates, what she believes to be, a false dichotomy between theory and practice. Thus she celebrates written and oral narratives in everyday parlance as opposed to jargon, because she believes that personal experience is fertile ground for theorization. She posits this as a political decision to be inclusive, as a concept that ruptures the hegemonic constructions of Standard English and ‘good’ theoretical rigour.

While writing about teaching communities in dialogue form, with Ron Scapp, she emphasizes the need for teachers to position themselves equally with the students (bodily and otherwise). They also recognize the need to reorganize classroom relationships so as to not be structured around power (p. 156). By encouraging active engagement and initiating dialogue, the aim in a learning community is for everyone, teacher and student, to be equally responsible for learning. She maintains that radical subject matter alone isn’t enough to create radical pedagogy, if the teachers continue to exercise power through other practices. It is only by learning to truly listen to one another that an engaged community can be formed.

She also deals with the question of acknowledging the body, of all involved, in the classroom as also confronting ‘Eros’ within the classroom. She posits Eros as that which is beyond merely sexual, as that which transforms potentialities to actualities (p. 194) dealing with our passions makes our lives whole and the quest for knowledge that unites theory and practice is one such passion (p. 195). My reading leads me to understand that it is through confronting Eros that she actually ties in our efforts at self-actualization, and the concepts of engaged pedagogy (being engaged in body, spirit and mind) and liberatory practice.

Contextualising the text

In order to gain a better understanding of the importance of the book, it is essential for us to understand the intellectual climate at the time. Michelle Mott (2010) writes that:

Teaching to Transgress entered the discourse at a moment when feminist theory was being challenged and expanded by a number of Black feminist scholars, including Barbara Christian, Patricia Hill Collins, Michelle Wallace, and Kimberle Crenshaw, to incorporate theoretical underpinnings of intersectionality to further develop an understanding of the impact that race and class have upon gendered experiences. At the same moment, Cultural and Ethnic Studies programs, and “multiculturalism” in general, were being questioned for their academic validity and for their potentially essentialist tendencies. Teaching to Transgress serves as a model for addressing intersectionality within the classroom.

Michelle Mott

When I first read the chapters on multiculturalism, essentialism and hooks’s take on race and feminism, which were seemingly devoid of mentions of pedagogic practice, the above piece helped me understand their importance in shaping a liberatory theory of pedagogy. hooks clearly articulates the tension between black activism and its suspicion of feminist theory, multiculturalism and its perceived threat of essentialism, as well as mainstream feminism with its marginalization of women of colour. She emphatically makes a case to challenge the universalization of the category of women. This contributes another facet to the postmodern turn in feminism where Judith Butler, just a few years before Teaching To Transgress, had argued against universalization and heteronormativity within feminism in Gender Trouble (Butler, 1990).  

Pepi Lystyna in the Harvard Educational Review (1995) situates this work as an important disruption to the myths propagated by the extreme right at that time. She states the need for a political project ‘that embraces the cultural democratization of this society in a movement away from oppressive social practices and towards justice and equality’ and situates bell hooks as one who ‘passionately articulates the possibilities of such communities of struggle’ against the political right that ‘maliciously undermines the basic tenets of democracy by attempting to colonize public consciousness and everyday life’. This is valuable to our understanding of the larger political debate that bell hooks addresses with Teaching to Transgress.

To further emphasize the magnitude of her contribution, it becomes essential to differentiate her ideas from the existing transgressive/border pedagogies. bell hooks herself mentions the necessity of the feminist critique of Freire’s writings but also acknowledges the importance of his influence to her ideas. Therefore, I shall focus on other pedagogies not mentioned in the book. Scholes (1985) envisions this to be the teaching of textuality rather than text, in the context of cultural studies. Texts, he states, have historically been vehicles of producing ‘eternal truths’ and are now used as a tool to impart knowledge. So he offers a practice consisting of reading, interpretation and criticism (within, upon and against a text) as border pedagogy.  While this encourages students to go beyond the boundaries of the text as a border crossing, bell hooks positions emotion, personal narrative and the quest to self-actualize as a way to transgress boundaries. Therein lies the difference.

Further, Giroux and Simon (1989) do consider desire and emotional investment of students in thinking about their own futures. They envision a border pedagogy ‘that can fruitfully work to break down those ideologies, cultural codes and social practices that prevent students from recognizing how social forms at particular historical conjunctures operate to repress alternative readings of their own experiences, society and the world’ (Giroux, 1997).  I must stress again that while there is passing mention of emotional investment, the emphasis is on decentering the dominant relationship between a cultural code and a subject position that a student occupies. In Teaching To Transgress, bell hooks not just emphasizes on soul, spirit, and emotional and personal histories but positions them as a valid route to transgress the prevalent hegemonies.

The magnitude and originality of the contribution in terms of bell hooks’s ideas as well as the style in which she presents them thus become amply clear in view of the educational and political context of the time.

Post-structural form and Freedom

Here I would like to focus on bell hooks’s post-structural style and her conceptualization of freedom that have greatly informed feminist theories of pedagogy. The most striking feature of the book, according to me, is the post-modern(1) writing style of the author. As part of my interest in this area, I have read other books on post-modern theory, some in graphic format (Horrocks, 2005) and others in a traditional textbook style (Butler, 2002). Although dealing with the content of postmodernism and even making a case for its importance in education and other fields, the style of writing remains strictly academic. Giroux’s Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope (1997) is a fine example of this. He makes a compelling argument for critical pedagogy to imbibe the tenets of postmodernism and postmodern feminism, while still writing in a predominantly prosaic fashion (although his ideas are anything but prosaic, I must say). hooks’ Teaching To Transgress was the first oeuvre that I came across that was essentially post-structural both in its form and content. This is evidenced by her political commitment to write in an inclusive style, her choice of capitalization, uses of terms like decentering, her use of black vernacular to counter colonial domination, personal conversations, experience, and a non-linear chapter allocation in the book. She could have easily remained jargon-heavy and waxed philosophical about praxis and intersectionality. But she consciously did not.(1) Here I would like to focus on bell hooks’s post-structural style and her conceptualization of freedom that have greatly informed feminist theories of pedagogy. The most striking feature of the book, according to me, is the post-modern writing style of the author. As part of my interest in this area, I have read other books on post-modern theory, some in graphic format (Horrocks, 2005) and others in a traditional textbook style (Butler, 2002). Although dealing with the content of postmodernism and even making a case for its importance in education and other fields, the style of writing remains strictly academic. Giroux’s Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope (1997) is a fine example of this. He makes a compelling argument for critical pedagogy to imbibe the tenets of postmodernism and postmodern feminism, while still writing in a predominantly prosaic fashion (although his ideas are anything but prosaic, I must say). hooks’ Teaching To Transgress was the first oeuvre that I came across that was essentially post-structural both in its form and content. This is evidenced by her political commitment to write in an inclusive style, her choice of capitalization, uses of terms like decentering, her use of black vernacular to counter colonial domination, personal conversations, experience, and a non-linear chapter allocation in the book. She could have easily remained jargon-heavy and waxed philosophical about praxis and intersectionality. But she consciously did not.

The most fascinating part for me was her conversation with herself (p 45-5’8) where her engagement with Paulo Freire is conveyed through a conversation between bell hooks and her given name Gloria Jean Watkins! I found this to be the finest example of ‘walking the talk’ in post-structuralism, something that I have always found lacking in courses as well as books on the subject. This has hardened my resolve to write and engage with the subject in a similar manner. Thus, a commitment to post structuralism is ‘embodied’ in the text for the author as well as the reader. She liberates herself to comfortably use narrative in everyday parlance, drawing from her experience of desegregated schooling and her experiences as a college student and teacher while writing ‘serious’ theory. This, in turn, inspires the reader to liberate oneself in doing so in one’s own context and manner.

Another important aspect of this is the absence of a concrete vision of freedom or a definition of what it would entail. There aren’t specific instructions or well-defined strategies to use in classrooms. No ‘best practices’ as is the buzzword in educational settings today. Traditionally, one would regard this as a lacuna of the text, but I maintain it to be one of its strengths. Precise instructions or guidelines would be antithetical to the ethos of liberatory practice as articulated in the book. I feel hers is a brilliant way to conceptualize freedom – it opens up creative possibilities rooted in personal experience and praxis, rather than foreclose or universalize them based on what one person considers ‘liberatory’. Mott (2010) shares this view, when she writes:

Because hooks does not ever attempt to define her vision for freedom, she is able to render the concept transformable, to allow the process of defining freedom to become part of the liberating practice of theory in which freedom can remain an innovation of the mind and body through experience. Constructing freedom thus becomes a form of praxis in which it is simultaneously conceptualized and acted upon in its collective conceptualization

Michelle Mott

Some other post-modern aspects that I found worthy of mention were understanding teaching as performative, her choice of capitalization style in ‘bell hooks’ and the origin of that name (maternal great grandmother). This again brings out the importance of constructing identity rooted in personal history.

Just as her ideas on freedom and feminism, this book in every way exemplifies that theorizing and teaching from personal experience will add depth to and enhance our way of knowing. I find this to be deeply inspiring and empowering as a student of feminism, pedagogy and an aspiring teacher.

Self-Actualization: Towards ‘wholeness’

As someone from a psychology background one often comes across this term being bandied about in contexts ranging from organizational behavior (Haslam Powell & Turner, 2000), psychotherapy (Rogers, 1966) and social psychology to more esoteric ones like transcendental psychology and ‘Indian’ psychology (Sedlmeir et al, 2012). However, bell hooks has given us a performative understanding of self-actualization. She situates the necessity for self-actualization in two ways – one rooted in her own quest for it where she equates real success in life to self-actualization (p. 18), and the problematic split of mind/body and public/private in the classroom. In order to make the classroom experience more ‘engaged’ rather than disconnected from other aspects of our personality, she urges us to acknowledge the body and confront Eros, and move towards a union of mind, body and spirit (p. 18). She writes,

“Understanding that eros is a force that enhances our overall effort to be self-actualizing, that it can provide an epistemological grounding informing how we know what we know, enables both professors and students to use such energy in a classroom setting in ways that invigorate discussion and excite the critical imagination.”

bell hooks, (p. 195)

This ‘excitement’ and critical imagination are generated by collective effort and are integral to construct education as a site of resistance. But, none of this is possible if the teachers and students do not take up the challenge of self-actualization. By this she means focus on our well-being, which can only happen if we delve into our personal histories and what brings us to the class. Shades of this are visible in Sharmila Rege’s (2010) call for opening up language in Phule-Ambedkarite-Feminist pedagogy, which emphasized, among other things, on unpacking the ‘baggage’ brought by each child to the classroom.

In my reading, I’m fascinated by the emphasis to unite all aspects of our identity and personality by consciously acknowledging them. bell hooks’s commitment to and continuous mention of emotion, spirit, heart, mind and body is a vital contribution to re-imagine how theory is generated. The usage of these in feminism or pedagogy or ‘serious’ academic inquiry was unimaginable to me before reading bell hooks. This not only has ramifications for feminist and education theory but for academic practice as a whole.

This is a call to really live out our lives with an understanding that ‘the personal is political’.  It is not merely enough to link personal experience to existing political situations, but to draw from our lived experience to shape political discourse. This is a potential source for our empowerment and liberation. This is theory as liberatory practice.

Conclusion

To me, this book filled the void that I experienced as part of my course on Sociology of Education in reading post-modern conceptualizations within education. It has helped me see connections between our experience of education (higher, or otherwise), of how education has been a site of reproduction of cultures of domination in India as well as in the United States and has provided me with an imagination of what could constitute ‘resistance’.

Additionally, I see this book as carving out a space for reimagining how the personal can shape the political. Her thesis is markedly different from the white male conceptualizations of radical or critical pedagogy of McLaren and Giroux with its emphasis on self-actualization, emotion and spirit, (and love, borrowing from her other works) which reinforces the need to constantly interrogate even seemingly ‘revolutionary’ approaches to theory.

I choose to keep close to my heart the theme that recurs throughout the book:

Successful pedagogy must meaningfully connect the scholarly with the personal in order to empower and liberate all those involved in the teaching-learning process.

Siddesh Sarma, Author

This has also hardened my resolve to strive towards keeping my current learning process and future efforts at teaching full of excitement and fun, which bell hooks states was the first paradigm that shaped her thinking. bell hooks’ pedagogy is one that is responsive to the specific situation of each particular group of students and she sees education as taking place not only in the classroom but also wherever people are (Burke, 2004). This gives me hope of learning from her to build on our collective effort to reimagine the educational experience across the critical edge networks and develop approaches rooted in our diverse histories, interlacing dynamics of gender, caste, class, and culture.

Admittedly, I haven’t been able to step beyond my respect for this book to be able to interrogate or ably critique her approach, but I take from her my initiation onto this path, that I may be able to do so in the future, possibly as a step towards embracing the challenge of my own self-actualization.

Footnotes

1. For my understanding of ‘post modern’ I refer to Judith Butler’s (1992) exposition in ‘Contingent foundations: Feminism and the question of postmodernism’. I use the term interchangeably in this essay, while the concept remains the same.

References

  • Alexander, C. N., Rainforth, M. V., & Gelderloos, P. (1991). Transcendental meditation, self-actualization, and psychological health: A conceptual overview and statistical meta-analysis. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality. Retrived from here.
  • Burke, B. (2004) ‘bell hooks on education’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved on 26/1/15 from here.
  • Butler, C. (2002). Postmodernism: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Butler, J (1992). Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism. Feminists Theorizing the Political. (Ed. Judith Bulter and Joan Scott). New York: Routledge.
  • Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope. Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Haslam, S. A., Powell, C., & Turner, J. (2000). Social Identity, Self‐categorization, and Work Motivation: Rethinking the Contribution of the Group to Positive and Sustainable Organisational Outcomes. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 319-339.
  • Horrocks, C. (2005). Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide. New York: Icon Books
  • Mott, M. (2010). Michelle Mott on Teaching To Transgress (Review of the book Teaching To Transgress). E3W Review Of Books, University of Texas, Austin. Retrieved on 26/1/15 from here.
  • Rege, S. (2010). Education as Trutiya Ratna: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite feminist pedagogical practice. Economic and Political Weekly30(44–45), 88-98.
  • Rogers, C. R. (1966). Client-centered therapy (p. xi). American Psychological Association.
  • Scholes, R (1985). Textual Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Sedlmeier, P., Eberth, J., Schwarz, M., Zimmermann, D., Haarig, F., Jaeger, S., & Kunze, S. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin138(6), 1139.

Illustration by Adrian Lind


About the author

Siddesh Sarma is the Co-Founder and Chief Programs Officer of ‘Leadership for Equity’ a education non-profit in India. He comes from a background in Education and Education Policy Research having completed an MPhil in Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (2014-16). He was a student member of ‘Critical Edge Alliance’ an international network of students who are ushering innovative recommendations on Higher Education. He has represented TISS for workshops in Roskilde University, Denmark and a 6-week Research Grant with King’s College, London (2016). His experience in education, spanning 6 years, began with Teach For India as a fellow from 2011-13 working as a teacher in a low income private school and a municipal school in Pune. He has also worked on curriculum design for a chain of schools in Kenya with Bridge International Academies. He is also a member of the Education Policy Community of Practice with Teach For All. He is a strong believer in empowering the public education system as the foundation of creating a more equitable society, and disseminating research based insights to generate a momentum around this discourse.

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