The days are longer, travelling on the Tube has become unbearable, and City has become empty and quiet – this can only mean one thing: summer has arrived. Whilst I’m sure many of you will be using the summer to catch up with your research and writing, or to have a well-deserved break, this might also be a good opportunity to take some time to do some reading about teaching.
One of my favourite books about teaching was published 25 years ago, but the issues it raises are still very relevant today; it’s Teaching To Transgress, by bell hooks (Routledge, 1994). We have a hard copy available in the library, and you can also access the PDF online from the University of Texas. It’s a fairly short read, but very thought provoking. If you’re not familiar with her, bell hooks is a black, female, American academic who has spent her career thinking and writing about how our current system, a white capitalist patriarchy, can be critiqued and challenged – she’s possibly most famous for her book Ain’t I a Woman? which highlighted the ways in which feminism excluded black voices, which current debates about intersectionality are indebted to.
Teaching To Transgress takes this critical stance about the ways in which our world is structured, and considers how this applies to teaching at university. hooks talks about the emancipatory possibilities for education, and how:
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. (p. 207)
She discusses the ways in which a learning community can be constructed instead of the traditional classroom with its hierarchies and power structures that privilege the lecturer and often act to silence students. She demonstrates ways in which students can be empowered to have a voice in the classroom (especially those who often feel silenced, perhaps due to their race, gender, or other identity), through simple activities such as asking students to write a personal response to a topic before a seminar and have the rest of the class listen while they read it out. She argues that this doesn’t mean relinquishing your authority as a teacher, but instead demonstrating how the more analytic knowledge that you are sharing can be expanded through a consideration of experience.
One of the things I really like about this book is that she argues against a traditional separation of mind/ body in academia, where the mind is what’s focused on at the expense of bodily reality. Instead, she contends that a space should be made for emotion in the classroom:
When we bring our passion to the classroom our collective passions come together, and there is often an emotional response, one that can overwhelm. The restrictive, repressive classroom ritual insists that emotional responses have no place. Whenever emotional responses erupt, many of us believe our academic purpose has been diminished. To me this is really a distorted notion of intellectual practice, since the underlying assumption is that to be truly intellectual we must be cut off from our emotions. (p. 155)
This is something that I’ve been thinking about more recently, as I’ve become interested in how we can teach in ways which acknowledge emotion and create a pedagogy based on compassion. She also discusses the benefits of teaching connected to how we can all learn from our students, suggesting that:
The classroom should be a space where we’re all in power in different ways. That means we professors should be empowered by our interactions with students. In my books I try to show how much my work is influenced by what students say in the classroom, what they do, what they express to me. Along with them I grow intellectually, developing sharper understandings of how to share knowledge and what to do in my participatory role with students. This is one of the primary differences between education as a practice of freedom and the conservative banking system which encourages professors to believe deep down in the core of their being that they have nothing to learn from their students. (p. 152)
As you might be able to tell, I find the ideas in this book really inspiring, and I think she has a particularly effective way of articulating some of my beliefs about teaching: that it should be inclusive, that it should be a collaboration, and that its purpose is to challenge received ideas and injustices. I don’t think I always live up to these ideals – indeed, she reminds us that this way of teaching is often harder than a traditional approach, and if students are not used to it, they may find it demanding or perplexing, and difficult to adjust to initially:
Students do not always enjoy studying with me. Often they find my courses challenge them in ways that are deeply unsettling. This was particularly disturbing to me at the beginning of my teaching career because I wanted to be like and admired. It took time and experience for me to understand that the rewards of engaged pedagogy might not emerge during a course. Luckily, I have taught many students who take time to reconnect and share the impact of our working together on their lives. Then the work I do as a teacher is affirmed again and again, not only by the accolades extended to me but by the career choices students make, their habits of being. (p. 206)
One final idea that she advocates is that there should be a space for fun in the classroom: ‘the first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring.’ (p. 7). This is another aspect of teaching that I’ve got more interested in lately – the extent to which we can encourage playfulness in the classroom. These kinds of ideas have inspired, for example, my use of Lego on the Establishing a Teaching Persona course, and last week I went to a conference which explored different aspects of playful learning for adults.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do – I’d be interested in your responses to the arguments and ideas, and what practical use you might put these to in your own teaching next year and beyond.