Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Booknote: Teaching to Transgress

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. ISBN: 0-415-90808-6.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: education, higher education, teaching, instruction, pedagogy, theory, activism
Format: Trade paperback
Source: Provided by Berea College as part of the Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group (and yes, they did let me keep it).

I will address this book in two parts.  One is this booknote and review that include my reading notes. Two will be my notes on the book discussion I participated in as part of the Dean's Faculty Book Discussion Group (I will post the discussion notes over at The Gypsy Librarian, since that is part of professional development, and I will link here). That discussion took place in two sessions: October 20, 2014 and November 10, 2014. My review here will be brief. The reading notes are a lot longer.

I got a lot out of this book. It was a challenging book at times, but it was also a book with some lengthy passages that I wished could have been trimmed a bit.

I rated it 3 out of 5 stars as I liked it.

It was one that I struggled with, and I say struggled both in a positive way, in the sense if gave me much to think about, and in a negative way, in the sense that it was not always an easy read and there were parts I probably could have skimmed.  It did make me reflect and look at myself, but it also brought to the surface assumptions others may have of me that I would rather not speak about (let's try not to delve too deeply on that). The book certainly got me out of the comfort zone, which in the end can be a good thing. There was a lot in the book that I connected with. Do I recommend it? If you are an educator or librarian, especially in higher education, then yes, should be reading it, but be ready to be challenged in one way or another as bell hooks has plenty to say for all.

* * *

Reading notes:

"We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization" (2). 

For some reason, the above quote reminded me of a moment in high school. I was getting a ride home with a classmate. His father handed me a copy of Claridad, Puerto Rico's alternative (and socialist, though that focus has softened since then) newspaper with the entreaty to read and learn young man. He was urging me to read, to learn, to think. Politics was not really something we talked about in the home. I was barely aware of what political leanings, if any, my parents had, and it was not until years later into my adulthood I could see what those leanings were. But I was always very devoted to learning. I still am devoted to learning, and when you talk colonization, Puerto Rico in relation to the United States is very much a classic example. In retrospect, me getting educated and learning to seek out alternative sources of information and education is an act of resistance. I resist every day pretty much in one way or another.

Next, we have a quote on professors. I have to say that I have met quite a few professors who fit the typed described in the next quote. However, and mercifully, I have met some good ones, including a rebel or two like Dr. Lee Papa (who went on to become the Rude Pundit.  I can say I was his student before he hit "the big time."):

"The vast majority of our professors lacked basic communication skills, they were not self-actualized, and they often used the classroom to enact rituals of control that were about domination and the unjust exercise of power. In these settings, I learned a lot about the kind of teacher I did not want to become" (5). 

Very often what I have learned from teachers, and now librarians, is the kind of teacher and librarian I do not want to be.

Here is something I have known for a while as a teacher:

"Teaching is a performative act. And it is that aspect of our work that offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom" (11). 

By the way, being a librarian very often is a performative act (I have even read a thing or two about it). I am sure you can ask one or two of the big shot librarians; they can probably expound on the topic quite a bit or just watch them be "performative."

An important reminder. It is important for the teacher to care for him/herself in order to help others. I will admit that I have not always been good about that, though I am working on it:

"Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that 'the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people'" (15). 

On the idea, often found in colleges and universities, that academics are social misfits, unstable, other than valued for their minds:

"This meant that whether academic were drug addicts, alcoholics, batterers, or sexual abusers, the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned, whether we were able to do our jobs in the classroom" (16). 

This reminds me of an old joke from my graduate school days when I was doing my other masters degree. In fact, such a notion was often seen as a point of pride. I was told, more than once, that you had made it as a scholar and theorist if you could hold a full, coherent conversation on literary and/or critical theory while being drunk. This was seen as a particularly useful skill at academic conferences.  I can tell you that my opinion of those folks fell that day; it's also why I tend to avoid soirees and social gatherings at conferences. I never cared much for drunks, smart or otherwise. And before anyone says anything, yes, I do drink. There is your disclosure. However, I do so in moderation.

Here is something I can relate to, and goes back to the idea about learning what teacher and librarian I did not want to be from other teachers and librarians:

"I was dismayed by this, most of my professors were not individuals whose teaching styles I wanted to emulate" (17). 

Teachers need to take risks and be vulnerable as well in the classroom (within reason). This was a lesson I started learning early on in my career as a public school teacher when I wrote with my students during composition classes and took part in a faculty writing group. One of the reasons we formed that faculty writing group was so we could experience, to a degree, what students faced when it came to writing:

"Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive" (21). 

On building community in the classroom:

"It has been my experience that one way to build community in the classroom is to recognize the value of each individual voice" (40).

Moving along, this next quote reflects the reality of some (perhaps many) of our students here at the college. This was an issue I also heard about during the Appalachian Tour:

"White students learning to think more critically about questions of race and racism may go home for the holidays and suddenly see their parents in a different light. They may recognize nonprogressive thinking, racism, and so on, and it may hurt them that new ways of knowing may create estrangement where there was none" (43). 

I don't think that is just white students. Even for me, being (highly) educated separates me from some parts of my family. I know what topics to avoid, what minefields to side step. Some things are worth keeping silent in the interest of family harmony. Does not mean it does not hurt.

A book to check out: Paulo Freire and Antonio Faundez, Learning to Question: a Pedagogy of Liberation.  hooks quotes Faundez:

"It seems to me essential that in our individual lives, we should day to day live out what we affirm" (48). 

I will grant that is easier said than done. Best I hope for is to lead a decent life and lead by example. But I would prefer avoiding any major tussles, at least choosing the battles in order to keep the sanity.

Next, I certainly saw this when I was in graduate school. In fact, it was often considered a badge of honor:

"It is evident that one of the many uses of theory in academic locations is in the production of an intellectual class hierarchy where the only work deemed truly theoretical is work that is highly abstract, jargonistic, difficult to read, and containing obscure references" (64). 

Now to follow along on the above, this can be a challenge to many in academia, but I can certainly see the appeal. It would probably make for a better world:

"Hence any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public" (64). 

Can you imagine how many pretentious academics would be out of work on that basis? And yes, we can certainly count a good number of pompous academic librarians in that group.

I can related to the woman that hooks meets in a black women's gathering who said:

". . . a black woman who had been particularly silent, said that she was not interested in all this theory and rhetoric, all this talk, that she was more interested in action, in doing something, that she was just 'tired' of all the talk" (66). 

Don't get me wrong. I understand critical theory can have its uses. I took quite extensive coursework in theory in graduate school in my previous life as an English major; it was enough to last me a lifetime. So at times, when people bring up theory, I simply want the "so what? What action to do I do with this?" I am glad to have studies theory, but I feel about theory the way a certain cowboy feels about revolvers:

"I said I never had much use for one. Never said I didn't know how to use it." -- Matthew Quigley, from the film Quigley Down  Under

I do concur with bell hooks that it is important to read widely, which I try to do as much as possible. And like her at times, I remain silent to not appear uppity. In my case, it is often more echoing another sage from film:

"That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job" --Peter Gibbons, from the film Office Space

Now here at Berea I do feel a bit more calm (but not too calm), but that has not always been the case. I may have things to say, but let's say sometimes I just pick my battles. And yea, I know the whole silence can be complicity, blah blah blah, but in the end, you can't fight them all, and you do have to eat. Hey, I did not say there was an easy answer. For me, I do what I can with what little I have.

"I have written elsewhere, and shared in numerous public talks and conversations, that my decisions about writing style, about not using conventional academic formats, are political decisions motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations" (71). 

One would wish more scholars made that kind of decision, but academic glory does not lie in that direction. 

bell hooks is citing Henry Giroux on pedagogy and learning experience. I thought this was important to remember:

"Giroux suggests that professors must learn to respect the way students feel about their experiences as well as their need to speak about them in classroom settings: 'You can't deny that students have experiences and you can't deny that these experiences are relevant to the learning process even though you might say these experiences are limited, raw, unfruitful or whatever. Students have memories, families, religions, feelings, languages and cultures that give them a distinctive voice. We can critically engage that experience and we can move beyond it. But we can't deny it'" (88). 

Now here is a question, not just for feminist scholars:

"How many feminist scholars can respond effectively when faced with a racially and ethnically diverse audience who may not share similar class backgrounds, language, levels of understanding, communications skills, and concerns?" (112). 

Insert "any kind of scholar" and any discipline, and the question still applies. I know in the modified form, it is a question I think about now and then.

Here is a good point:

"Confronting one another across differences means that we must change ideas about how we learn; rather than fearing conflict we have to find ways to use it as a catalyst for new thinking, for growth" (113). 

I am willing to admit that for me this is something to keep working on. Not because I am  unwilling to learn, but because I am conflict-averse. Heck, there are things I avoid discussing in the profession at large just to avoid confrontation. Last thing I want is ticking off some celebrity librarian with a blog, for instance.

Anyhow, moving along. In the end, one has to start somewhere, and dialogue is often a way to start:

"To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences" (130).

A reason bell hooks wrote the book:

". . . I was particularly interested in challenging the assumption that there could be no points of connection and camaraderie between white male scholars (often seen, rightly or wrongly, as representing the embodiment of power and privilege or oppressive hierarchy) and marginalized groups (women of all races or ethnicities, and men of color)" (130-131). 

By the way, you can't just "talk the talk." You have to walk the talk too:

"It's so difficult to change existing structures because the habit of repression is the norm. Education as the practice of freedom is not just about liberatory knowledge, it's about a liberatory practice in the classroom"  (147). 

And there is more, this time hooks quotes Ron Scapp, on faculty and students:

"In the way that they talk to students, call upon students, the control that they try to maintain, the comments they make, they reinforce the status quo.  This confuses students. It reinforces the impression that, despite what we read, despite what the guy says, if we really just look carefully at the way he is saying it, who he rewards, how he approaches people, there is no real difference. These actions undermine liberatory pegagogy" (147-148).

This is crucial:

"In regards to pedagogical practices we must intervene to alter the existing pedagogical structures and to teach students how to listen, how to hear one another" (150, emphasis in original).

This is certainly an important question. I may be all for listening seriously and all, but still:

"At what point does one say what someone else is saying ought not to be pursued in the classroom?"  (150).

On teachers learning from 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" (152).

An important reminder:

"We have to learn how to appreciate difficulty too, as a stage in intellectual development" (154). 

And an understatement:

"Universities have to start recognizing that there's more to the education of a student than merely classroom time" (163). 

Compared to other places I have been and worked at, my current workplace we are doing decently in that regard.

Another book to possibly read later: Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class.

A basic truth in academia, and this is one I have experienced myself:

"Students who enter the academy unwilling to accept without question the assumptions and values held by privileged classes tend to be silenced, deemed troublemakers" (179).

On demographics:

"If we can trust the demographics, we must assume that the academy will be full of students from diverse classes, and that more of our students than ever before will be from poor and working-class backgrounds. This change will not be reflected in the class background of professors" (189). 

Ponder that one a moment. I wonder if today, given the aftermath of the Great Recession and the constantly rising cost of college if that would still be the case.  More and more it seems working-class and poor students will be priced out, leaving higher education to those who can afford it (and yes, I am aware that Berea College is a very unique exception). Also keep in mind this book was published in 1994, and yet it remains so relevant today.

And I will wrap up with a quote about the common reality for professors, especially in big universities:

"Professors are expected to publish, but no one really expects or demands of us that we really care about teaching in uniquely passionate and different ways. Teachers who love students and are loved by them are still 'suspect' in the academy" (198). 

Maybe for me in the end this is why I have been a teacher and now an instruction librarian, leaving the path of a tenured professor behind. I do care much about my teaching and my students, and despite some librarians who questioned it, yes, I do develop close relationships with many of my students. In fact, more so where I work now. Curious thing for me is that, officially, I do have the title of professor now (assistant professor to be precise), but no one really remembers that. Anyhow, that can be another story for another time.

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