Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Teaching As Liberation

Full bell hooks 1988

Image: bell hooks (via Wikimedia Commons)

Is teaching about liberation or domination? That question has been chasing me for months now, along with the many related questions it raises, like: What is education supposed to do? What are its possibilities? What are the realities? Do we as faculty practice education as a way to free students or control them?

Those questions weigh heavily as I hear complaint after complaint about all the things that students purportedly do “wrong” (email, studying, reading, test-taking, attendance).

If we are to believe the complaints, today’s students are hopelessly unprepared for higher education. Professors and instructors lament all the time taken away from course content as they are forced to teach basic skills that students supposedly should have acquired in high school. “We are professors, not life coaches or therapists.” Teaching anything beyond the subject matter of the course emerges as an unpleasant chore — or worse, as an indictment of a student’s character or ability. Courses, it seems, should be separated from the lives of the students.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the disdain and distance, yet I am. How can we expect students to know what they have not yet been taught? How did compliance become a virtue? I’m disheartened by the attitudes about students that populate higher ed. Students cannot learn if we refuse to engage them where they are. I can’t help but ponder what faculty imagine teaching will or won’t be when they choose this profession. Many professors seem to despise interacting with students at all.

I’m equally bothered — no, furious — about the devaluation of teaching, which appears as a secondary or tertiary concern of many institutions. If teaching is not the the most important work of the university, then what is? (I fear the answers.)

Enter Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, written by bell hooks in 1994. At the beginning of last summer, I attempted to grapple with the state of teaching in higher ed by picking up this book. Despite it being more than 20 years old, hooks is prescient about the modern university. She recognized the consequences of the devaluation of teaching, the corporatization of institutions, and the increasing reliance on contingent faculty. She analyzed the way universities and colleges operate before it was cool.

hooks is also a trailblazer in analyzing and critiquing pedagogy. Her collection of essays allows readers to think along with her about how academia understands teaching, then and now. College classrooms continue to be under-analyzed spaces, in spite of the robust discussions about pedagogy happening now. Teaching philosophies emerge as documents thrown together for job dossiers rather than thoughtful statements of what we do in our courses. We teach, but we don’t pause often enough to reflect upon our teaching practices. For hooks, students are our first public — maybe our most important one — and they should be treated with dignity, respect, and care.

Teaching to Transgress is an intervention that academia still needs. hooks interrogates her own pedagogy and academia with both force and wit as she hopes to convince all of us that teaching matters. Education provides the potential for liberation, she argues, not just for students but ourselves, too. Self-actualization emerges as the first step to quality pedagogy. Academics, she explains, are not particularly good at knowing or analyzing ourselves. But we can’t know our students without first having a clear understanding of who we are.

We also have to learn to comprehend that students are individuals with differing needs and interests. They are full-fledged human beings, and hooks requires us to reckon with that truth. It shouldn’t feel radical, but it does. To imagine students as human — with lives, bodies, ideas, and emotions inside and outside of the classroom — takes effort, time, empathy, and compassion. Academia seems to place limits on all of those. Instead, students appear as distractions from our real work, whatever that is, and our classrooms as afterthoughts instead of spaces of possibility.

We must do better. Students need knowledge, but it has to be more than bits of information they are forced to remember. It should be relevant to their lives. Teachers should care not only about the mastery of subject matter, but how the content engages a life.

hooks describes an “engaged pedagogy,” based in feminist theory, which focuses upon the well-being of both professors and students. Teachers have to take care of the students and themselves. Classrooms become communities that work to recognize that every student is a valued member. With emphases on shared vulnerability, mutual respect, and collegial efforts to learn, classrooms become spaces of liberation.

That approach doesn’t negate the teacher’s expertise or experience. It just recognizes that even an expert’s knowledge is limited and finite. Engaged pedagogy is a way to learn from one another and learn together. Education offers students the ability to navigate not only the topic of study, but their lives.

Classrooms shouldn’t be “mini-kingdoms,” in which the teacher’s exercise of power and authority is sacrosanct, hooks writes. We shouldn’t teach to shore up our egos. She also cautions that education should not focus solely on the liberation of minds, but bodies, too. The life of the mind tends to ignore the body, but our bodies aren’t so easily avoided. Our bodies matter in how we experience the world, so they cannot be separated from our discussions of it. Separating the two convinces “professors and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors,” she writes. If we want courses to matter to students, we have to show them how the subjects that we teach matter to both minds and bodies.

Her view of education as a way to freedom is a reaction to the courses that she took as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, in which professors were dictators. Graduate education, in particular, was about disciplining both bodies and minds in ways that replicated the norms of academia: masculine, white, middle-striving-for-upper class, and able-bodied.

Academia, hooks shows us, is not an inherently safe space for students or faculty. The classroom only seemed safe for those who fit its mold. Diversity appears threatening because it made the preferred norms visible. Some of us never had the illusion of fitting in, so education became about compliance and keeping your head down.

Is that what we want education to be?

In my next-to-last semester as a lecturer, I had a particularly challenging course with a very diverse group of students. Our discussions often became tense. Students left angry. I occasionally cried in my office after it was over. In one class, we wandered away from course content (religious intolerance) and started discussing the functions of the university. What does the university train us to do? What is its purpose? Some students said the university provided them with majors, so they hopefully could get jobs. A few students offered up “education” as a vague goal. One student asked me what I thought the university did, and I responded without hesitation: “It tries to make you into compliant, middle-class citizens.” I’m not sure who was more stunned by my answer — me or them — at that moment of agonized honesty. They looked at me waiting for the punchline. I looked back. The student followed up, “What do you want us to do?” I paused and said, “Question everything, and don’t let the university win.”

I returned to that day again and again as I finished Teaching to Transgress. hooks wants us to choose liberation. In that moment in my own classroom, I did, and I would again.

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