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Teaching Transgressions – A Tribute to bell hooks

    By Michael MacDonald and Christopher Thomas

    At the end of 2021, the world lost one of its most beloved and most radical teachers. Since the publication of her landmark text, Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks has been required reading for teachers across all disciplines. The idea of “students as partners” is very much indebted to her arguments about the classroom.

    #1: “Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students… 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 themselves are unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive” (Teaching to Transgress, 21).

    Chris: I can’t recall when I first encountered bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, but I distinctly remember experiencing a form of catharsis after reading her essay, “Engaged Pedagogy.” Her exploration of the mutual recognition and appreciation of perspective among different academics – students and faculty – when she mentions a student she worked alongside challenged my idea of student-faculty relationships. She highlighted that the relationship between the two was grounded in mutual respect, but also recognized limits of influence.

    #2: “Biases imposed by essentialist standpoints or identity politics, alongside those perspectives that insist that experience has no place in the classroom (both stances can create an atmosphere of coercion and exclusion), must be interrogated by pedagogical practices” (86).

    Chris: My academic experience teaches me that essentialism comes in many forms. It is not uncommon to find the notion that professors have deep properties that follow from their being a professor or the like for students and staff. The pedagogy that hooks embraces allows us to challenge these notions through sharing “confessional narratives” or collectively reflecting on obstacles to upend practices that promote said notions.

    #3: “To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence” (8).

    Mike: My introduction to bell hooks coincided with my introduction to teaching writing and rhetoric. Teaching to Transgress was one of the first books I was assigned to read in graduate school, and it was transformational. hooks insists on student-centered teaching, where all participants are students and teachers.

    #4: “To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress” (7).

    Mike: As a teacher for the last 17 years, I would not purport to practice what bell hooks teaches. I can only hope for an approximation. What hooks calls for is much more radical than most make it out to be, much harder to put into practice, and though many teachers work to center student voices, no matter how many times we claim to be students ourselves, there is just so much injustice on our campuses, from labor inequalities to issues of access, to the very land the university occupies, invoking her name is never enough. What bell hooks called “praxis” would have us go far beyond the classroom walls and far outside our comfort.

    This kind of partnership is “based on mutual recognition” (13). This is the kind of partnership we want to emphasize in the pages of this zine.