The untimely death of writer, educator, artist Gloria Jean Watkins – also known as bell hooks – came as a blow in this already challenging year. It is one of those situations in which you enjoy a relationship with a good friend, you feel she will always be there with her wisdom and her encouragement. You take it for granted that she will be there, as after all she is a relatively young person, around teaching, living and loving. Well, I feel something like that when writing about bell hooks: although I have read some of her work, it is only during the last two years that I have come to realise the might of her thought and influence in my own journey, finding solace and companion in her words, and encouragement to “transgress”, “disrupt” and over all to “love”.
This blog is about my own take on her work, as educator but also as an “Other”, a female, mixed race Latinx, Colombian, artist/educator living and working in the United Kingdom. It is not intended to be an “academic” take on her work, or a scholarly informed article. Instead, and in the spirit of playfulness suggested by bell hooks, this is an imaginary conversation between me and bell hooks, around a cuppa:
Me: Hello bell hooks, long time no see! I’ve been so busy reconnecting with my passion of teaching, and you know that as with love and desire, it can be all-consuming and pleasurable. I’ve been teaching a module on Can we design a better world? This is an interdisciplinary module opened to every student at Anglia Ruskin University, and it is part of the innovative Ruskin Modules, created as a flagship experiment for active learning, employability and interdisciplinarity in higher education. Although teaching is my main activity, the last two years I’ve been doing academic development work. The truth is that I had grown disillusioned with the obstacles and barriers to bring innovation to the classroom, and needed this break. But returning to teaching has rekindled that strange pleasure of sharing, building together, performing. I should not be saying this but I have been excited about the whole experience, also because I’ve been co-creating it with current students, and I know I should be rather following “protocols” and frameworks, but you know how it is.
bell hooks: I am glad you are embracing the pleasure of teaching. That can be transgressive indeed. We have been used to a type of “banking-education” in which pleasure, body and emotions are relegated in favour of “theories” and “frameworks” and “memory”. But at the heart of teaching and learning is basically pleasure. Why else would people like to learn? When I wrote Teaching to Transgress all those years ago, I wanted to convey the pleasure and joy of the experience of teaching: “To emphasise that the pleasure of teaching is an act of resistance countering the overwhelming boredom, uninterest and apathy that so often characterise the way and students feel about teaching and learning, about the classroom experience”.
Me: Oh yes, this book is my favourite. Perhaps because I read it earlier in my teaching journey, and it was a continuation of the influence of Paulo Freire’s ideas in my upbringing as a Latin American woman. But I felt that your take on the ideas of emancipation, freedom, transformation and democracy, resonated with my life, not as a political discourse, but as a daily, embodied, passionate practice. What would you say about your own take on these ideas?
bell hooks: I have acknowledged the influence of Paulo Freire in my teaching: “When I first began college, Freire’s thought gave me the support I needed to challenge the “banking system” of education, that approach to learning that is rooted in the notion that all students need to do is consume information fed to them by a professor and be able to memorize and store it. Early on, it was Freire’s insistence that education could be the practice of freedom that encouraged me to create strategies for what he called “conscientization” in the classroom.” And it is from a perspective of respect and admiration that I have brought in a critical perspective, trying to see how his ideas on emancipation also work for women, for black communities and for any type of excluded or “other” group. When I met him, people were quite afraid of what I was going to say to him, was I going to question him on feminism? etc. To be honest, I loved him even more because his response was generous and encouraging. To bring up questions is the essence of being a critical thinker. We don’t want to just follow “old masters”! We need to forge our own path, that can be risky and transgressive. “If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a culturally diverse place where scholars and the curricula address every dimension of that difference.”
Me: I am so glad you brought this up. I have grown so appalled by the academic language and the power/knowledge structures that decide what voices can be heard. In fact, I fell in love with your work precisely because it “spoke” to me… it was not a lecture, and with a very compassionate style you weave complex ideas on feminism, critical theory, education and art. The fact that you do not necessarily compile a “reference list” or constantly look for validation in the patrilineage of citing certain white/male/North American/European authors has been a breath of fresh air. As a foreign female student/teacher, I have noticed how difficult is to “access” the language, and how the structure of higher education is built around those barriers: we assess essays written in certain way and we expect students to “participate” in class but only if their voices are modulated in the language of academia!
bell hooks: Ah the problem of language! if we are in academia we need to speak the “lingo” don’t we? Otherwise how can we demonstrate our worth and credentials? And yet, what language do we favour? Have you read Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”? “One line of this poem that moved and disturbed something within me: “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.” That line has been always with me, but now “I know that it is not the English language that hurts me, but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize.” We need to be aware of how we use language, and be conscious of its possibilities, we can choose to use it as a way of “segregating” or we can expand it, enhance it with vernacular words, the words of popular culture, music, enhancing conversations with the richness of multicultural classrooms. “Like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries. It speaks itself against our will, in words and thoughts that intrude, even violate the most private spaces of mind and body.”
Me: There is a lot of talk about decolonising the curriculum and sometimes this causes a lot of reactions amongst colleagues. I think it is a work in progress that evolves from the recognition of the many voices and ways of knowing, not only in the “diversification” of our reading lists, but in the acknowledgement of different ways of learning and teaching. The thing is that sometimes when we try something new or innovative, there is a lot of rejection not only from colleagues who see our attempts as a bit wacky or a waste of time, but also sometimes students who respond to customer surveys in a rather discouraging way.
bell hooks: That’s the problem with a “banking education”, where students are customers and we provide a “service”. But this goes to the root of the academic power, where there are complex mechanisms for the reproduction of knowledge (i.e. publishing) and the exclusion of certain ways of thinking. For example, “work by women of colour and marginised groups or white women (for example, lesbians, sex radicals) especially if written in a manner than renders it accessible to abroad reading public is often delegitimised in academic settings, even if that work enables and promotes feminist practice.”
This is because knowledge and education has systematically focused on the mind rather than the body. “Professors rarely speak of the place of eros or the erotic in our classrooms. Trained in the philosophical context of Western metaphysical dualism, many of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind.” I think that there is a fear of being vulnerable. Nobody wants to be wrong or be accountable for personal opinions. And yet, vulnerability is the only way to progress authentic change in academia.
Me: My whole approach to education has been to bring up the passion and beauty of the learning process. This is also why I have been so drawn to your writings, and I find myself more and more inclined to abandon the “straight jacket” of academic writing for a more consensual, passionate and sensual conversation. This semester proved to be very challenging, while teaching online and trying to measure the “temperature” of the room. In trying to create this “passionate” conversation I drew upon students’ experiences and my own living experiences. I thought this was a bit of a risk, I must admit, but somehow these were the moments when the room ‘lit up’. When you mention eros in the class-room, it makes me think also about the sensual, the communion, and the pleasure we talked before. This can be related to some ideas on active learning. I am not sure if my colleagues would agree, but I think students come with lives and experiences and problems and dreams that seldomly find its place in the classroom!
bell hooks: That is the whole point of critical pedagogies: “to transform consciousness, to provide students with ways of knowing that enable them to know themselves better and live in the world more fully, to some extent it must rely on the presence of the erotic in the classroom to aid the learning process.” We need to challenge the assumption of separated islands of knowledge. What we do in the classroom should inform our habits and ways of living. Only there can we get transformations in the world. “When eros is present in the classroom setting, then love is bound to flourish. Well-learned distinctions between public and private make us believe that love has no place in the classroom.”
Me: Oh bell hooks, how wonderful to talk to you. This has been so important and encouraging, especially in the light of the last academic term! I feel that these ideas about passion, eros and beauty are even more relevant in our conversations about active learning, education for sustainability and in general education for transforming our world. I know you have to leave now, but your ideas and words will help us to heal as societies and communities. Thanks!
Excerpts from bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress (1994). London: Routledge