Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, comments open 4.8.13

From 4th – 10th August we’re reading ‘Teaching to Transgress’ by bell hooks.  bell seems to be a ‘marmite’ thinker…love her or hate her, she inspires a response.

Paolo Freire said of ‘Teaching to Transgress’:

After reading [it] I am once again struck by bell hooks’s never-ending, unquiet intellectual energy, an energy that makes her radical and loving.”

What do you think?

We’ve identified some themes which you might like to comment on (see the Theme pages leading off from this page).  You could post general comments below, or contribute via #tdbooks on Twitter.  The comments pages will stay open after 10th August, as a valuable resource, so thanks in advance for your comments.


As we approach the end of the ‘official’ Reading Group week, I hope that you will keep commenting.  Here, via @PurpleAllen, is a comment so uplifting, it choked me:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FbSTI7U4vU&feature=youtu.be

Thanks to all who joined in with our first #tdbooks.  I’ve loved it 🙂 


14 thoughts on “Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, comments open 4.8.13”

  1. I want to share my initial thinking, reading just the opening pages of the book for the first time in five or six years, maybe longer. And that was how much I’d moved on in terms of self-awareness, independence of thought, openness to challenge and change. I’ll comment more in the themes, but have been desperate to confess that for about a fortnight! 🙂

  2. I love the way you can return to books as a different person and get something different from them every time. I read some of the book when I first started my PGCE (so only a couple of years ago) but by revisiting it I have become aware of how much my approach to teaching has changed in that time. I was always aware of the close links between the thinking of bell hooks and our social purpose teaching (plus practices such as community philosophy) but when I read the book again I was amazed at the synergy. From ‘theorists are our friends’, communities of practice, love in the classroom, it’s all there. But there was also a lot of things that I wanted to think about more deeply or in a slightly different way…

  3. My initial thoughts when reading the intro were how much it resonated with the Thinking Environment and that Bell’s words represented my aspirations for both myself as a teacher and for my learners. I felt excited at the prospect of reading more 🙂

  4. I agree with you both and love your use of the word ‘synergy’, Kay. The only thing I’ve read so far that I didn’t agree with was an observational statement that teachers find it more difficult to teach differently than students do to learn differently. Maybe what I disagree with is the either/or (binary) nature of that statement. Some teachers resist and I’ve experienced that. Maybe what happens in my workplace is that I have the autonomy not to let that influence what I do. I notice students resistance more and so I guess I focus more on how to address this. On page 40 bell writes that “…students are much more willing to surrender their dependency on the banking system of education than are their teachers.” Sometimes they are not willing and I have noticed this increasingly as people are having to pay for their own education – a sense that if you are not passively taking in knowledge you are not getting your money’s worth. I’ve found that one of the best ways to address this is taking early opportunities to discuss what teaching/learning is and Freire’s ‘banking’ analogy is helpful here. But still there are students who are anxious they won’t get what they need out of the teaching, if they are having to think for themselves. I want to focus next year on what more we can do to support those students through their resistance. And to articulate why we are so certain we are right!

  5. I remember being surprised that I would not be taught learning styles theories…

    But the more stress is placed on something the greater importance it takes on – body counts in the Vietnam war for example – only on reflection is the clear steer to Coffield and the clear lack of emphasis on Kolb, Honey and Mumford, etc so eloquent – far more so than an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

  6. ‘use of control and power over students dulls the students’ this happens a lot in secondary education. I agree with bell hooks that we should be free to transgress and let education become a catalysis for our own learning, but unfortunately, that decision is taken away from us as teachers, so do we really have power and control over students learning?

    1. This is a massive point you’ve made, Shiv. We’ve been tralalala-ing along, talking about contexts where the teacher does have power. bell herself, though she refers to times when she’s felt powerless too, largely has been able to plough her own furrow in her teaching. In many organisations – schools, ’employability’ or workfare settings – teachers have constraints which prevent this.

      What are those constraints? Maybe by breaking them down, we can collectively find ways in which we can help to subvert them. Otherwise it must seem like an insurmountable battle, every day. So many people remain on the outside of their own learning experience, because teachers are not trusted to have the autonomy to do the things necessary, to engage with them. Let’s not be naive. To some extent, this will always be true, as long as organisations are judged on success rates, where the narrow definition of ‘success’ is ‘achieve the qualification they were entered for’. Much has to be done politically, culturally and organisationally to change this (is it possible to teach unemployed people with respect and dignity in a society which increasingly labels people who are out of work as ‘scroungers’?)

      Continuing to believe in a ‘pedagogy of hopefulness’ is really tough. bell herself in ‘Teaching to Transgress’ talks repeatedly about working as a Black woman and with Black students in a ‘white supremacist’ culture and the challenges of getting her colleagues to change their ‘paradigm’, which she acknowledges as a painful process. Now I hear she is starting her own school. So are the ‘alternative schools’ now made technically possible under sweeping changes to the structure of the education system a way forward?

      What do others think?

  7. Gillian Harward My opinions and reactions to these government mandated courses I am teaching varies on my resilience on the day. I think we can achieve exam passes in Functional skills courses whilst teaching for a social purpose. In English, we can teach punctuation and grammar but choose reading and writing topics such as equality, diversity, as well as inspirational people. In employability major issues such as frustration, self confidence are helped by thinking and listening á la Nancy- ICT learners can get to know the keyboard and search engines but look up and write about socially relevant topics, learn how to use networking and blogs…..
    bell says,
    “Contrary to the notion that love in the classroom makes teachers less objective, when we teach with love we are better able to respond to the unique concerns of individual students”
    by using this theory and respecting each and every unique need we can help with employability students who just need to feel someone cares.
    bell quote from; ‘Teaching Critical Thinking’ Hooks, b (2010) Routledge.

  8. That’s a really interesting idea. I studied the Brontes at uni and was really interested in the way that women in that time very often started their own schools. It seemed to be such a powerful thing to do, in an era when women had little power. (I know this still operated within certain systems and constraints and was only possible for women of a certain status, but nevertheless…) I’m fortunate in that within my freelance context I have relatively large amounts of freedom but teaching one-off, short courses brings its own frustrations. I think we do have to be hopeful, and work out ways to influence where we can. Supporting each other through our community of praxis is vital for this, I think.

  9. I love the work you are doing, Gill and Siobhan, to find opportunities for social purpose teaching and learning, in a restrictive environment. Both here and via your dialogue in the Facebook group, you are making it clear why – in a really significant, world-changing way – it’s essential to take these opportunities. What you do have, that Kay in your single session work you don’t, is the opportunity to work with individuals over a period of time – how long, Gill, in your case? A week? I’m thinking about us writing something here which explores ways in which we can teach for a social purpose, in these different teaching contexts.

    I’m also remembering that what bell is doing at the moment, is starting a school…thinking too of the Scandinavian Folk High Schools, which @therehn and @choux have told us about. And of course the Highlander Center and Forest School movement. And what was the famous ‘liberal values’ school in the south of England somewhere…hmmm, I can feel some more reading coming on.

  10. Sorry to chime in late, I haven’t actually read the book this week as I lent all my bell books to my little sister a while ago, except for a little poetry book called ‘when angels speak of love’ which I read through this week.
    Yes, bell has more freedom in her setting than most of us, though I am sure that is something consciously fought for and worked at. I recently had the opportunity to throw away the rule book during some sessions with young people and learnt some hard truths about the responsibility you take on when you do that. I so often fall into the trap of thinking that the restrictions imposed on me are what prevent meaningful change, but stripping that away exposed a world of mistakes and learning and agency that was just me.
    Lou, do you mean Summerhill?

  11. I’ve recently completed bell hooks’ book Teaching to Transgress. Prior to this, I’d not read bell hooks since I was an undergraduate student. At the time, her analysis of ‘race’, gender, and capitalism excited me. While not without critique or limitation – from a Marxist feminist vantage point – aspects of her writings opened more doors than they shut.

    Although I still do not uncritically embrace bell hooks’ methodology, analysis, and conclusions, there are nonetheless themes, aspirations, observations, and callings in Teaching to Transgress that are stimulating, resonant, and relevant.

    Home and Education
    “Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.” (page 3)

    How many of us mobilised education as a means to escape the conventions and restrictions of our home lives? Reminding myself of this reminded me of the importance of free and universal education.

    Leftist Engagement with Buddhist Thought
    bell hooks cites two key influences on her thinking, Paulo Freire and Thich Nhat Hanh. While so many in the education field are enthusiastic about Freire, it’s hooks’ leftist intersection with Buddhist thought that I find most interesting.

    “… teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” (page 15)

    If we as people and as teachers cannot ‘be present’, if we cannot listen properly, read properly, if we cannot recognise the distractions in our own minds and actively work towards mindfulness, then we cannot genuinely engage with people and with students.

    And yet:

    “… the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization.” (page 16)

    “The idea of the intellectual questing for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one’s academic work. This meant that [if] academics were [e.g.] … alcoholics … the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned …” (page 16)

    “If professors are wounded, damaged individuals, people who are not self-actualized, then they will seek asylum in the academy rather than seek to make the academy a place of challenge, dialectical interchange, and growth.” (page 165)

    Critical Thinking
    “It is apparent that one of the primary reasons we have not experienced a revolution of values is that a culture of domination necessarily promotes addiction to lying and denial.” (page 28)

    “In our society, which is so fundamentally anti-intellectual, critical thinking is not encouraged. … Conditions of radical openness exist in any learning situation where students and teachers celebrate their abilities to think critically …” (page 202)

    Question everything, scrutinise everything, deconstruct and reconstruct, identify dominant narratives and motives, and carve out your own. Read and analyse rigorously. Make up your own mind. Be bold, but not without thought-through methodology and theory.

    The Use of Theory and the Abuse of Theory
    “I came to theory because I was hurting – the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend – to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.” (page 59)

    “Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfils this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.” (page 61)


    “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. … it is easy to imagine different locations, spaces outside academic exchange, where such theory would not only be seen as useless, but as politically nonprogressive, a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice that most seeks to create a gap between theory and practice so as to perpetuate class elitism.” (page 64)

    Danger and Taking Risks
    “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 liked and admired. It took time and experience for me to understand that the rewards of engaged pedagogy might not emerge during a course.” (page 206)

    All too often we hesitate at taking risks because we fear rejection, our ego desires affirmation. What’s more, all too often, we fear (with good reason) the consequences of risk taking for our careers.

    bell hooks ends her book with a quote from the Buddhist Pema Chodron:

    “My models were the people who stepped outside of the conventional mind and who could actually stop my mind and completely open it up and free it, even for a moment, from a conventional, habitual way of looking at things … If you are really preparing for the reality of human existence, you are living on the razor’s edge, and you must become used to the fact that things shift and change. … My teachers have always pushed me over the cliff …” (pages 206-207)

    Are we to conclude that the pedagogy we strive towards actually isn’t about safe space, it’s about dangerous space? Are we willing and able to go there?

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