Review: Teaching to Transgress

Chris McNutt
July 22, 2018
Teaching to Transgress summarizes hooks’ viewpoints through a series of essays which manifest a strong structure for understanding, analyzing, and changing systemic issues.

Easily one of the clearest authors on serious issues in the education system, bell hooks has written extensively on feminism, racism, and critical pedagogy. Teaching to Transgress summarizes hooks’ viewpoints through a series of essays which manifest a strong structure for understanding, analyzing, and changing systemic issues. hooks takes complicated concepts and writes acutely, allowing educators to adopt a changed mindset without feeling overwhelmed, targeted, or attacked.

To start, hooks provides background information as an overview of her perspective. bell hooks (whose real name Gloria Jean Watkins, her pen name derives from her great-grandmother) started school in a segregated classroom of the 1950s and early 1960s and was faced with adversity after Brown v. Board of Education. Up until that point she had been taught mostly by African American educators who taught students as learned individuals, providing empowerment through a strong knowledge base. She explains,

“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.”

However after desegregation, hooks found herself labelled by racist white teachers:

“That shift from beloved, all-black schools to white schools where black students were always seen as interlopers, as not really belonging, taught me the difference between education as the practice of freedom and education that merely strives to reinforce domination. The rare white teacher who dared to resist, who would not allow racist biases to determine how we were taught, sustained the belief that learning as its most powerful could indeed liberate.”

An overall theme of Teaching to Transgress is seeing education as a practice of freedom. Inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, hooks believes that a classroom should provide students with the means to escape oppression. Through each chapter, hooks provides various examples of what this entails. To summarize, education is inherently a political act — to remain neutral on challenging the status quo is to take the side of the dominator (the “banking model” of transferring content). To take the side of students by teaching them of systemic issues and social justice, allowing them a true voice, and establishing a learning community, will provide them with the means of empowerment.

Much of the book reflects on hooks’ experiences as a professor where she at various points taught English, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies. Often, she is discouraged by the tone, style, and criticisms of the (mostly) white male professors who overwhelmingly represent the institution. Even though these ideas are presented for higher education, they are easy to tie to the K-12 system.

In one experience, hooks stated,

“It surprised and shocked me to sit in classes where professors were not exited about teaching, where they did not seem to have a clue that education was about the practice of freedom. During college, the primary lesson was reinforced: we were to learn obedience to authority.”

Any progressive educator knows the battle of giving teachers the wherewithal to recognize the inherent problems of a passive classroom. I would argue that most do not see “freedom” as a goal of education — rather, most would see school to either A) provide the “baseline knowledge” to succeed in life or B) to prepare someone for a job. However, by changing dialogue to empower — the goal of a classroom changes drastically. No longer are students disciplined for disobeying a teacher’s strive to reach as many standards as possible, they are empathized with, listened to, and learned with to solve real problems facing themselves or others. The true shift from teachers as content deliverers to guides and mentors is a needed one, and Teaching to Transgress argues this point extremely well.

Throughout, hooks demonstrates many of Paulo Freire’s ideas as he was an inspiration and mentor. However, as most readers of Freire’s work would understand — his books are complex, academic and sometimes hard to comprehend (especially considering their translated lexicon.) Although it has been criticized, I personally find hooks’ commitment to not using footnotes and simple writing relieving. It is a way for many educators (including myself) to understand these complex ideas with grace rather than struggling after a long school day to decipher Freire’s work.

That being said, hooks of course has many ideas of her own. She displays this valuable idea:

“The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere. Neither Freire’s work nor feminist pedagogy examined the notion of pleasure in the classroom. The idea that learning should be exciting, sometimes even “fun,” was the subject of critical discussion by educators writing about pedagogical practices in grade schools, and sometimes even high schools.”

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of an exciting classroom. Nothing is more frustrating than an educational voice who proclaims that students must “grin and bear” or develop “grit” through boring, unnecessary work to make them pass through hoops. Some take this to mean that every class should be a game or jokes should be told — but this misses the entire point. An exciting class is a place of learning relevant information, a place to channel the energy one had as a young child when ideas fascinated the mind and questions were commonplace — and yes, at many times this will be fun.

Another key idea throughout the work is building a sense of community. As hooks explains,

“Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practices and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged. That insistence cannot be simply stated. To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.”

A classroom community is more than everyone knowing each other’s name. A community is a shared space: a place where people are connected through a form of identity, interest, or goal. This is no small task — it’s a challenge. What does it take to make students relate to each other beyond simply being at school? There are local ties, but so many barriers exist to true belonging. Making a classroom into a place of openness, safety, and connectedness requires love, compassion, and targeted work toward student voice rather than what the state derives as “learning”. hooks backs this up when expressing,

“Seeing the classroom always as a communal place enhances the likelihood of collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community.”

To restore humanity to the classroom isn’t just being nice to children. That part goes without stating. To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. hooks exclaims,

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

To teach in a community where learners are expected to grow, share, and gracefully fail, it should be expected that a teacher does as well. A community is for everyone — not set up and driven by a teacher. It is codeveloped by all those involved and teachers are empowered with students. hooks puts concisely,

“When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. 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…When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators.”

And this can’t come soon enough. I love the terminology of Tye Ripma of REENVISIONED: mortgage childhoods — having students sacrifice who they are now with the goal of possibly doing something in the future (and hope that we don’t have a “housing crisis” of sorts.) The longer teachers wait to implement these ideas, the more the system will weigh everyone down. Flames of passion will die out among teachers and students, and little to nothing will actually change. Educators must band together and demand of their administration — their district — whoever rejects these ideas, that schooling must meet the needs of those it serves.

With all of these ideas of a connected classroom, we must tear down barriers of oppression. One cannot have an authentic voice if they are labelled and disempowered. hooks states,

“Progressive professors working to transform the curriculum so that it does not reflect biases or reinforce systems of domination are most often the individuals willing to take the risks that engaged pedagogy requires and to make their teaching practices a site of resistance.”

This important step is where many turn away — the point at which transforming education is no longer a buzzword or “quick fix”, it has real ramifications for everyone involved. Risk-taking is needed in schools. In every profession there are innovative minds who take risks to change the world — solutions don’t come from passive communicators doing their best within the system. And surely, many are hesitant to employ (or even accept) the need for education to rebel against the systems of domination hooks addresses. However, to dismiss the need for radical structural change for racist, sexist, classist, and other forms of discriminatory practice completely misses the point of critical pedagogy and progressive education:

“That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore, and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person who works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Forget about the fact that capitalism requires the existence of a mass underclass of surplus labor. Lying takes the form of mass media creating the myth that feminist movement has completely transformed society, so much so that the politics of patriarchal power have been inverted and that men, particular white men, just like emasculated black men, have become the victims of dominating women. So, it goes, all men (especially black men) must pull together (as in the Clarence Thomas hearings) to support and reaffirm patriarchal domination. Add to this the widely held assumptions that blacks, other minorities, and white women are taking jobs from white men, and that people are poor and unemployed because they want to be, and it becomes most evident that part of our contemporary crisis is created by a lack of meaningful access to truth.”

As many great writers have stated, education is a political act. To not be political in the classroom is taking a stance — that of the system that’s in place. By “remaining neutral” in discussions of the historically oppressed, one is accepting the status quo and helping spread disinformation:

“My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism. Given that our educational institutions are deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences. And that is part of what makes that choice one that is not politically neutral.”

In our political climate, it is sadly a risk to use factual information to support social justice — but if we aren’t willing to fight for these causes, what are we truly saying about the point of teaching? If we accept that we “work around” these issues by sticking to a mandated curriculum then we are not fighting for our students — we are sitting at the sidelines.

Decisions are made on a variety of magnitudes to uphold systemic issues:

“Again and again, it was necessary to remind everyone that no education is politically neutral. Emphasizing that a white male professor in an English department who teaches only work by “great white men” is making a political decision, we had to work consistently against and through the overwhelming will on the part of folks to deny the politics of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth that inform how and what we teach.”

And we must be conscientious of the problems that exist while working to change them. This involves self-reflection, especially among those (such as myself) who come from a privileged white, male, suburban, middle-class background.

I specifically resonated with hooks’ dialogue surrounding how this change will be enacted:

“In all cultural revolutions there are periods of chaos and confusion, times when grave mistakes are made. 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.”

The idea of “putting oneself out there” — taking risk — isn’t always going to work out the way one expects. It’s so important that we recognize the point hooks is making — that it’s worth trying, even if we don’t succeed. To be scared of mistakes is to reflect the educational structure that most are brought up in — a structure that reinforces one’s ability to succeed entirely dependent on one shot: one essay, a test — all symbolized in a letter grade.

More-so, hooks’ comments addressing potential pitfalls of a progressive classroom are enlightening:

“The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. To some extent, we all know that whenever we address in the classroom subjects that students are passionate about there is always the possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas, or even conflict. In much of my writing about pedagogy, particularly in classroom settings with great diversity, I have talked about the need to examine critically the way we as teachers conceptualize what the space for learning should be like. Many professors have conveyed to me their feeling that the classroom should be a “safe” place; that usually translates to mean that the professor lectures to a group of quiet students who respond only when they are called on. The experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel “safe” in what appears to be a neutral setting. It is the absence of a feeling of safety that often promotes prolonged silence or lack of student engagement.”

It’s true that the more one gives a student voice, the more they may struggle to “manage” their classroom. If a classroom is seen in a traditional sense (which is often conflated with “good classroom management”) — a place where students are quiet and on task, then progressive classrooms may differ from the norm. It shouldn’t be shocking that students question what they’re learning, potentially even being “disrespectful.” This isn’t to say that we should encourage rudeness, but if we teach students to rebel it should go without saying that they will rebel. Providing students a safe space to do so is the goal. This is highlighted further:

“In the transformed classroom there is often a much greater need to explain philosophy, strategy, intent than in the “norm” setting. I have found through the years that many of my students who bitch endlessly while they are taking my classes contact me at a later date to talk about how much that experience meant to them, how much they learned. In my professional role I had to surrender my need for immediate affirmation of successful teaching (even though some reward is immediate) and accept that students may not appreciate the value of a certain standpoint or process straightaway. The exciting aspect of creating a classroom community where there is respect for individual voices is that there is infinitely more feedback because students do feel free to talk — and talk back. And, yes, often this feedback is critical.”

Personally, I have been “victim” to student (as well as parent and administrative) complaints: “When are we going to learn something?” (e.g. a textbook), “Can’t you just tell us the answer?”, “Why do we keep talking about racism?” It can be disheartening to feel like you’re doing the right thing by employing these ideas, but how do you know it’s working? Teaching to Transgress provides an outlet to make sense of these ideas. Experimenting as an educator doesn’t always “feel good” — but it pays off in the future. This example I found illuminative:

“What’s really scary is that the negative critique of progressive pedagogy affects us — makes teachers afraid to change — to try new strategies. Many feminist professors, for example, began their careers working to institutionalize more radical pedagogical practices, but when students did not appear to “respect their authority” they felt those practices were faulty, unreliable, and returned to traditional practices. Of course, they should have expected that students who have had a more conventional education would be threatened by and even resist teaching practices which insist that students participate in education and not be passive consumers.”

And we should always push ourselves to do better:

“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.”

Simply stated, even just starting to talk about schooling and its inherent connection to the nature of oppressed/oppressor is a valuable place to start. Having teachers willing to read a book like this and make sense of it is largely worthwhile. hooks explains,

“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 may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.”

This is a constant reflection of practice that requires effort far beyond what’s present in most professional development offerings. To look at the greater picture — what’s beyond the latest ed. tech tools or “strategies” to improve traditional teaching — is a bold shift. Again, it’s worth noting that Teaching to Transgress gives one a sense of calm in face of adversity:

“There are moments when I worry that I am not being a “good” teacher, and then I find myself struggling to break with a good/bad binary. It’s more useful for me to think of myself as a progressive teacher who’s willing to own my successes and failures in the classroom.”

It will feel like it’s “you vs. the world” at first — but the more people that understand, the more you “find your tribe” — the greater movement will be built. We cannot regress to traditional models out of fear, nor teach these ideas in a traditional way:

“It’s very important to emphasize habit. 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. So many of us have critiqued the individual white male scholars who push critical pedagogy yet who do not alter their classroom practices, who assert race, class, and gender privilege without interrogating their conduct.”

Another valid point that hooks thoroughly delves into is exploring works of those who have (or still) express oppressive notions. Pointedly, she looks at Freire’s sexist tonality:

“There has never been a moment when reading Freire that I have not remained aware of of not only the sexism of the language but the way he (like other progressive Third World political leaders, intellectuals, critical thinkers such as Fanon, Memmi, etc.) constructs a phallocentral paradigm of liberation — wherein freedom and the experience of patriarchal manhood are linked as tough they are one and the same…And yet, I never wish to see a critique of this blind spot overshadow anyone’s (and feminists’ in particular) capacity to learn from the insights.”

I believe that learning from, while still critiquing and recognizing these problems, is so important. For example, I recognize that the language of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto are rooted in racism and sexism — but I still believe that their ideas surrounding self-directed education can be built into the greater educative message of self-empowered learning. This isn’t to dismiss that these issues exist, but to use a critical lens on all work to greater one’s pedagogy. I also recognize that my own background in talking about these issues is likely to have implicit bias and coming to terms with that can be personally difficult but warranted. hooks’ summary is well put:

“If we really want to create a cultural climate where biases can be challenged and changed, all border crossings must be seen as valid and legitimate. This does not mean that they are not subjected to critique or critical interrogation, or that there will not be many occasions when the crossings of the powerful into the terrains of the powerless will not perpetuate existing structures. This risk is ultimately less threatening than a continued attachment to and support of existing systems of domination, particularly as they affect teaching, how we teach, and what we teach.”

To conclude, Teaching to Transgress is a valuable work that should be placed in the hands of all educators. If even a fraction adopted the pedagogy of hooks, our system would see radical, needed change. In a nation that’s increasingly fragmented, violent, and scarily mistreating students — we need more voices that fight for what’s right. We owe it to our students to show compassion, and to love them is to make a change.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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