Excerpts from Teaching Community by bell hooks

I finished Teaching Community by bell hooks this past week. After loving Teaching to Transgress last year, this was my second bell hooks read.

She has a way of writing that, as the reader, bonds you to her. She never talks over you — she welcomes you into her world. While very theoretical in nature, she never loses me as she reflects on lessons learned and decisions made in her personal and professional lives. Her words are swift, but they pack a punch. She is one of the few authors that I’ve read who speaks of teaching with emotion. She even drops the L word (gasp!) when it comes to her students. There’s so much talk about humanizing teaching and learning these days, but combining social justice with the struggle we face in the classroom everyday, bell hooks was doing this work 20 years ago. Most of us, like me, are just catching up.

Before I return it to the library, I want to tap out a few excerpts that I know will stay with me for a while.

Serving students well is an act of critical resistance. It is political. And therefore it will not yield the normal rewards provided when we are simply perpetuating the status quo. …Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein they teach. More often than not, we work in institutions where knowledge has been structured to reinforce dominator culture….Conventional pedagogy often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience, the need to hear fresh ideas to stimulate work, or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students. This is tradition of abuse the caring teacher seeks to challenge and change. The teacher who can ask of students, “What do you need in order to learn?” or “how can I serve?” brings to the work of educating a spirit of service that honors the students will to learn. (pp. 90-92)

 

Most of the time white men allow themselves to deny awareness, to keep from sensing moods and being empathic. Feeling the mood, being open comes from a practice of respect, a willingness to acknowledge up front that you may not and will not be automatically accepted everywhere you go. The practice of “pausing” is a practice of respect. It allows you to aknowledge and access other people’s feelings without violating that space with your insistence that you have a right to be there, or anywhere you want to be. By pausing, by demonstrating deference to those who may reject you, to give them the opportunity to be in doubt and to possibly reject you is one way to repudiate white male privilege, and one way to allow others to be in the position of the chooser, the authority. (pp. 113-14) [Ron Scapp, quoted by bell hooks]

 

To speak of love in relation to teaching is already to engage in a dialogue that is taboo. When we speak of love and teaching, the connections that matter most are the relationship between teacher and subject taught, and the teacher-student relationship. When as professors we care deeply about our subject matter, when we profess to love what we teach and the process of teaching, that declaration of emotional connection tends to be viewed favorably by administrators and colleagues. When we talk about loving our students, these same voices usually talk about exercising caution. They warn us about the dangers of getting “too” close. Emotional connections tend to be suspect in a world where the mind is valued above all else, where the idea that one should be and can be objective is paramount. (p. 127)

 

When I asked one of my students, now a law professor, if my love of her created a climate of favoritism in the classroom, she laughed stating: “Are you kidding? The more you loved us, the harder we had to work.” There can be no love without justice. (p. 137)

 

College education is so often geared toward the future, the perceived rewards that the imagined future will bring that it is difficult to teach students that the present is a place of meaning. In modern schooling the messages students receive is that everything that they learn in the classroom is mere raw material for something that they will produce later in life. This displacement of meaning into the future makes it impossible for students to fully immerse themselves in the art of learning and to experience that immersion as a complete, satisfying moment of fulfillment. …Of course these students are obsessed with grades and willing to do almost anything to ensure that they will get the evaluation that most boosts their future chances of success….today’s frantic need to push towards deadlines, covering set amounts of material, allows very little room, if any, for silence, for free-flowing work. Most of us teach and are taught that it is only the future that really matters. (pp. 166-67)

 

I am troubled because our institutions are conservative and they confine our voices and our imaginations more than we know. Unwittingly, we become our own gatekeepers, representatives of an institution, and not devotees to the sacred world of imagination. We censor ourselves. We bring an aura of death into the classroom when we close down the imagination’s right to say and to do what it needs. (p. 169-70)

 

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My 2018 in Books

I was really pleased with my reading habits this year. I read more than I ever have. In 2017, I read 26 books. Given some demanding life commitments that I knew I had this year, in January I set a goal of reading 20 books. As of right now, I have finished 30. Yay me! (And thank you NYPL for being amazing.)

So when I read Patrick Honner’s post Books I Read in 2018 where he summarizes his year of reading books, I was inspired to write this post. He also inspired me to request On Writing Well from the library. Thanks Patrick!

Most of my reading this year revolved around race. This continued the trend from last year as it’s something that has been on my mind a lot. In addition to reading about race and getting closer to my own whiteness, I was more conscious of the race of the authors I chose to read this year, ensuring that authors of color made up a large percentage of my reading.

Nonfiction | This is usually where I live when it comes to reading. The most impactful were:

  • Messy by Tim Harford. I’ve always believed that disorder and randomness are highly underrated. This book helped me to better see why.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. As a white man, it helped me understand how my own ignorance and privilege has contributed to our racialized society. Written for white people, it was unapologetic and bold.
  • Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. Chapter 10 was probably the most important chapter of any book that I read this year — and maybe ever.
  • Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. During late summer and early fall, I read a string of books centered around living with less. Less stuff, less ideas, less commitments. Both well-written, these were two of my favorites.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Easily 5 stars. I knew next to nothing about Apartheid, so (once again) my ignorance was on full display here. I savored Noah’s superb storytelling all the way to the end like a good meal. I was sad that it had to end.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. This was such an engaging book from start to finish. This is technically a self-help book, but it didn’t feel like it. It’s more of a reality check; it’s woefully pragmatic and I love it.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I haven’t finished this yet, I already know that it’s special. Both vivid and powerful, he shares a lived experience in a way that feels like an obligatory read for anyone in this country.

Fiction | I told myself that I wanted to read more fiction as compared to last year. I succeeded! Last year I read 3 books and this year I read a whopping…5. I’m trying to get better. Notable were:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This really made me think. It took me to places that I never knew I always needed to be. It transformed something that’s in the news every day — young black men who are targeted by the police — something tangible for me. Reading it was a visceral experience. I read it before the movie came out and still haven’t seen the movie, but I want to.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read this near the end of the year and the timing was perfect because it tied together so many social issues and stereotypes. It centers on one African woman’s journey in — and out of — American culture. Plus, the writing was stellar.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Having taught several autistic students through the years, and never making an effort to truly understood their experience, this book was fascinating and informative. It provided such a clear and unadulterated look into the perspective of an autistic young person.

 

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On the intersection of being White and being a math teacher

Two of the books that I read this summer, Why are the All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald, utterly blew my mind. 

So while the summer winds down, I’ll leave it at the end of this month with so many concerns about my teaching and how I address racism.

A. For my entire life, just like a lot of other White people in this country, I considered myself colorblind. I claimed that I was blind to the race of the people I interacted with. And I took a lot of pride in this fact, too. If I didn’t see people’s race, I couldn’t discriminate or play favorites. I conned myself into this line of thinking. Being born and raised in the inner city, and one of the few White people in my neighborhood and school, race wasn’t a “thing” for me. This perspective continued into adulthood and pervaded my teaching. Even with students, I either claimed the colorblind stance or simply avoided conversations about race. It isn’t until now that I realize that this is, and was a huge, huge problem.

B. Most White people don’t think we live in a racist society. Most White teachers don’t either. But we do. I’m not talking about outspoken racism, like that of white nationalists. I’m referencing the systematic racism that pervades in the air we breathe here in America. In many ways, we choose to not think about it because it’s uncomfortable. White privilege is a very real thing, even if we chose to look the other way. It existent in every aspect of society. Most White people don’t see it this way because we are (myself included) inside the box — we are part of the dominant group. That inherently makes it harder to understand the advantages we have.

C. What’s especially damaging about this is that every single White teacher I know is a good person. They don’t intentionally aim to do harm to students of color. Heck, most of these teachers teach in schools with large proportions of students of color because they want to help interrupt the cycle of inequality and injustice that these kids experience. But our hidden biases, which strongly favor our culture of Whiteness, can still significantly affect our judgment in ways that we aren’t even aware of.

D. What does this mean? It means that if we teachers (and especially our school leaders) don’t develop an anti-racist stance that fosters a critical consciousness about life being more than White privilege, our schools and classrooms will be a mere reflection of the racist society in which we live. It means that if we don’t mindfully recognize the systemic racism that our students of color, and colleagues for that matter, encounter every day, how can we attempt to take a chance at interrupting it?

E. So how do we, as teachers, bring up such a sensitive topic with colleagues and administrators to help push the needle in the right direction? There’s fear, dread, and detachment in people’s eyes (not just White people, either) whenever race is brought up. I know because it used to happen to me. I have no idea how to address this, but I think open, safe conversations with one another are vitally important — like at staff and department meetings. Provocative, reflective prompts are needed (Jose and Wendy!). A simple discussion can go a long way. Norms need to be set. I would hope that administrators can be present and active. Anxiety is natural, but I like to think that if we’re sincere and honor one another, the right words will always find their way out of our mouths.

F. Self-discovery might also help. Here are various research-based tests that we can take online to help determine each of our hidden biases. They are called Implicit Association Tests. Here’s some background on them.

G. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m at a loss here. I’m no expert on how to make this happen. Progress seems so far away, but this post is a start for me, I suppose. A grueling and uncomfortable path lay ahead.

H. One more thing that I want to add. Right now, 75% of my mathematics department at my school is White male. That bothers me. At times, I worry about the subliminal messages that this sends the 90% of students at my school who are Black or Latino — especially if we (White males) aren’t actively taking an anti-racist approach to teaching and learning mathematics.

 

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