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)