hooks: a book that changed my teaching
I started reading critical pedagogy in the last year of my degree, but I was reading looking for answers, reading but not understanding very meaningfully what critical pedagogy says about the process of education. Many years later I re-read many works as I wrote a postgraduate module on critical theory and education. The first time I read hooks as an undergraduate I could not understand how the teacher could become so powerful through vulnerability, I guess this is because of my own views at the time, like most people I thought teachers and teaching were defined by authority. As I started my own journey into teaching, I felt an urge to revisit hooks' Teaching to Transgress (1994) since my own conception of teaching was based on a very oppressive interpretation of authority which I simply didn't enable in my classroom, so why was I so subscribed to this notion? bell hooks' book was so provocative on how it eagerly calls for the role of the teacher in the classroom to be dismantled; her ideas on 'self-actualization' and 'belief' were very liberating and burdening at the same time. I was drawn to many of the passages in the book, ‘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 there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students’ (hooks, 1994, p. 13). This call for belief and vocation in teaching and learning is perhaps the greatest disservice educational systems deliver to both students and teachers. I realised this year on year, after trying to open up the classroom, feeling not just my own nerves, but also the nerves of students who were so accustomed to the traditionalistic and almost cold transaction of teaching we commonly find in education. I realised my own desire to practice self-actualisation could not be done in isolation; it required a whole collective change, impacting on my students too! I recently reflected on some of these attempts and explain more detail my own reflections in a recent paper.
Then I realised that although I was trying to 'self-actualise' as a teacher, by offering my own personal experience, by enabling students' voices to be heard, I was also unsettling my students' expectations (hooks, 1994, p. 15). It was precisely in this felt awkwardness that I found the most meaningful contribution to my teaching; as argued by hooks ‘dislocation is the perfect context for free-flowing thought that lets us move beyond the restricted confines of a familiar social order’ (2003, p. 21). The uncomfortable makes room for critical discussion and for more meaningful learning to happen. Importantly, what I learnt was that any attempt to 'self-actualise' means that you are inviting others to do that with you; to take a step into that space. 'Self-actualisation' cannot happen in a vacuum, teaching and learning are profoundly personal and social, to do this as an individual is just another form of oppression. Yet, this is also made very difficult in an environment which is becoming more measured, open to accountabilities where the student is now constructed as a customer and I am reduced to a service provider. The teacher-student relationship has been disrupted in recent years, tilting too much in favour of transforming the Higher Education context into a product which can be bought and sold and improved through feedback.
Yes, hooks' work changed my teaching - it made me more sensitive to my students' presence and engagement - but it also made me very sensitive to how the institutional workings of the Higher Education context construct students engagement and teaching as commodities; changing and reducing the teacher-student relationship to an economic transaction. This is evident in the crucial role the National Student Survey (NSS) plays in how universities are ranked and how lecturers are made to serve the purposes of the NSS so as to keep students satisfied. hooks' work helps you realise how, through this measuring logic, the 'institutional teacher' is just another brick in the wall, and so are students, making education into a giant wall of sameness. Reading hooks allowed me to initiate these discussions with my students, questioning the instrumentalisation of education. This was better expressed by one of my students who said in one of my classes, "what I have learnt from hooks is that I am not an instrument and neither are you, I refuse to look at anybody as a number, now or at any given time".