Teaching to Transgress

I’m currently in the middle of reading bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, a book I stumbled on while reading something else, actually.  I’ll start by saying that I’m a bit disappointed in it, but that’s not her fault or even mine; it’s simply the fault of time.  She published the book in 1994 and much has changed in the world since that time.  Her discussions of feminist pedagogy and multiculturalism (a word that sounds dated now, thankfully) are not nearly as cutting edge as they were then.  Note I don’t believe we’ve solved all or many of the problems she discusses, but I can at least see a major shift in the way we talk about teaching, a way that matches much more closely to what she was proposing.  In other words, there’s nothing really new for me in the book so far, but the ideas are all vaguely interesting.

However, there is one idea I think is timeless that she touches on, so I wanted to say a bit about it.  She argues that engaged pedagogy (one of the terms she uses) requires the professor to intentionally create community in her classroom.  This idea is one that repeats throughout the book so far, as she keeps coming back to it in different ways.  For her, one of the main ways of creating that community is by valuing every student’s voice, which also implies that she will hear every student’s voice at least once in class, something most of us would agree is a worthwhile goal.

When I’m asked about teaching, I’m asked about creating discussion in my classes more than anything else.  It’s also something I look for when I observe other professors teach.  Most of the books I read at least touch on it.  Clearly, discussion is something most people in the humanities want, but we all admit it is one of the most challenging parts about teaching.  hooks’s idea of community underlies our concerns about discussion.  She contrasts community with the idea of a “safe space,” as she argues that the former gives students the freedom to voice their ideas, even when they disagree with hers or the rest of the class, while the latter only exists when people ignore challenging subjects.  If there is real community, then people will truly feel safe to speak.

One small way she creates community that I found interesting was in having students do very short writings, often no more than a paragraph, about subjects related to the class.  At various times, she will call on students to read that paragraph.  She has students do these short writings, no matter the size of the class, and she has classes that sometimes hit a hundred students.  By asking the students to read that writing, she tries to communicate that their thoughts are valued, their voices are valued, and their voices are heard.

This assignment is small and easily managed, but I agree with her that it does help create a sense of community.  In my upper division courses, I have students do posts on Moodle (our online system), and I use those in class to generate discussion.  I tell the students I will call on them and ask them to share (in summary) what they wrote on Moodle, so they are prepared.  I also tell them I won’t call on them unless I think what they have said is worthwhile, so I’m not using this approach to embarrass them in any way.  Instead, when I call on them, I’m trying very clearly to validate their thought process.  In this way, I communicate to them that they have something worthwhile to say, which I hope will lead them to contribute at other times.  If nothing else, every student in those classes speaks at least once, often more.

It is difficult to create a sense of community with a group of students we only see forty-five hours or so over the course of four months.  However, it is worthwhile to attempt to craft that community, as it will benefit the students, while also making our jobs much more enjoyable and fulfilling.

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