Teaching to Transgress:
Education as the Practice
Review by Judy McKinley
Teaching to Transgress is another of many books by bell hooks that challenges the status quo and, by doing so, challenges readers to engage in and encourage critical thinking. This particular book focuses on education-grounded in hooks' experience as a black feminist academic-and is targeted to both teachers and students. In it, she talks about teaching as "fundamentally political" and "learning as revolutionary" (p.2}-acts that move beyond accepted boundaries by making education exciting and liberating.
Made up of a collection of writings and thoughts about education-emerging from the "mutually illuminating interplay of anticolonial, critical and feminist pedagogies" (p.l0) the book combines an analysis of conventional educational systems that "reinforce domination" with a resource of resistive strategies. hooks creates a rare meeting place that fills the gaps in radical pedagogies by naming and confronting exclusions as well as articulating a vision of "Revolutionary Values" (her second essay) which takes and learns from the best of each of these pedagogies.
The essays range from critiques of current feminism and feminist pedagogy ("Essentialism and Experience," "Feminist Thinking"), the excitement of engaged and passionate teaching ("Engaged Pedagogy," "Eros, Eroticism and the Pedagogical Process"), to dialogues between herself and a teaching colleague ("Building a Teaching Community"), and a playful dialogue with herself ("Paulo Freire"). This latter essay evidences the personal hooks; those who have found her style somewhat stuffy and inaccessible in the past may find this collection, and this essay in particular, revealing a more personal and informal side of the thinker. Sprinkled with examples of her classroom experiences, there are also anecdotes of discourses with students in her kitchen and correspondences with them long after they have left her classroom. It is through these disclosures that hooks reveals a lived feminism that substantiates her pedagogical theories.
In place of the notion of the classroom as centred around an instructor, hooks proposes the classroom as a collectively created environment where all participants share responsibility and have equal value. This is not a new feminist ideal but hooks does not shy away from discussing the difficulties that come with this transformation: "Indeed, exposing certain truths and biases in the classroom often [creates] chaos and confusion. ... [Teachers have] to confront the limitations of their training and knowledge, as well as a possible loss of 'authority'" (p.30). Also exposed is the subtle threat of professors who approach subjects progressively while their style is "mired in structures of domination." This highlights the importance of consistency in style and content, and the special responsibility of the teacher in creating a collective environment.
A key emphasis throughout the book is on the student and teacher as "whole" people. Where conventional education has emphasized the use of the mind in a supposedly neutral, unbiased context, hooks cites the importance of valuing the whole (family/society; mind/ body/spirit) student in a whole context, an approach she credits to her feminist influence and that of dedicated black women teachers at Booker T. Washington (before the shock of desegregation). She raises the importance of teachers sharing the impact of their thinking on their lives, and risking as they expect students to do. Her seemingly two most significant influences are Paulo Freire (a Brazilian educator) and Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher) both of whom emphasize the importance of the whole person and the educator's responsibility to examine their own identity and overall well- being, a process that hooks describes as a move towards "self-actualization."
Hooks' writing predominantly confronts racism, sexism, classism and capitalism in dominant structures, but neglects the same kind of focus on other issues. In the past she has been challenged by readers for her lack of inclusion of issues on sexual orientation. In this book, she raises homophobia anecdotally, but readers would benefit from a more substantial discussion on the impact of homophobia and other oppressions.