Critical Digital Pedagogy's Application to Hikikomori (Japanese social isolates)

Last night I watched an Al Jazeera documentary about the Japanese condition of hikikomori. It made me think of bell hooks and Terry Eagleton.

Hikikomori turns adolescents and young adults into modern day hermits. Its central feature is a desire to remain confined to their home. These digital hermits spend their time online gaming and internet surfing. 

No underlying physical or mental condition can (yet) account for this extreme social isolation. Researchers say its angst and distress could begin with prior trauma and bad social experiences. It’s written that the condition rarely improves.

There are several suspected causes. Japan's fast-paced urbanization and technological progress; and its strict, competitive education system. There were 700,000 such isolates in Japan, with an average age of 31, as per a 2010 estimate. It’s spreading to other countries. 

The significance for our class is its connection to education. (15:45 to 17:40 in the embedded video below). Unaccredited free schools promise to return the students to themselves. They have been around since the 1980s. They serve as an alternative to Japan’s disciplined and rigorous schools. There were 7,424 such schools in 1992; the number has increased to 20,346 by 2017. 

Freedom, flexibility, and individuality characterize the safe environment these schools provide. The two minutes of the Al Jazeera video (noted above) reminded me of what we’ve studied and discussed. The ideas of play and spontaneity. Of the teacher not acting like a teacher. Of the students not being afraid to express themselves and have fun. The documentary does not mention Critical Digital Pedagogy, bell hooks, and Terry Eagleton. A cursory examination of free school literature doesn't, either. That doesn’t mean that free schools' evidence isn’t relevant.


"Teaching to Transgress" and "An Urgency of Teachers": The Individual and the Institutional Application of Critical Digital Pedagogy

I now see the value of first reading Teaching to Transgress before we came to An Urgency of Teachers. bell hooks’ journey is a private one (noted here). Her book reads as a memoir of her coming to theory as she made her way in the world of academia and beyond. For me, it was a good introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy. Her journey became my journey

An Urgency of Teachers touches on the same material. But it provides a more comprehensive look at the topic. It addresses all its stakeholders - teachers, students, administrators, governments, and corporations. Doing so, it provides a glimpse at the immensity, not to mention the duration, of the project. Indeed, there is much work to do. But there is hope. In The Significance of Theory (cited here), Terry Eagleton notes the light at the end of the tunnel. The need for Critical Digital Pedagogy dissolves when it has nothing more to restore. When it doesn't have to ask itself, What’s the matter here?

hooks’ book implies what it means to be human; An Urgency of Teachers states it. It discusses the concept of slipperiness (This is the first time I’ve ever heard the word used as a virtue). Critical digital pedagogy is slippery for two reasons. It claims relevance within classroom walls. And its relevance extends (slips) beyond into the complicated practice of being human. Slipperiness makes Critical Digital Pedagogy an effective teaching tool. It also offers a way to look at a world foregrounded in technology. In other words, its application is manifold.

Pieces are fitting into place. An Urgency of Teachers features words designed to pose questions. We can find a correlation with hooks and Eagleton. They believe that that the best way to effect change is to revert to the questioning mode of a child. To use words designed to do work in the world. As hooks notes, theory is useless unless it’s accompanied by praxis. The same points reiterated in different places reinforces the salience of our reading.

I’m a big fan of collective nouns. They are witty; they are memorable; and, characteristic-wise, they are spot-on. (Please indulge me for citing some here):

  • Apes: a shrewdness
  • Badgers: a cete
  • Bats: a colony, cloud or camp
  • Bears: a sloth or sleuth
  • Bees: a swarm
  • Buffalo: a gang or obstinacy
  • Camels: a caravan
  • Cats: a clowder or glaring; Kittens: a litter or kindle; Wild cats: a destruction
  • Cobras: a quiver
  • Crocodiles: a bask
  • Crows: a murder
  • Dogs: a pack; Puppies: a litter
  • Donkeys: a drove
  • Eagles: a convocation
  • Elephants: a parade
  • Elk: a gang or a herd
  • Falcons: a cast
  • Ferrets: a business
  • Fish: a school
  • Flamingos: a stand
  • Foxes: a skulk or leash
  • Frogs: an army
  • Geese: a gaggle
  • Giraffes: a tower
  • Gorillas: a band
  • Hippopotami: a bloat
  • Hyenas: a cackle
  • Jaguars: a shadow
  • Jellyfish: a smack
  • Kangaroos: a troop or mob
  • Lemurs: a conspiracy
  • Leopards: a leap
  • Lions: a pride
  • Moles: a labor
  • Monkeys: a barrel or troop
  • Mules: a pack
  • Otters: a family
  • Oxen: a team or yoke
  • Owls: a parliament
  • Parrots: a pandemonium
  • Pigs: a drift or drove (younger pigs), or a sounder or team (older pigs)
  • Porcupines: a prickle
  • Rabbits: a herd
  • Rats: a colony
  • Ravens: an unkindness
  • Rhinoceroses: a crash
  • Shark: a shiver
  • Skunk: a stench
  • Snakes: a nest
  • Squirrels: a dray or scurry
  • Stingrays: a fever
  • Swans: a bevy or game (if in flight: a wedge)
  • Tigers: an ambush or streak
  • Toads: a knot
  • Turkeys: a gang or rafter
  • Turtles: a bale or nest
  • Weasels: a colony, gang or pack
  • Whales: a pod, school, or gam
  • Wolves: a pack
  • Zebras: a zeal

Consider what we’re doing here. The imperative work we do to impact the heart and mind by an education that is concerned with the human. Doesn’t this effort merit its own collective noun? An Urgency of Teachers, indeed!


An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel

Critical pedagogy is as a philosophy and education approach slippery enough to find its way into almost every conversation. And so this book includes tangents towards digital humanities, education technology, digital writing, social justice, plagiarism and academic integrity, instructional design, and more. It is in the slipperiness of critical digital pedagogy that we find its most valuable application (...) 

This is work increasingly difficult in a world where the possibility of "being human" is not equally distributed - a world where who we can be be, the education available to us, the resources which may support our curiosity, our intelligence, our imaginations, has become more and more dependent on the technologies our institutions deploy. It is this unevenness, this inequity, that critical digital pedagogy seeks to rout.

And thus, our title "an urgency of teachers" describes the necessary shift we must make toward valuing more the work - affective, flawed, nuanced, unfolding - that teachers (all of them) do online and in classrooms, and also the important work wrought upon the heart and mind by an education is concerned with the human.

In a digital culture shaped by algorithms that neither know nor accurately portray truth, teaching has an import (urgent) role to play.

The words here were never mean to just sit on a page. They were always designed to pose questions. They were always designed to do work in the world.

 

 


Inept Acting and Better Teaching: Terry Eagleton's "The Significance of Theory"

bell hooks cites Terry Eagleton’s observation that children make the best theorists. Her citation warranted a visit to Eagleton’s essay, The Significance of Theory.
 
I like this essay for four reasons.
 
1. Eagleton writes that children take nothing for granted. Consider all their Why this and not that? questions. Brecht calls this the alienation effect. Don't identify with a character in a play. That way, you can muse about the performance as a whole. This alienation effect describes Critical Digital Pedagogy. Stepping back from we may otherwise do by rote can result in fresh thinking about how we teach as much as what we teach.
 
To effect this awareness, writes Eagleton, we can regress to childhood (question everything). Or we can become an inept actor. (See #1). This inept actor model correlates with my prior writing on hooks and theatre.
 
2. With jargon-free and practical terms, Eagleton notes when theory is (and is not - see #3) needed. At times, activities we take for granted (in our case, teaching) may come unstuck. This requires us to reflect on teaching. As Eagleton writes, The practice has now been forced to take itself as its own object of inquiry. By turning inward, (teaching) transforms itself. The result? For us, a revised teaching philosophy. 
 
How so? With purposeful amnesia. He cites how thinking about kissing messes up the actual kiss. This corresponds to hooks' prescription of spontaneity in the classroom.
 
3. He discusses the irony that emancipatory theory has a built-in self-destruct device. Theory responds to something amiss. Once we resolve the problem, it’s no longer urgent
 
4. Eagleton writes that emancipatory theorists can’t be megalomaniacs. hooks writes as much, too. They are too aware of themselves and their task to be dominating and self-serving. Along with their students, they are colleagues in the learning process.
 
My takeaways here, on my path to a revised teaching philosophy, are:
  • Understand the causes of this teaching crisis to better find a solution. I'm thinking, first, technology. It's assumptions, it's implementation, and its implications.
  • Emphasize the nature of spontaneous, free-flowing play in the classroom. We don't always have to follow a script.
  • Realize that change takes a long time. We’ll only know we’ve achieved our goal when we don’t have to ask ourselves, What’s wrong here? In the meantime, we must keep asking ourselves Why? Why? Why?

Terry Eagleton, The Significance of Theory

At the height of capitalist consumerism, American imperialism and the Civil Rights movement, it was becoming more and more difficult to conceal the fact that those areas of disinterested human enquiry known as academic institutions were in fact locked directly into the structures of technological dominance, military violence and ideological legitimation. A new, more socially heterogeneous student body, who could not be expected any longer spontaneously to share the cultural class-assumptions of their teachers, thus effected a kind of practical 'estrangement' of those assumptions, which forced them in turn into the new forms of critical self-reflection I have talked about already 'Theory' was born as a political intervention, whatever academic respectability it may since have achieved.


The Ecstasy and the Agony of EdTech: New Student Orientation, Fall 2020.

This past summer, I worked on the educational design of New Student Orientation. Our sudden veer to a 100% digital environment in the middle of Spring term challenged us. Remotely, we created a remote experience.
 
It was a triumph of technology. Forced to work from home, everyone and everything came together. We lived on two platforms: Zoom for communication, Blackboard for content. Colleges had their sessions; advisors had theirs. For the most part, everything came off without a hitch. It was an iterative process. Should we have to do it again - fingers crossed - we would do it even better. Soon we will return to a F2F student orientation. Still, I am confident we learned many lessons on the best use of technology.
 
One of the projects on which I worked was the Faculty Panel Videos. Tim Caron and Kim Costino conceived the project. It featured two sessions, four faculty members in one, three in the other. Tim asked the faculty to describe their student experiences. Their challenges, frustrations, and coping strategies. It was a fantastic idea that showed new students that their professors were once like them.
 
I remember thinking how I would respond to these questions were I on one of the Panels. One question in particular stuck with me. Based on your experience, what would you tell students so they could learn from your mistakes? My first response would have been, Get to know your professors during office hours. More than anything else, that will humanize your education.
 
I’d ask them to consider the various technologies they take for granted. Especially social media with its issues of privacy and the permanence of posts.
 
I’d conclude with an introduction to Turnitin. I would prefer they heard about it first in an informal talk during Orientation. I’d mention the five problems that “A Guide for Resisting EdTech: the Case Against Turnitin” lists:
  1. It undermines students’ authority over their own work
  2. It places students in a role of needing to be “policed.”
  3. It creates a hostile environment
  4. It supplants good teaching with use of inferior technology.
  5. And, last but not least, it violates student privacy.
I’d do so because it’s important that students don’t accept these technologies at face value. Educational technology plays a tug of war with student agency. Students need to know the costs as well as the benefits.

"Critical Pedagogy and Design," Sean Michael Morris

What lies at the heart of these literacies also forms the primary concern of critical digital pedagogy: that is, agency The agency to know, understand, and thereby be able to act upon, create, or resist one’s reality. For the student, this can mean anything from knowing how and why to read terms of service for a digital product or platform; recognizing the availability of networks and community in digital spaces, even in the LMS; understanding the multitude of ways that digital identity can be built, compromised, and protected; discovering methods for establishing presence and voice, and the wherewithal to reach out to others who are to discover the same.


Once Upon a Time in the Teaching of Art History

I had several expectations when I took this class. I wanted to revisit theory. I wanted to apply it to critical pedagogy. I wanted to share experiences with a like-minded community. And I wanted to revise my teaching philosophy statement.
 
So far, the class fulfilled my expectations. I worked through - and posted on - bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. I’m doing the same with An Urgency of Teachers. I am more comfortable, with more empowered by theory. (Also with art theory. To great profit, I’m taking an autodidact course on 20th century art theory. Already, it’s had a huge impact on my critical practice.) And I’m meeting monthly with - and reading weekly contributions by - a group of committed colleagues.
 
I can see how I can apply these lessons to my asynchronous and online introduction to art class. I have set hooks’ idea of play loose on the way I’m going to set things up for Fall 2021. I like her idea of comes off the throne to decenter authority granted there by droit du professeur. Of coming to voice with students, so that each class is a chorus (and here) and each term a performance. It’s going to be a fun summer.
 
As a result of this class, the structure of the class will alter to a great extent. So will the content. Introduction to art textbooks frustrate me. First, they cost too much. They’re not even coffee table books, of value after the term ends. I’m now part of the Immediate Access program here on campus. Enrollment in a class triggers an email from the publisher. Students have a prescribed amount of time to buy the book from a link within the email. It saves the bother of trundling off to campus to get a textbook. Better yet, the publisher finally got an eBook version that is readable on a tablet. Best of all, the price has gone down from $200 to $43. That last point alone is a huge selling point.
 
But there’s still the content. According to art critic Robert Hughes, pale penis people wrote textbook art history. This accounts for problems with exclusion. Publishers have addressed the issue but not, to my thinking, in a satisfactory way. Ham-fisted efforts to feature overlooked artists doesn't feel organic for a survey course. My goal is to write my own textbook, using relevant material available on the Web. But. That. Will. Take. More. Time. Than. I. Can. Currently. Afford. For now, it's a work in progress.
 
I had a problem with content that wasn’t inclusive, fair, or valid. And then it hit me. I had my evaluation three days ago. I discussed my goal to teach a comprehensive art history course. A class that would include everyone who, for any number of bad reasons, history had overlooked.
 
In the course of the conversation, the solution hit me. Structure and course and its content like a story.
 
Once upon a time there was a story of art. People who didn't know better called it THE story of art. It worked for awhile; but it didn't work well enough. There were a lot of artists who didn't fit the traditional demographic. A demographic determined by magisterial pale penis people. For that reason, history excluded them from THE story of art. Along came the Transgressive and Urgent Seventies. People of all ilks, persuasions, and enthusiasms said, Enough! We want a seat at the dinner party.
 
The content solution presented itself. (The structure solution is a joyous work in progress.) I will package the first half of the class as the Old Canon, white, Western, and withered. As in the problematic traditional textbooks. The second half will feature the New Canon. In the first class I’ll tell the story of how art history used to be. Then I’ll tell the story of how it should be. In that same first lecture, I’ll contextualize the story. I'll cite the whys and wherefores of the way it was, what the problems were. I’ll conclude with the whys and wherefores of why the old way was inadequate to present needs. No one gets knocked off their pedestal. Instead, I will increase the number of pedestals.
 
I will divide this restructured content into two parts. The Old and the burgeoning New Canon(s). Old Canon, until the midterm. New Canon, for the rest of the class. We will compare and contrast the two Canons. Students will see how art historians is write, codify, and revise the story of art. That empirical knowledge and qualitative assessments are dynamic, not static. That, as with any means of production, the study of cultural activity is relative. Not the production itself, but the way it’s considered. How a comprehensive of art means a fair history of art.
 
Thanks, bell hooks, I appreciate your inspiration, passion, and insight.

We Don't Need Your Algorithm: A Failure of Educational Technology

 

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time."

—from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot

bell hooks warns how computers could become more important than people. In my post You Say You Want a Revolution? Okay, But It Won’t Happen Overnight, I wrote:

She raised a tangential issue in “A Revolution of Values'' that interested me. The relationship between people and technology. She quotes Martin Luther King (bold face mine):

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 

Why is that highlight significant? Digital platforms and productivity apps could overrun the practice of teaching. We don’t need to adapt to computers; we need to adapt computers to us. Blackboard is a tool, an extension of our pedagogy. It must serve our needs.

 

You may be an early adapter to a current hardware or app. You may be curious. Either way, it’s easy to get caught up in technological zeal, educational and otherwise. Such zeal is not new. In 1933, psychologist Sidney Pressey created one of the first teaching machines. It looked like this:

Pressey teaching machine

By today’s standards, it wasn’t much. A clunky way to take multiple choice exams. They claim to relieve teachers of mechanical grading. They claim to make education more efficient, cheaper, and faster. Not to mention more responsive and engaging. I could see the benefit in one instance. If it did free up teachers so they could focus on responding to and engaging with their students.

Was Pressey's machine successful? If we gauge success by the quantity of work students did, then yes, it was. If quality is your measure, though, not so much. Especially his machines' promised responsiveness and engagement. Making rote learning easier doesn’t mean that rote learning is appropriate. There's his appalling excuse for this scientific and objective (read: male) technology. The ranks of subjective, emotional, and untrained (read: female) teachers. Don't. Get. Me. Started.

Fast forward 88 years. EdTech is in full throttle, long before the Coronavirus pandemic mandated virtual learning. The problem of responsiveness and engagement remains. Clicking is not the same thing as engaging. Clicking creates data; it doesn’t correlate to learning.

Audrey Watters warns us of EdTech’s misguided priorities. A focus on scores (grades), not on playing the game well (a student’s minds, bodies, and lives). She reminds us that educational technology is not a neutral, ahistorical, apolitical utility. It’s also a system and a practice; it’s a mindset embedded in schools.

If we’re not careful, such algorithms could dominate students’ lives. Machines, not teachers, could set parameters. Educational efficiency, compliance, and control could trump human dignity, agency, and freedom. The solution? Awareness. The tool? Critical pedagogy. The process? Human centering, or, to use bell hooks’ phrase, a coming to voice.


Rapture by Rupture: "Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning Without Limits"

At a summer arts program in Skowhegan, bell hooks reflected on her journey as a teacher. Her journey echoes and reinforces my own.

She talks about her teachers. Teachers who nurtured and guided her. Who taught her how to experience joy in learning. How to conceive of the classroom as a space for critical thinking to propel growth and change. A site where the exchange of information and ideas could lead to rapture. She paid these lessons forward. She mentions a conversation with a Skowhegan student. The student wanted to work with hooks for three reasons. Her classes weren't racist, sexist, or classist. I had teachers like this, from elementary to graduate school. I think of them each time I do class prep.

In this and other chapters, she notes that her journey was difficult. She describes it as taxing to the spirit. Challenges include institutional reluctance to address the banking system model of learning. The scourge of over-enrolled classes. The over-expenditure of empathetic energy. Students who don't her class. She cites her need to recharge, to get away from the classroom.

What drove her to continue? An abiding commitment to education as the practice of freedom. An engaged pedagogy that generates excitement in the classroom. A joy in the mutual engagement of thinking, writing and sharing of ideas. An enthusiastic Passion for teaching. The same Eros and Eroticism she discusses in the prior chapter. Freedom, excitement, joy, passion: that’s why I teach.

Was it worth it? Yes. She writes that she was often most joyous in the classroom. Time in the classroom, she writes, brought her closer (...) to the ecstatic than by most of life’s experiences. Me too. Much, much more satisfaction than from writing.

From my first post to this one, my thinking about theory has evolved. A lot. I didn't have a mentor, as she did. I didn't think of theory as a way to make sense of the world. At the time I didn't even think I needed to make sense of the world. My early posts? Intellectual juvenalia. Ignorance.

So too has my thinking about teaching evolved. Not so much my teaching itself; but my thinking about teaching. Now I’m aware of what I do. I agree with her about the inefficiency of evaluations. Since I began to teach my introduction to art class, I use what I call Course Takeaways. They tell me if I achieved my goals of showing that 1. Art is everywhere; 2. Art is accessible to everyone; and 3. There are no right or wrong answers in experiences of art. Each response follows from each student’s own unique life history. At the end of term, I ask students to answer a simple question. Has your relationship with art changed since the beginning of term? It’s a yes/no question meant to elicit feedback with which I could tweak my class. I tell students that it’s not mandatory; that it doesn’t take the place of PTEs.

When I began, I didn't expect much. A few sentences, if that. The quantity (a 225-page - and counting - document) and the quality of the responses, surprised me. The first one I received, years ago (I include it in the syllabus) was an eye-opener:

Throughout this course, my classmates and I have practiced “taking walks” with works of art that were presented to us. We walk with our eyes and try not to miss the tiny details. We want to gain a better understanding of what the artist is trying to communicate to us. Art can be seen as a form of communication from artist to viewer; it’s up to us to uncover the unspoken message. That being said, I think the present-day viewer can access the meaning to a centuries-old work of art by looking at it and using resources to gain a better understanding of it. I still believe our interpretation depends on our past experiences, range of knowledge, and values. Also, that the true meaning of a work of art comes from the artist himself/herself.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I have worked through Teaching to Transgress. I now have the means with which to describe and even appreciate what I am doing. I now realize that I was critically engaging with students. That I wasn’t working with a class of 120 students but instead with 120 individuals. That my teaching changed lives beyond the classroom, in a way that had nothing to do with their degree. That I did have a passionate commitment to teaching. I hesitate to describe my classroom performances as erotic or my deeds as acts of love. Still, I teach with enthusiasm and empathy. Is there room for improvement? Of course. Now I have the tools with which to work.

None of this would have occurred to me if I hadn’t read Teaching to Transgress. None. hooks bemoans how pedagogy is not seen as central to our intellectual and academic work. I now agree. Now I understand why I was so eager to take this class.


"Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning Without Limits"

"My models were the people who stepped outside of the conventional mind and who could actually stop my mind and completely open it up and free it, even for a moment, from a conventional, habitual way of looking at things...If you are really preparing for groundlessness, preparing for the reality of human existence, you are living on the razor's edge, and you must become used to the fact that things shift and change. Things are not certain and they do not last and you do not know what is going to happen. My teachers have always pushed me over the cliff ...", Pema Chodron, Tricycle, a journal of Buddhist thought

"The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to race reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom". bell hooks, Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning Without Limits, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom


Love in the Time of Title IX: "Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process"

In prior posts, I discussed the stagecraft of bell hooks’ Engaged Pedagogy. The way a professor leaves the podium. Moves around the classroom. Engages students on a physical as well as an intellectual level. This takes the professor off her throne. It shows she’s not a dictator intent on domination but a fellow voyager who shares the learning process. Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process takes this enhanced engagement one step further. It took time to come to terms with her argument. But I did.
 
As she’s written before, a professor is a mind with ideas as well as a body with presence, not to mention functions. She used to wonder, for instance, what teachers did when they had to go to the bathroom in the middle of class. This consideration of the professor’s body extends to other things, as well. To being erotically drawn to students, for instance. And vice versa. This is where things get complicated. hooks wrote Teaching to Transgress in 1994. Long before Tarana Burke began the Me Too Movement. On a regular basis we take online sexual misconduct classes. With that in mind, How a class would respond if, without any context, I asked:
 
Why do you feel that the regard I extend to a particular student cannot also extend to each of you? Why do you think there is not enough love or care to go around?
 
And how would I explain myself to campus administration?
 
That’s why definitions are key here. hooks provides a solution the mind/body split that plagues pedagogy. We should be whole and wholehearted in and out of the classroom. This corresponds to one of Critical Pedagogy’s aims. Professors and students can transform their consciousness to better know themselves. Fair enough.
 
There are problems, though, with the use of words like eros and eroticism. They could send a mixed message to young, impressionable and vulnerable students. hooks cites Diane Middlebrook who writes that we should not deny eros and the erotic. She herself writes that we should use erotic energy to enhance classroom discussion. She adds, with good reason: Teachers who love students and are loved by them are still suspect in the academy.
 
Without context, this word choice could lead to a slippery slope. Words like love, passion, eros, and eroticism are suspect in the academy. Students might construe them as less innocent than otherwise intended. She does provide clarification. She defines love as feeling to care and will to nurture. She suggests that eros motivates one to think differently about gender. That passion is rooted in a love of ideas.
 
In a prior post, I wrote how hooks describes Engaged Pedagogy as a coming to voice. She uses Eros and Eroticism as the means by which students are touched by knowledge. Coming to voice by being touched by knowledge. That’s an eloquent way to describe Engaged Critical Pedagogy.
 
This reevaluation of one’s self in relation to one’s students is a healthy process. To me, the benefits of self-actualization now are obvious, once I’ve worked through them. She writes how the philosophy of education for critical consciousness empowers her. At the same time, she admits that she still had problems putting theory into practice. So do/did I. Revolutionary though her ideas might be, they are nothing more than common sense. Problem is, common sense tends to be at a premium…
 
hooks concludes the chapter by writing: To restore passion to the classroom or to excite it in classrooms where it has never been, professors must find again the place of eros within ourselves and together allow the mind and body to feel and know desire. Passion, eros, and desire? Are these inflammatory words? Not if we use them in a different context. Use them as a means by which to live with authenticity and spontaneity in relation to the world. To teach and be willing to be taught means to give, to share, and to nurture with enthusiasm and with love.

Engaged Pedagogy as a Polyphonic Chorus: "Confronting Class in the Classroom"

I liked this chapter because it gave me words to express bell hooks’ pedagogical endgame. She embraces the democratic ideal of education for everyone. But it’s the solution - Coming to voice - that resonates with me. It encompasses everything she proposes, in this chapter and throughout the book.

She notes that class, not race or culture, determines values, standpoints, and interests. In particular, middle class norms shape and reinforce the pedagogical process. The effects are grim. Underprivileged students surrender identity benchmarks that make them them. One benchmark is their vernacular language. Why? They don't want to be called interlopers. She calls this an either/or predicament. Deny class origins or fail, in all aspects of the word. Karl Anderson calls this the most oppressive aspect of middle-class life. That is a profound and chilling statement.

Professors reinforce the schism. They may challenge racial bias and domination ideologies with their material. But they fail to reinforce these outcomes in their classrooms’ dynamics. She suggests a reason for professors’ reluctance. They fear that disruption of their traditional way of doing things implies a loss of control. As this book has shown, the problem, on many levels, is with preservation of and loss of control.

At a more pervasive level, she discusses the structure of academic settings. How they perpetuate class hierarchy. With vigor and clarity, she diagnoses this bleak situation. She also prescribes thoughtful solutions. She advocates for safe, non-judgmental critical thinking spaces. Here, everyone’s voice can be heard. Issues of class can be addressed. To address means to listen. Hearing what other people have to say creates a communal learning environment. This environment provides a way to cross borders. Crossing borders encourages students to become active agents in the pedagogical process. It enables them to move beyond the zero-sum game of Capitalism. The destination? A physical and mental space where they can embrace wholeness.

Create a safe space. Listen without judgement. Acknowledge all backgrounds irrespective of class, race, and culture. Embrace wholeness. Cultivate awareness. Encourage and celebrate voyages through and beyond background noise. Jane Ellen Wilson notes how we can voice our concerns as part of a larger song. hooks’ adds that this is a place where we can come to voice. Engaged pedagogy as a polyphonic chorus. Nice.


... "where my and our voices, can stand clear of the background noise and voice our concerns as part of a larger song"

"Only by coming to terms with my own past, my own background, and seeing that in the context of the world at large, have I begun to find my true voice and to understand that, since it is my own voice, that no pre-cut niche exists for it; that part of the work to be done is making a place, with others, where my and our voices, can stand clear of the background noise and voice our concerns as part of a larger song". Jane Ellen Wilson, Balancing Class Locations, Strangers in Paradise


The Flip Side of Something Lost in Translation: "Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words"

hooks wrote this essay inspired by Adrienne Rich’s poem, The Burning of Paper Instead of Children (See prior post). The poem discusses the poet’s frustration with language that can’t adequately describe the experience of oppression. It serves as a good starting point for a discussion on the imperialist nature of Standard English.

This is a powerful and poetic rumination on the way that Standard English dominated the lives of displaced black people. Dominate. Shame. Humiliate. Colonize. Slaughter. Conquest. These are the words hooks uses to describe the experience of chattel slaves who lost not only their freedom but their means by which to communicate with one another. If you’ve never considered this before, imagine being being sold, you, your family, your friends. Imagine being forcibly taken to a place that doesn’t speak your language; being forced to learn a new language, not in classes but in response to threats at work, with the highest stakes imaginable. I can’t. Would you view that imposed language as a language of oppression? I would.

It would never occur to me to resist at the level of language. But that’s what these chattel slaves did. They created a black vernacular, a counter-language that purposely mangled vocabulary and syntax. Speaking beyond the boundaries of conquest and domination, this counter-language created a site of resistance. Resistance? Yes, because white slave owners couldn’t understand it. These chattel slaves may have lost their African language but they gained the ability to communicate in plain sight of their oppressors.

hooks connects this black vernacular with rap music. Wildly popular if not wildly appreciated, it gets white people to listen if not respond and, perhaps, should they dig a little deeper into the lyrics’ etymology, be transformed.

She considers the reluctance of academic journals to publish pieces in black vernacular. In a prior post, I wondered if she had ever considered creating her own Academy. Similarly, I wonder if she had ever considered publishing her own journal, a niche journal, admittedly, one that would feature scholarly pieces written in black vernacular.

In the classroom, she asks non-native speakers to first write in their native tongue; then translate the result. The flip side of something lost in translation. Her purpose? So students didn't feel estranged by a dominant Standard English.

She elaborates. Here my skepticism accrues. Not entirely understanding what is being said in class - listening without mastery - creates a momentary silence, a space to learn. She proposes that students may only need to understand fragments of master narratives. Really? If I understand her argument correctly, then this requires a leap of faith, both in my ability to pull it off and in my students’ ability to digest it. 

I appreciate her criticism of Standard English used in the Academy. That it offers no intimate space for non-native speakers. I appreciate her characterization of black vernacular as purposefully ruptured, broken, and unruly. It delightfully is. When I weigh these poetic, spot-on observations against my classes’ specific requirements, though, I may be enchanted but am nonetheless not a little stymied at their practical application.

 


"The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" by Adrienne Rich

I was in danger of verbalizing my 
moral impulses out of existence.
--Daniel Berrigan, on trial in Baltimore

1. My neighbor, a scientist and art-collector, telephones me in a state of violent emotion. He tells me that my son and his, aged eleven and twelve, have on the last day of school burned a mathematics textbook in the backyard. He has forbidden my son to come to his house for a week, and has forbidden his own son to leave the house during that time. 

"The burning of a book," he says, "arouses terrible sensations in me, memories of Hitler; there are few things that upset me so much as the idea of burning a book."

Back there: the library, walled
with green Britannicas
Looking again
in Durer's Complete Works
for MELANCOLIA, the baffled woman

the crocodiles in Herodotus
the Book of the Dead
the Trial of Jeanne d'Arc, so blue
I think, It is her color

and they take the book away
because I dream of her too often

love and fear in a house
knowledge of the oppressor
I know it hurts to burn

2. To imagine a time of silence
or few words
a time of chemistry and music

the hollows above your buttocks
traced by my hand
or, hair is like flesh, you said

an age of long silence

relief

from this tongue        this slab of limestone
or reinforced concrete
fanatics and traders
dumped on this coast wildgreen clayred
that breathed once
in signals of smoke
sweep of the wind

knowledge of the oppressor
this is the oppressor's language

yet I need it to talk to you

3. People suffer highly in poverty and it takes dignity and intelligence to overcome this suffering. Some of the suffering are: a child did not had dinner last night: a child steal because he did not have money to buy it: to hear a mother say she do not have money to buy food for her children and to see a child without cloth it will make tears in your eyes.

(the fracture of order
the repair of speech
to overcome this suffering)

4. We lie under the sheet
after making love, speaking
of loneliness
relieved in a book
relived in a book
so on that page
the clot and fissure
of it appears
words of a man
in pain
a naked word
entering the clot
a hand grasping
through bars:

deliverance

What happens between us
has happened for centuries
we know it from literature

still it happens

sexual jealousy
outflung hand
beating bed

dryness of mouth
after panting

there are books that describe all this
and they are useless

You walk into the woods behind a house
there in that country
you find a temple
built eighteen hundred years ago
you enter without knowing
what it is you enter

so it is with us

no one knows what may happen
though the books tell everything

burn the texts         said Artaud

5. I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of today. How well we all spoke. A language is a map of our failures. Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton's. People suffer highly in poverty. There are methods but we do not use them. Joan, who could not read, spoke some peasant form of French. Some of the suffering are: it is hard to tell the truth; this is America; I cannot touch you now. In America we have only the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor's language. 




"Building a Teaching Community: A Dialogue" (3)

I appreciate bells hooks’ monumental mission to reconceptualize engaged pedagogy. I understand what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. I wonder, though, are these otherwise well-conceived ideas practical in public and private institutions? Her colleague Ron Scapp says that the institution will exhaust us simply because there is no sustained institutional support for liberatory pedagogical practices. Indeed, these ideas are revolutionary and comprehensive. Perhaps too revolutionary and comprehensive for extant school systems and their administrative bureaucracies, budgetary concerns, and union oversight.

  • hooks writes of the challenge that a commitment to liberatory pedagogical practices faces when her classes become too large. 
  • To maintain excitement in a classroom, teachers should be able to move from institution to institution. Lecturers do so, by necessity. They’re called Road Scholars. Would tenured professors buy into that?
  • She suggests that overcrowded classrooms could conceivably become spectacles
  • Professors must make students aware of the learning process at the same time they are teaching the class. How important is it for students to share the same assumptions about learning?

It’s a matter of sampling. Some ideas I can use immediately. Some I can incorporate into my classes down the road. I think that that’s the most practical application of the content of Learning to Transgress. Take what you need.

I think that’s the way she conceived her mission to reconceptualize engaged pedagogy. As a user’s manual. A lot of what she proposes is at the institutional level; a level where buy-in would be a challenge.

What I would like to know if she ever thought to become entrepreneurial about her enterprise. Create - franchise, perhaps - a peripatetic Engaged Pedagogical Academy. Just like Plato. It would solve the problems of class size; of grades; of not being stuck in one place; of sorting through assumptions students bring to their education; of incorporating content with classroom performance into a meta-performance of openness, sharing, and breakthroughs. God knows I would attend.


"Building a Teaching Community: A Dialogue" (2)

In a prior post, I suggested that the practice of liberatory pedagogy could be compared to theatre and performance. The comparison becomes more apparent in this chapter. 

  • It’s said that engaging in dialogue is one of the simplest ways that teachers can cross the boundaries that divide them from their students. Dialogue drives theatre.
  • There's the fear on the part of professors to makes themselves vulnerable to their students - and vice versa. It's called stage fright.
  • The student’s awareness of the professor's body as she leaves the podium and walks around the classroom. Moving through the class with an awareness of how the professor conducts herself in the classroom, hooks writes, erases traditional power structures in the classroom. By emphasizing the body, teachers can show how they’re not omnipotent and all-knowing beings. By extension, it suggests that content is not objective and neutral. (She would have no way of knowing how COVID-19 mandated virtual classrooms.) Consideration of the way the body moves through and operates in the classroom is known as blocking. The embodiment of posture, tone, word choice is known as performance.
  • One way to challenge the alleged un-interestingness of a subject is to forego a lesson plan’s set agenda and read the mood of the class, and ask what can be done with it. Reading the mood of a class; I can’t imagine a better example of improvisation.
  • An engaged teacher is in the present; recognizes that a classroom is never the same; it’s dynamic; it’s fluid; it’s always changing. Night to night, no single performance is ever the same. This is a fine description of acting.
  • So is the professor who is engaged fully, deeply, with the act of teaching.

"Building a Teaching Community: A Dialogue" (1)

bell hooks structures this chapter as a discussion between her colleague Ron Scapp and herself. This structure creates critical space where the free and frank, abstract and concrete, academic and personal discussion of ideas could be engaged.

A lot of what she says about reconceptualizing engaged pedagogy to engage her students more fully resonates with me. 

  • Cultural studies must combine theory and practice. Check
  • All points of view - various permutations of race and gender - must be considered. Check
  • Because she identifies herself as a writer first, then a teacher, she came to teaching with no pedagogical shibboleths. Me, too. Check
  • These engaged pedagogical strategies benefit herself as much as they benefit her students. Check.
  • You can’t just pay lip service to liberatory pedagogy (Talk the talk) without  engaging with and enacting them (Walk the walk). Check.
  • Decenter the teacher’s voice; encourage her to listen. Check
  • Giving students freedom in the classroom so that teachers and students can work together does not lead to chaos. Check.
  • Acknowledge those precious moments when a student changes your way of thinking. Check
  • Realizing that this type of learning process is difficult (and painful; and troubling); that it takes time. Check
  • That learning is hard work but it’s also joyful. Check
  • That mutual sharing in the classroom elicits emotions which in turn lead to therapeutic breakthroughs. Check
  • Maintain high standards but de-emphasize the role of grades. Check. 
  • Promote active participation in students. Check
  • Recognize that being a teacher means to be with people. Check
  • Understand that professors need to be aware of their presence in the classroom and acknowledge what brought them to that point. Check.
  • Teachers must be aware of what they say and how they say it. Check
  • Appreciate the importance of sharing personal narratives that link knowledge with academic information. Check
  • Affirm the value of student voices. Check
  • Realizing that what what happens in a classroom, really, is the formation of a learning community. (Just like this class!) Check.

But there are issues that need to be addressed. A lot of what hooks writes she calls experiments

  • Are classrooms the proper venue to conduct experiments?
  • She writes that students may not be comfortable with a classroom that doesn’t correspond with their familiar banking system of learning. How to address that?
  • She calls it a tragedy that professors at repressive public institutions (CSUDH?) assume that students see themselves as having nothing valuable to offer. Really?
  • She describes a fear that students may have when they see how the professor is no longer the captain of the ship but one of the passengers. Really?

"All border crossings must be seen as valid and legitimate"

"When I began this collection of essays, I was particularly interested in challenging the assumption that there could be no points of connection and camaraderie between white male scholars (often seen, rightly or wrongly, as representing the embodiment of power and privilege of oppressive hierarchy) and marginalized groups (women of all races or ethnicities, and men of color". bell hooks, "Building a Teaching Community: A Dialogue", from Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom


Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: "Feminist Scholarship: Black Scholars"

bells hooks writes that she embraced critical theory to help her make sense of her life. When she began to research feminist scholarship, though, she found a gap. Female feminist scholars described the experience of being a woman. They would reverse engineer the architecture of their lived reality. This showed them how gender differences were socially constructed. The problem is, hooks noted, white women detailed their white experiences. She found no feminist scholarship that described the distinct experiences of black women. She wondered, am I black first or am I woman first? (Until I heard this song, I used to wonder about such uses of indefinite articles.)

She addressed the oversight. Focusing her efforts against what she calls the universalization of “Women”, she wrote Ain’t I a Woman? Her goal? Create a critical space for black female academics.

We can find such a space in Feminist Scholarship: Black Scholars. In it, she looks at black experience from a feminist viewpoint. She calls out certain black and white female academics. They appropriate gender issues without refracting them through a feminist lens. Not doing so invalidates otherwise good work. Thinking about gender, she writes, doesn’t make one a feminist.

As an undergrad, I studied how the French, American, and Russian Revolutions affected art. They were survey courses. We would spend a week or two, sometimes half a term, on each period. The classes simplified the dynamics of each era. Because I didn't know better, I assumed revolutions were that black and white.

In graduate school, I realized how such survey courses skewed my approach to art. I found, scoured through, and evaluated source material. I learned that societal upheavals feature many pieces. They start and stop, moving in all directions at the same time. I learned what really went on with art during those periods. Upheavals, with their reevaluations of values, are not a simple matter.

I appreciate hooks’ work in this chapter. She takes the revolution known as Feminism, finds what’s lacking, and works to make it whole. She moves from the personal - her experience - to the general - the experience of all women. I have bought into her thought process. I have yet to see, though, how I can apply such thinking to my introduction to art courses. An introductory lecture that turns dreary, anodyne textbooks on their head? Discussions that show why these textbooks need to be turned on their heads? Seeing how it would benefit each student - not to mention myself - it’s a challenge to which I look forward.


Battles Worth Waging: "Feminist Thinking: In the Classroom Right Now"

In this chapter, bell hooks addresses issues that feminists face. Once overcome, the benefits would be legion. Women will become more empowered, more aware. They will (grow) in their feminist consciousness. The benefits extend to men, as well. She writes about a black male student in her African American literature class. He experienced an awakening when he learned about gender and feminist standpoints.
 
But there will be downsides. This process of feminist politicization requires new ways of seeing, talking, and thinking. Conflicts will ensue. She calls conflict a catalyst that can lead to new thinking and growth. To clarify her argument, she makes a distinction between the feminist classroom and a Women's Studies Course.
 
Among the issues she addresses: the accusation that feminism is a private cult. The perception that the feminist classroom is a site of conflict. That feminist thinking might change how women relate to fathers, lovers, and friends. That women might be isolated and attacked. These are formidable accusations.
 
These challenges are necessary, though. Ending sexism and racism will not happen overnight. Turning theory into praxis. Turning praxis into buy-in, execution, and evaluation. Dealing with both social and personal struggles. It will take time. It will take perseverance. It will take commitment. She says that the transformation of consciousness is the first stage of the process. If women can march past this first stage, they will hold the key to liberation.
 
My first step is awareness of issues that frame the discussion. This awareness will inform how I teach, structure, and manage future classes. When I teach a class of 120 students, I teach them as 120 individuals, not a block of 120 students. That’s not enough. I need to become more granular in the way I conceive and execute assignments, discussions, and assessments. My goals are not as lofty as hooks’ goals. As a teacher, though, they are no less important.
 
 
 
 
 

Breaking Bread with bell hooks: Holding My Sister's Hand

In Holding My Sister's Hand, bell hooks discusses how black and white women need to come to terms with their historical servant/mistress of the house relationship. The relationship began with jealousy, rivalry, and sexual competition (black women, white men). It's effects continue to this day. This friction is based on fear. Black women fear betrayal if they acknowledge otherwise friendly overtures by white women. White women fear exposure if they make such overtures. The solution? hooks proposes two. Both involve the breaking of bread. First, feminist psychoanalysis that examines these feelings of fear and the relational dynamics they produce. Second, a safe space that would foster a discussion of white female racism and black female response. This productive space would create a blameless context in which to engage in critical dialogue, critical dissent. A space to let go of the hurt. listening space to encourage meaningful bonding. 

I like how hooks works through the issue as she writes. This gives us insight into how she identifies problems, how she proposes solutions. The identifications are universal. The solutions are provisional, as they should be. Often she prefaces them with perhaps and maybe. She does this so we apply what we learn in Teaching to Transgress to our individual cases.

She understands the enormity of the task: to get everyone on the same page. She understands the historical dimension of the issues and their contemporary relevance. She understands that it will take a lot of work. Mostly, she understands that it can't begin without the airing out of grievances. Only then can healing begin.

This chapter gave me insight into her use of words like disrupt, challenge, transgress, and critical dissent. In my second go-round through the book, I've tried to come to terms with these words. I wondered if they suited our particular purposes. Now I see they do. The disruptive, challenging, and trangressive nature of what she proposes is nothing more than a frank and sincere exchange of ideas. It suggests that the best way to change society is to begin with a meaningful connection. In a contentious society, to engage in a meaningful connection is to assume a radical position.

 


Do Not Follow In bell hooks' Footsteps. Seek What She Sought

I’m getting deeper into bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. Not deeper as in further along; but deeper into what she can teach us about Critical Digital Pedagogy. I separate her personal experience, her personal struggles which are hers alone, from her methodology and thought processes, which can serve a practical function. I think of the words of Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet who wrote, Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. Indeed. What does she seek? A pedagogical strategy that affirms (students’) presence, their right to speak, in multiple ways on diverse topics. The humility to allow her students to teach her. To work with the passion of experience, the passion of remembrance. I take away from this a commitment to engagement.

I teach an introduction to art class. I’ve taught it for 6 years, on 3 platforms: F2F, DHTV, and online. Because it’s a general ed course, I get students from all disciplines. Because it’s CSUDH, I get a broad spectrum of students. Most have had no exposure to art. When I created - and continue to tweak - the class, I wanted to demystify the experience of art. 

One of the ways I demystify the experience of art is with weekly assignments. I emphasize experience, not rote. I divide the course into two parts. The first part runs through the midterm. I call it Descriptive Vocabulary. We cover Themes, Visual Elements, Principles of Design and the Materials of Art. In it, students learn the language of art. (I devote the second part of the course into what I call Functional Art History, the way that art’s purpose changes over time).

One of the weekly assignments is called Let’s Take a Walk. I call it that because that’s what I want students to do - take a walk over, into, around a work of art using nothing but their eyes. (The experience of visual art, I explain, begins with the eyes.) Don’t prejudge it. Look first. Then relate. Then evaluate.

I post an image of a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a work of architecture. I ask the students to respond to it, in whatever way moves them. Some write poems; some write short stories (Imagine such a narrative that combines vampires and Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise!). Most of the students write of their journey with the work (Van Gogh's Starry Night: I’m first drawn to the swirling lines of the clouds in the night sky punctuated by pinpricks of light. It’s like walking out of a bar at closing time (A student’s account; not mine). It’s like the sky is alive and speaking to me, and so on). The only requirement is to engage with the work, describe what they see and then - key point- relate it to something in their life. I tell them there is no wrong response; only their response. (I point that out multiple times in the syllabus, as well). Their response, I say, will differ from that of other students because each student brings different life experiences to their Walk. That’s why art is said to be open-ended. 

In the first few weeks of class, students lack a Descriptive Vocabulary (such as color, line, shape, texture, rhythm, emphasis and subordination). They still respond with always-surprising, spot-on assessments of formal elements, even if they don’t know their actual names. More to the point, they respond with evocative and perceptive experiences, heartfelt, sincere, and uniquely theirs. In my introductory lecture, I tell them they know a lot more about art than they think they do.

I emphasize that I don’t expect a perfect Walk (as if that exists in the first place). What I want instead is their own Walk, one that documents their own unique journey. By the second week, students  are no longer intimidated by Art with a capital A. It’s something to experience. They don’t have to like it, I tell them. I do hope that they’ll at least give it a chance, to appreciate it, whether it’s cave paintings or work from the 21st century. 

The engagement continues. Each week I post an Announcement called Weekly Awesomeness. In it I share ten responses to the same Walk or thought questions I call Questions of the Day. I introduce it by showing the range of responses that artworks or thought questions about art elicit. Invariably there will be an exceptional response. I mean, truly exceptional. I share that as A Very Cool Walk or A Very Cool Question of the Day. Finally, each time I grade an assignment (240 - 360 per week) I follow my assessment of their submission with something I call My Take. In it I respond to the same Question of the Day or Let’s Take a Walk as they do. I don’t hesitate to thank a student for giving me new insight into a thought problem (I never thought of it that way before) or Walk (I’ll never look at it the same way again.) I continue to remind students that the purpose of these shares is to show how art means whatever they bring to it. How we can learn from each other. More than anything else, these shares are what students note in their PTEs.

bell hooks spends a lot of Essentialism and Experience fighting the good fight. She takes umbrage at Essentialist strategies that only target marginalized groups, that espouse totalizing truths. I’m more interested in what she has to teach about teaching. Be humble. Be inclusive. Be engaged. Teach from a position of passionate experience, of passionate remembrance.


Theory as Liberatory Practice: A Primer on the Use and Abuse of Theory

Theory as Liberatory Practice is a pragmatic chapter. It helps me come to terms with bell hooks' need for and use of theory. Throughout the book, I ask myself, What are theory's characteristics? Its function? How does it connect to life and action? By implication, how does it relate to teaching in a digital classroom? This chapter answers these questions.

HER NEED FOR THEORY

As a child, she couldn't relate to her parents, her experiences, her education. As noted in the prior post, Everyone Needs a Mentor: bell hooks and Paulo Freire, theory gave her a language to articulate and then respond to questions she had about her identity. (Her precociousness, I believe, comes from asking such questions in the first place.) This chapter described her experience with theory as an almost palpable thing that provided succor. I appreciated how she called out bogus applications of theory. Bogus applications of theory decades before (See the prior post, Theory and Me: No Love Lost) had left such a bad taste in my mouth. Now I see the benefit of theory. Though her causes and arguments aren't necessarily my causes and arguments, I can appreciate the fundamental use of theory in teaching in a digital environment.

CHARACTERISTICS OF THEORY

Theory shouldn't:

  • Divide
  • Separate
  • Exclude
  • Keep at a distance
  • Silent, censor, or devalue voices
  • Serve as an instrument of domination (homophobia; race; class, sexism; imperialism)

Theory should:

  • Question prevailing social practices, if not from a position of pain then at least from a desire to understand and shape one's reality
  • Serve a healing, liberatory function
  • Offer a sanctuary, a place to belong, to understand what is happening
  • Ensue from and connect to everyday life
  • Reinforce its connection with practice
  • Be understood in everyday conversation
  • Act as a catalyst for social change across false boundaries

THE ONGOING NEED FOR THEORY

She writes that the need for and use of theory never ends. Strategies to confront ignorance-based predicaments and issues become obsolete. Theory provides a means to understand and then engage these predicaments and issues in order to transform current realities. 

A SUCCESSFUL APPLICATION OF THEORY

...the efforts of black women and women of color challenge and deconstruct the category "woman" - the insistence on recognition that gender is not the sole factor determining constructions of femaleness - was a critical intervention, one which led to a profound revolution in feminist thought and truly interrogated and disrupted the hegemonic feminist theory produced primarily by academic women, most of whom were white.

THE BOGUS APPLICATION OF THEORY

It is evident that one of the many uses of theory in academic locations is in the production of an intellectual class hierarchy where the only work deemed truly theoretical is work that is highly abstract, jargonistic, difficult to read, and containing obscure references.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

In the chapter, she recounts a conversation with a black woman. This woman was less interested in hooks' theory and rhetoric, more interested in action. That was my reaction to the art-speak I found in theory-driven  reviews; art-speak I thought was representative of legitimate theory-driven art criticism. I wanted to be a critic, curator, museum director, and educator who would make art accessible to everyone. That became my elevator pitch: Make. Art. Accessible. As a museum professional, I focused on education. As a critic, I created What the Butler Saw. I continue that mission with the way I teach my online introduction to art classes.

As for my first exposure to and reaction from bogus theory, I was wrong; very, very wrong. It didn't occur to me that these arcane utterances were, to use hooks' criteria, unworthy of the phrase critical theory. With respect to what I conceived to be my audience - the general public; not those who read cutting edge art magazines - these reviews served to divide, separate, exclude, keep at a distance, and devalue, in short, to serve as an instrument of an Us versus Them domination.


Everyone Needs a Mentor: bell hooks and Paulo Freire

bell hooks had a problem. As a student, she realized that, because of her skin color, gender, and economic status, she didn't fit in academically or socially. Professors, she felt, taught an alien phallocentric paradigm of liberation. They spoke a language of oppression that alienated her. The oppression was inscribed in her courses’ pedagogy. Intuitively, by necessity, she reflected on her social reality, about her status as an object, not as a subject. Without a language to describe her status, though, she couldn’t do anything to change it. She felt frustrated. 

Enter Paulo Freire. His writings - and later, his character - inspired her. He introduced her to conscientization, a critical and liberatory awareness of one’s social reality. To understand one’s place in the world, he wrote, construct a resistance identity based on your political circumstance. Already interested in the way that race and class shape female identity, she found in Freire a language to frame her critiques of the prevailing systems of oppression she faced in and out of the classroom. He showed her how to place American racism in the context of global colonialism. As she learned, countering oppression and domination first requires a sense of self. hooks credits Freire with giving her the language to describe - and act upon - her struggle for racial and gender desegregation.

Transformation, she learned, is a two-step process. Critical consciousness is not an end in itself. Otherwise progressive movements fail, she writes, because they provide no practical applications to their theoretical foundations. Before Freire, she admits that was a revolutionary in the abstract but not in (her) daily (life). Now she had a framework with which to critique prevailing racist paradigms. With these critiques, she could use this resistance identity as a teacher and a writer to transform people from uncomplicated objects to complex subjects, to make them free.

For our purposes, Freire inspired her to understand education as the practice of freedom. Freedom from domination based on stereotypes and ignorance. More to the point, based on his example, she realized that it’s not enough to understand the practice of freedom, it’s crucial to live it, day by day, in and out of the classroom.

I now understand my prior frustrations with critical theory (see prior post, Theory and Me: No Love Lost). I didn't have an innate bias toward abstractions. No, I tried to find answers to questions about art that I didn't know how to frame for lack of a critical language. What I needed - and didn't know to seek - was a mentor; an intellectual godfather; a sympathetic ear. It makes sense to me, now.


Estrangement and Community: Teaching in a Multicultural World 

In Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World, bell hooks shows how to build an inclusive, critically aware classroom. It’s based on a simple premise: a professor that embraces individual students’ multicultural experiences as central and significant can foster a climate of free expression. The climate at present  is murky because, as she suggests, minority students are treated as objects, not subjects. The premise, for the most part, is solid; the implications for me at the moment, not so much.

Step one. Define a classroom as a space of constructive confrontation and critical interrogation. Why? Because a critically unconscious professor, unaware of sex, race, and class, nonetheless works, presumably unwittingly, from a political point of view. This oversight requires confrontation (constructive or otherwise) and interrogation (if not requests for clarification). Why? Because teaching, she says, is not politically neutral. She implies that a while male professor in a university art department (me) who only discusses work made by great men is making a political decision. She dreams of a learning space, a democratic setting, where everyone feels the responsibility (might it be an obligation?) to interrogate biases of conventional canons, to decenter the West. This is a lot to digest in an introduction to art course. Not that it can’t be managed. For the moment, though, I’ll let the idea hover meta-like above my digital classroom.

Step two. Realize that a paradigm shift makes for a rocky ride. That. There. Will. Be. Pain.  (See constructive confrontation and critical interrogation, above.) She wants to build a community that is not based on safety but on a shared commitment to value individual voices. Are safety and respect mutually exclusive? This community’s ultimate goal? As she wrote elsewhere, intellectual development and fuller-lived lives. That, I would hope, is the goal for all of us.

She admits that critical pedagogy’s a challenge for professors and students. Professors, for their part,  must forego immediate gratification. Though I like the idea of the metaphor of the professor as a constant gardener waiting for seeds to flower, in a rocky soil, no less, I’m not sure how that fits in with bureaucratic necessities like PTEs, graduate school and job recommendation letters, and even financial aid. Nor can I see how this reflects students’ own desire for immediate gratification. Finals, done - grades now! We do, after all, operate with term-mandated time parameters driven by quantitative metrics, not existential contingencies. She adds that such a pedagogy may create estrangement. She says that this estrangement is the m.o. of a community that interrogates ideas and ways of being. To my thinking, she implies that estrangement is a necessary evil. Please convince me that induced estrangement is not a desired outcome, even in an aware classroom.






You Say You Want a Revolution? Okay, But It Won’t Happen Overnight

bell hooks proposes a revolution. She advocates a reassessment of values to revivify a corrupt and dying academy. This revolution would transform how we view interactions between methodologies, content, and teacher/student relationships. It would renew the minds of professors and, thus, of educational institutions.

She calls the struggle protracted. This revolution would need patience and vigilance. The same patience and vigilance that the civil rights and feminist movements needed. In other words, it won’t happen overnight. At the same time, she discusses the antagonism that would go with the process. She quotes Peter McLaren, who, in an interview, said:

When we try to make culture an undisturbed space of harmony and agreement where social relations exist within cultural forms of uninterrupted accords we subscribe to a form of social amnesia in which we forget that all knowledge is forged in histories that are played out in the field of social antagonisms. 

I’m not sure how social antagonisms would play out in my online classroom, much less the form they would take. Couple that with previous mentions of disruptions. That’s how I’d define my biggest challenge in this revolution of values: How to deal with change? hooks anticipated my concern. Most professors lacked strategies to deal with antagonisms in the classroom. Once I define the words antagonisms and disruptions, I’ll be better equipped to address the issue.

She raised a tangential issue in “A Revolution of Values'' that interested me. The relationship between people and technology. She quotes Martin Luther King (bold face mine):

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 

Why is that highlight significant? Digital platforms and productivity apps could overrun the practice of teaching. We don’t need to adapt to computers; we need to adapt computers to us. Blackboard is a tool, an extension of our pedagogy. It must serve our needs.

Five years ago, I set up my online introduction to art class. My goal was to replicate the academic and personal engagement I encouraged in my F2F classes. This was long before the pandemic events of Spring 2020, during an era I call B.C., before Coronavirus. (I’ll call the post- quarantine era A.D, after distancing.) N.B. In my case, I’ll continue to teach online once the quarantine ends.

Engagement motivated and guided the transition from F2F to online. Blackboard limitations? How to encourage and sustain the three-sided conversations (trialogues?) with students, material, and myself? I created workarounds. I would reject anything that would compromise what I wanted to do.

It’s a work in progress. It will take time. A lot of time. Things change. We’re now using the Ultra version of Blackboard. What impact will that have? The process is will take time. As hooks wrote in another context, it will need patience and vigilance. Mini success, mini solutions, relentless forward progress. Not so much a quantum leap but an evolving paradigm shift.


Engaged Pedagogy? Count Me In!

In one chapter of Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks likens un-engaged pedagogy to an assembly line approach to learning. Receive-recite-repeat. In another, she uses a banking metaphor, the professor deposits information; the fee-paying student withdraws it on an as-needed basis (I liken it to paying a surcharge on a withdrawal). Such systems - bourgeoisie, she calls them - promote a mind/body split. Knowledge, yes. How to live? No. Professors, she writes, show no concern for inner well-being, their own or that of their students. The result, she continues, is control, not enlightenment. Professors rule over mini kingdoms; students serve as vassals. 

She also dissects course content. What un-engaged professors offer is information (aka the will to know; aka book knowledge). What they should offer is information and personal growth (aka the will to become; aka how to live in the world; aka life experiences.) Connecting the two modes (what is learned + life experiences) results in what she calls liberatory education

Liberatory education is a holistic model of learning. Demoting the mind/body split, students and professors evolve from passive consumers to active participants in the full experience of learning. Here, critically-aware professors value student expression. They respond to students as unique beings. If professors can establish credibility by making themselves vulnerable (“linking confessional narrative to academic discussion”), students can also value professor expression. The result? Mini kingdoms become hostels. A healing of the rifts between mind and body, knowledge and experience, life in the classroom and life beyond the classroom, and, ultimately, professor and student. 

Of course, professors have to buy into self-actualization. They have to acknowledge there’s a problem with the way they approach their teaching in terms of course structure, content narrative and classroom performance, and then make necessary changes. Acknowledging that a doctorate does not signal an end to learning, will they make themselves vulnerable by admitting that their own education in-and-out of the classroom is an ongoing process? If yes, will they make their teaching relevant not just to a student’s pursuit of a degree but to the desire for a  life well-lived?

So do students. How will they respond to newly self-actualized professors and reimagined courses? For that matter, how to apply this to digital teaching, which presents a unique set of challenges. That’s Step 2 of our process. First, come to terms with Teaching to Transgress and its F2F assumptions.

The approach works well for an introductory art history course. From the student’s point of view, stress that there are no wrong answers when evaluating a work of art. Stress that a student’s understanding of a work of art does not come from a professor, a critic, or an art historian; it comes from within themselves. Stress that there’s only the student’s particular response, based on their life history, their culture, their spirituality on anything that makes them unique.  At the same time, reinforce that the professor’s response to a work of art is just that, a professor’s response. Not better; not worse. Just one of many. The interpretation of art is open-ended. Art is life. It has as many meanings as it has viewers. 


From Pedagogy to Dramaturgy: bell hooks’ World is a Stage

bell hooks says that there’s a crisis in education. She doesn’t specify whether it’s kindergarten through college or just at the college level. Let’s assume, for our purposes, it’s at the college level. The crisis? Students don’t want to learn; teachers don’t want to teach. Without any specifics, any citations, that statement is too general. We’d spend too much defining the crisis before we got around to working through her solution. For the moment, I will assume there is a crisis and then pose the question, Can the crisis in education be resolved? Given how the book proposes solutions to the crisis, I’m going to respond, Yes. That makes the book manageable, for me.

She claims that the current state of education is boring; that colonial pedagogy (white; racist) is based on a banking system of deposits and withdrawals of information. It falls short because it doesn’t show students how to live outside the classroom. Why is that? For starts, she writes that it’s because teachers aren’t self-actualized. Her goal: Disrupt the process. Push against and go beyond status quo boundaries. Re-describe education as freedom. Encourage a collective effort of professors and students. encourage excitement, recognition of the presence of all students, and spontaneity (no fixed agenda) in order to create a place of promise and possibility, where the spontaneous coexists with academic engagement.

After one read of the book, I’m still not sure if her crisis is my crisis. That’s what we’re addressing here, how her book addresses our individual classes. I haven’t yet sorted through, much less evaluated, her arguments that support a particular course of action. I will say this, however: when she wrote that Teaching is a performative act and that We need to create a space for experience, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because I understand her argument in terms of theatre.

The theatrical metaphor works well here.

  • A bad script (sacred, unalterable, and anachronistic pedagogy).
  • A segregated, poorly designed stage (the physical layout of a classroom).
    • A proscenium stage versus a thrust stage; or a theatre in the round; or a black box theatre.
  • An omnipotent though clueless director (un-self-realized professors).
  • An eager though unengaged - and paying - audience (bored students).
  • Dramaturgy
    • Explore how the relationship between front- and backstage personas enables, for better or worse, identity formation.

Sorting Things Out: Sort Of

Having read Teaching to Transgress a first - and certainly not the last - time, I (we) need to come to terms with some words:

  • freedom
  • disruption
  • transgress
  • excitement
  • presence
  • interrogate
  • self-actualized
  • intervention
  • process
  • crisis
  • eros & eroticism
  • love
  • desire

and some issues:

  • Is this a memoir or a book on theory? Is it a hybrid?
  • Are her life experiences general enough to serve as a template for us?
  • On a pragmatic level, does her pedagogy, informed by feminist, critical, and anti-colonial theory, provide insight into the teaching of both the hard as well as the soft sciences?
  • And mostly, once I (we) sort these words and issues out, what is the book’s relevance to not just pedagogy but to digital pedagogy?

Theory and Me: No Love Lost

I just finished reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. I had a visceral reaction to the book. 167 annotations - easy to do in a Kindle; mostly some variant of WTF? I was frustrated, annoyed, chagrined, illuminated (briefly), and discouraged. Oddly enough, I was also intrigued. Why? The book forced me to acknowledge, as an art and theatre critic, my innate and long-standing aversion to theory.

Though I read often and widely, up and down the Dewy Decimal System, I realized, when I finished the book (Dewey Classification: 370.11/5), that I don’t challenge myself enough with books like this. Then I remember why. Theory almost squashed my love of art and made me turn to an investment banking career.

Ages ago, the last decade of the prior century. I was a newly minted MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute at the University of London. My tenuous hold on the methodology I needed to pretend to use to write my thesis was a diluted version of Marxism (the Wall would shortly crumble). Art embedded in the society that produced it; art refracts class structure; art as a commodity of value. Fair enough. The approach worked for scholarly pieces, for museum catalogue essays; and it worked for my thesis. Thing is, I began to write criticism for magazines in the UK, Italy, France, and back home. Editors wanted theory-driven reviews. I had no critical foundation. A species of poetics (Small “p”), perhaps; but nothing more. I described the experience-based dynamic of the artist making the work and the viewer looking at it. Colleagues encouraged me to read Deconstructionist texts; Jacques Derrida, mostly. I tried - and tried - to read Of Grammatology. Epic fail. I read a bunch of introductions to what were called seminal texts (I couldn’t even grasp extracts). Epic fail. I asked my London professors for advice. They asked, Why would you write like that? Because that’s what, Francesco Bonami, Flash Art’s editor at the time, strongly suggested I do.

I couldn’t write criticism from a theoretical position to save my life. Not only did it not feel intuitive, didn’t feel right, it did a disservice to the readers (Only much later did I realize that the only people who expected, much less read, such reviews were editors and the readers of their magazines; a surprisingly small demographic); not the world-at-large. I felt that theory ripped Art from its experiential moorings. Without accountability to an audience, art, I felt - and feel - was/is useless. It. Was. A. Ghastly. Time. I remember a trip to Yosemite when I was an undergraduate. My chums, one a world authority on John Locke’s philosophy - this authority, by the way, was French - he was guest-teaching at Berkeley; I later translated his art museum catalogue essays from French to English without understanding a single word. The other was his protégé. An epic view of Vernal Falls on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Are we struck speechless by the beauty of the scene? I was. As the sun set, though, the other two spent an hour discussing Edmund Burke’s Theory of the Sublime. Um, no thanks.

Driven by, well, I forget what drove me at the time, I tried to evaluate a show by Terry Winters at the Museum of Contemporary Art through the lens of Reader-Response theory. I was shopping for a theory the way you shop for a shirt: a necessary though, in the final analysis, insignificant task. The review became a caricature of a review. It got published anyway. This led to a project of fake reviews (long, long before the advent of fake news.). I created a stable of 6 critics. Each critic had a perspective: Structural, Deconstructionist, Formalist, Feminist, Marxist, and Joe Six Pack. First, I would write a review in my James Voice. Then I would write a review of the same show based on one of the fake critic’s theoretical bias; or what I perceived to be their particular bias. Later I created shows, so fake critics would review fake shows. It was a bit of private fun. Who the hell, after all, would publish these things? I thought of it more as a literary project, something Borgesian, perhaps. And then along came the Internet, the World Wide Web, and blogs …

That’s why I enrolled in this class - to take another stab at theory, this time at the service of teaching and not of art criticism.