Theory as Liberatory Practice: A Primer on the Use and Abuse of Theory
Breaking Bread with bell hooks: Holding My Sister's Hand

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 make a distinction here. I note her personal experience, her personal struggles which are hers alone. And I note her method and thought processes, which serve a practical function. Her experience and method are useful. I think of Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet. He 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 from these a commitment to engage.
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.To make it accessible.
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. (In the second part of the course we discuss Functional Art History, the way that art’s purpose changes over time).
I call one of the weekly assignments 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 interpret.
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!). I ask them 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 several times in the syllabus, as well). I tell them how their response will differ from that of other students. Each student brings different life experiences to their Walk. I tell them that art is open-ended.
In the first few weeks of class, students lack a Descriptive Vocabulary. Words to describe things like color, line, shape, texture, rhythm, emphasis and subordination. They respond with evocative and perceptive experiences, heartfelt, sincere, and 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 something called Weekly Awesomeness. In it I share ten responses to the same Walk or thought questions I call Questions of the Day. This Awesomeness shows the range of responses that artworks or thought questions about art can elicit. Often there will be an exceptional response. 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 include 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 calls out Essentialist strategies that 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.


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Glenn DeVoogd

Oh man James! You are the man! You very eloquently reminded me about the importance of personal response that has drifted away from my teaching. When my students work with young children in schools they also need to enjoy the creative responses young children bring to the text. Enjoy them out loud with their praise and jumps for joy. Celebrate the ideas that only young children can have for a few years of their lives...and then it's gone.

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