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December 2020

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.

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

Theory as Liberatory Practice is a revelatory 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.
As a child, she couldn't relate to her parents, her experiences, her education. As noted in a prior post, theory gave her a language to work through these issues. (Her precociousness comes from asking such questions in the first place.) This chapter describes her experience with theory as means of succor. I appreciated how she called out bogus applications of theory. Bogus applications of theory decades before (See here) had left a bad taste in my mouth. Now I see the benefit of theory. Her causes and arguments may not be my causes and arguments. I can, though, appreciate the use of theory in teaching in a digital environment.
Theory shouldn't:
  • Divide
  • Separate
  • Exclude
  • Keep at a distance
  • Silent, censor, or devalue
  • Serve as an instrument of domination (homophobia; race; class, sexism; imperialism)
Theory should:
  • Question prevailing social practices
  • Heal and liberate
  • 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
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 way to understand and then engage these predicaments and issues. It helps one transform current realities.
...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.
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.
In the chapter, she recounts a conversation with a black woman. This woman was less interested in hooks' theory and rhetoric. She was more interested in action. That was my reaction to the art-speak I found in theory-driven reviews. Art-speak, I thought, represented legitimate theory-driven art criticism. I wanted to 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 a blog, 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. I didn't see that these arcane utterances were unworthy of the phrase critical theory. Such reviews divided and separated the audience. They devalued the experience of art. They created an Us versus Them dichotomy. As I see it, art is about all of us.

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. Professors, she felt, taught an alien phallocentric paradigm of liberation. They spoke a language of oppression that alienated her. Her courses’ embedded this oppression. 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 could do nothing 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. Construct a resistance identity based on your political circumstance. With it, one can understand one’s place in the world. She had studied how race and class shape female identity. Freire gave her a language to frame these critiques. 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.
Transformation, she learned, is a two-step process. Critical consciousness is not an end in itself. Otherwise progressive movements fail for a simple reason. They provide no practical applications to their theoretical insights. Before Freire, she admits that she was a revolutionary in the abstract but not in (her) daily (life). Now she had a framework with which to critique prevailing racist paradigms. This resistance identity gave her tactics. Tactics to transform her students from uncomplicated objects to complex subjects. Tactics to make them free.
Freire inspired her to understand education as the practice of freedom. Freedom from domination based on stereotypes and ignorance. More to the point, 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. 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 

Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World is a practical chapter. It shows us how to build an inclusive, critically aware classroom. It’s based on a simple premise. A professor embraces individual students’ multicultural experiences as central and significant. This fosters a climate of free expression. The climate at present is murky. Schools treat minority students 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? A critically unconscious professor, works from a political point of view. This oversight requires two things. Confrontation (constructive or otherwise) and interrogation (if not requests for clarification). Why? Because teaching, she says, is not politically neutral. A while male professor in a university art department (me) discusses work made by great men. That's a political decision. Fair enough.
hooks dreams of a reconfigured learning space. It offers a democratic setting. Here, 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 I can't manage it. 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 values individual voices. This community’s goal? Intellectual development and fuller-lived lives. That, I would hope, is our goal, too.
She admits that critical pedagogy’s a challenge for professors and students. Professors, for their part, must forego immediate gratification. I like the idea of the metaphor of the professor as a constant gardener who plants flowers, in a rocky soil, no less. I’m not sure how that fits in with bureaucratic necessities, though. Things like PTEs, graduate school and job recommendation letters, and 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. Quantitative metrics, not existential contingencies, drive these parameters. She adds that such a pedagogy may create estrangement. 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!

bell hooks likens un-engaged pedagogy to an assembly line approach to learning. Receive-recite-repeat. She uses a banking metaphor. The professor deposits information. Fee-paying students withdraw it on an as-needed basis. (I liken it to paying a surcharge on an ATM withdrawal). Such systems - bourgeoisie, she calls them - promote a mind/body split. Knowledge, yes. How to live? No. She claims that professors 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. Un-engaged professors offer information. The will to know. Book knowledge. They should offer information and personal growth. The will to become. How to live in the world. Life experiences. Connecting learning to life experiences results in what she calls liberatory education.
Liberatory education is a holistic model of learning. It demotes the mind/body split. Embracing it, students and professors evolve from passive consumers to active participants. They share in the full experience of learning. Here, critically-aware professors value student expression. They respond to students as unique beings. Linking confessional narrative to academic discussion might make a professor vulnerable. This would establish credibility in a student's eyes. The result? Mini kingdoms become hostels. This heals various rifts. Mind and body. Knowledge and experience. Life in the classroom and life beyond. And, ultimately, professor and student.
Of course, professors have to buy into self-actualization. This requires awareness. They have to acknowledge there’s a problem with the way they approach their teaching. This includes course structure, content narrative and classroom performance. Then they must make necessary changes. For starts, they must acknowledge that a doctorate does not signal an end to learning. They must use a two-prong approach. Make their teaching relevant to a student’s pursuit of a degree as well about the desire for a life well-lived.
How will students respond to newly self-actualized professors and reimagined courses? For that matter, how do we 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 and unique response. 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. 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 we resolve this crisis? Given how the book proposes solutions to the crisis, I will respond, Yes. That makes the book manageable, for me.
She claims that the current state of education is boring. She calls colonial pedagogy white and racist. How it's based on a banking system of deposits and withdrawals of information. It falls short because it doesn’t teach 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). This would create a place of promise and possibility. Here spontaneity could coexist 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. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because she wrote that Teaching is a performative act. That We need to create a space for experience. Because I understand her argument in theatrical terms.
If we can describe dramaturgy as the relationship between front- and backstage personas (professors & students), we can understand the crisis in education with theatrical terms.
  • A bad script (sacred, unalterable, and anachronistic pedagogy).
  • A segregated, ill-designed 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 knowledgeable though errant director (un-self-realized professors).
  • An eager though unengaged - and paying - audience (bored students).

Sorting Things Out: Sort Of

Having read Teaching to Transgress a first - and certainly not the last - time, I 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?
  • Feminist, critical, and anti-colonial theory, inform her pedagogy. How do they provide insight into the teaching of both the hard as well as the soft sciences?
  • Once I 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 finished reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress for the first time. I had a visceral reaction to the book. 167 annotations - easy to do in a Kindle. Each had some variant of WTF? Various reactions. Frustration. Annoyance. Chagrin. Illumination. and Discouragement. I was also intrigued. Why? The book forced me to acknowledge my innate and long-standing aversion to theory.
I read often and widely, up and down the Dewy Decimal System. When I finished the book (Dewey Classification: 370.11/5), something occurred to me. I don’t challenge myself enough with books like this. Then I remembered 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 of Art at the University of London. I wrote my thesis with a diluted version of Marxism. (The Wall would shortly fall). Art embedded in the society that produced it. Art refracts class structure. Art as a commodity of value. Fair enough. The approach worked for academic pieces, museum catalogue essays; and my thesis. 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 wrote from an experience-based dynamic of the artist making the work and the viewer looking at it. Critic 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 seminal texts. Same result. I couldn’t even grasp extracts. 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, it didn’t feel right. It did a disservice to the readers. Whomever they were. Much later I realized that my audience were those who read such reviews. Not the world-at-large. I felt that theory ripped Art from its experiential moorings. Without accountability to an audience, art, I felt was useless. It. Was. A. Ghastly. Time. I remember a trip to Yosemite when I was an undergraduate. I went with two chums. One a world authority on John Locke’s philosophy. (I later translated his art museum catalogue essays from French to English. I barely understood a single word that he wrote.) The other was his protégé. An epic view of Vernal Falls on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Were 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 reviewed a show by Terry Winters at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I shopped for theory the way you shop for a shirt. As 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. And then along came the Internet, the World Wide Web, and blogs …
That’s why I enrolled in this class. I want to take another stab at theory, this time at the service of teaching and not of art criticism.