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.