“It is feminist thinking that empowers me to engage in a constructive critique of Freire’s work (which I needed so that as a young reader of his work I did not passively absorb the worldview presented) and yet there are many other standpoints from which I approach his work that enable me to experience its value, that make it possible for that work to touch me at the very core of my being.”
— bell hooks

Teaching to Transgress: Language as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks is one of the most illuminating texts I’ve come across. As I discuss below, the text was a fundamental one in framing my approaches to the questions I ask, and hooks has had a profound effect on my thinking and self-awareness, both as a scholar and as a human being. I do not know that I could ever claim to fully understand her work, but I can safely say that every time I revisit her work I come away with a deeper and more powerful understanding–both of her words and of myself. For me, hooks remains forever indispensable.

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

In a seminar paper I wrote a year or so ago, I noted the following: “For hooks, utilizing Freire meant orienting to his work in a feminist context, much in the way that for some students of the academy–such as myself–it takes a particular sort of seeking to find a way ‘in’ to scholarly work. For hooks, feminist thinking and criticism allowed her to engage with Freire’s pedagogy; far from one to shy away from ‘transgression,’ it hardly seems unusual that she might, in her own way, adopt her own version of Johnson’s ‘renegade’ approach.” The very project that is so central to hooks’ discussion of Freire is the need for greater inclusion, and in many ways I derived this question as much from hooks as I did from Johnson–for we are not only rebelling against a masochistic system of toil, but of course we must also resist systems of oppression within our own institutions and practices.

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

For me, notably as a white reader, I find myself included by hooks in certain stark and very important realities. These are profoundly useful to me, and they have extensively informed my own understanding of “inclusion.” A key example of this is the reality of having a privileged worldview jostled by education–a challenge that no doubt faces many of my own students. Referring to the pain of students having their comfortable, privileged worldviews challenged by her, hooks wrote the following:

“And I saw for the first time that there can be, and usually is, some degree of pain involved in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing and learning new approaches. I respect that pain. And I include recognition of it now when I teach, that is to say, I teach about shifting paradigms and talk about the discomfort it can cause. White students learning to think more critically about questions of race and racism may go home for the holidays and suddenly see their parents in a different light. They may recognize nonprogressive thinking, racism, and so on, and it may hurt them that new ways of knowing may create estrangement where there was none. Often when students return from breaks I ask them to share with us how ideas that they have learned or worked on in the classroom impacted their experience outside. This gives them both the opportunity to know that difficult experiences may be common and practice at integrating theory and practice: ways of knowing with habits of being. We practice interrogating habits of being as well as ideas. Through this process we build community.” (hooks 43)

Undoubtedly such “new ways of knowing” as hooks discusses are key to the very goals I allude to in this question–after all, I took them in no small part from hooks herself. However, the surprise for me (when I first read this book) was that it was I who was being affected. I experienced exactly what hooks describes here, though it was oriented as much to my own thinking as that of my family, and it was undoubtedly a painful struggle to get through it. This is foundational to my thinking that it is necessary to meet students on their own intellectual turf, as we may be guiding them into very challenging modes of thought.

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

In her chapter called “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process,” hooks writes, “Given that critical pedagogy seeks to transform consciousness, to provide students with ways of knowing that enable them to know themselves better and live in the world more fully, to some extent it must rely on the presence of the erotic in the classroom to aid the learning process” (194). In her discussion, she advocates for the importance of passion–which she ties directly to a certain erotic pleasure–in one’s course of study. She goes beyond this, writing of the love she has for her students and they for her, something that educational institutions are not (and perhaps cannot be) entirely comfortable with. For me, the practice of “love” in the classroom–to teach from a place of love, as I have heard wiser professors tell me–is predicated on the notion of inclusion, of trying to get students to bring themselves–their styles of learning, their modes of expression, their passions, their interests–into serious application. That is another thing hooks has given me to think about.

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play—enjoyment and engagement—to learning, cognition, and individual development?

I am not certain that hooks would explicitly advocate for play in the way that some other theorists, such as Koster, do. However, her commitment to passionate work and her approach to the classroom strike me as fundamentally joyful just as much as they might also be angry, activist, and revolutionary. After all, why must anger be separate from joy? Why can they not coexist? Perhaps the same may be said of pleasure, passion, serious work, and play–I would certainly say so. Raph Koster, I think, would say so. It would be most interesting to hear what bell hooks would say on the subject.

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

This fundamental question of identity is one hooks explores directly in the book. As hooks writes, “Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all of those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear, the speech of Gullah, Yiddish, and so many other unremembered tongues” (hooks 168). Clearly, hooks is a strong advocate for the position that in asking students to “correctly” use Standard English, we are silencing a part of them. This makes the creation of vernacular very important to hooks, who closes the chapter, “Language,” with the eloquent words “We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language” (175).

As Anzaldúa would have us consider, disrupting a homeland with borders is always destructive, always a violent act. To mitigate this violence, it seems imperative to approach teaching in a way that does not silence students’ voices in order to replace them with white-washed versions of themselves. And yet, what of standards–or, even more fundamentally, what of the capacity of the teacher? Myself, I teach essentially Standard American English–because that is all I know how to teach. I could no more teach a form of vernacular than I could a Spanish class. I have experienced both and understand both to some degree, but I am hardly qualified to be an instructor. This is the dichotomy of my struggle. How do we teach what we know, what we can, without taking a hostile and destructive stance to other modes of language that belong to the students? I strive constantly to bridge this chasm.


hooks, bell [Gloria Watkins]. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York and London: Routledge, 1994. Print.