What bell hooks meant to me

In the final month of a horrible year of many tragedies and too many deaths, we lost bell hooks, a writer, scholar, and activist whose work has had a profound influence on many of us. I want to add my own small heap of roses to the scores of published obituaries and remembrances in circulation, with a personal account of what she meant to me as a working-class academic and scholar of working-class studies.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, back in the early aughts, I was expected to teach for my graduate stipend.  Like many graduate programs, this “opportunity” came with no formal training.  Without guidance, many of us just imitated our image of a know-it-all professor, teaching in a cramped didactic fashion.  But the U of O did provide an optional course called “Teaching to Transgress,” led by a radical librarian associated with its teaching effectiveness suite.  I wish I could remember their name, because this course, taught in the library basement with a misfit crew of lost graduate students from around the university, changed my life. 

Teaching to Transgress was also the title of a book written by bell hooks.  Subtitled “Education as the Practice of Freedom,” the book is a powerful intervention in standard college teaching practices.  With deep acknowledgement toward both the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (who himself passed away as I wrote this piece), hooks teaches readers how to be empathetic and capable teachers of whole human beings.  The course used this book as a guide, as our able “instructor” practiced hooks’s ideas in teaching us.   It was revelatory.  What I learned in that class, from reading hooks and practicing hooks, has made me both the teacher that I am now and the human being that I continue to strive to become.  We were encouraged to talk authentically about ourselves, to contextualize our social locations, to explore our position and experiences within what hooks termed imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.   

The beautiful thing about hooks is that she was profoundly intellectual and theoretically exhilarating while at the same time embracing the personal, or, better, the relational part of being human.  Indeed, she often criticized colleges for teaching students to excise the personal from their intellectual development.  “Within the educational institutions where we learn to develop and strengthen our writing and analytical skills, we also learn to think, write, and talk in a manner that shifts attention away from personal experience,” she argued in a piece about her class location. She embraced all aspects of herself – her blackness, her southernness, her working-class-ness. She taught that theories do not arise from the head, but from our bodies, our lives, our experiences with others.  Differences, of race, or of gender, or sexuality, need not divide us.  It is the system that does that.

Like many others, I responded to her on a visceral level, letting the little girl in me imagine the little girl she often recalls in her writing.  I have embraced my past, as a white girl who grew up poor, and adopted the identity of a “working-class academic” in my scholarship and my teaching practices.  Reading bell hooks made me want to be a better teacher, a better scholar, and a better human being.  She made me realize that teaching and scholarship and humanity are inextricably entwined.  In my darkest days, while serving as department chair or generally witnessing the crass power plays, ignorance, and general incompetence of university administration, I return to hooks and what I learned in that graduate seminar for comfort and sustenance, for a vision of what we mean to each other, and what we can do to nurture each other’s growth and development. 

To honor her memory and the spirit of her teaching, here are just a few of the important lessons I learned from reading Teaching to Transgress:

First, teaching is a performative act.  The classroom is a radical place of possibility.  It need not be boring or one-sided (teacher to student).   Professors are whole human beings engaged with other whole human beings. 

Second, and this is perhaps even more relevant in the Zoom era, we have bodies and faces, and communication (including teaching) happens through these bodies and faces.  I recall a lovely passage where a student waltzes with her before class (it may not be waltzing, but that is how I imagined it) to their mutual delight. 

Third, story-telling can be a powerful way of learning and communicating.  This is an insight shared with critical race theory and the legal story-telling tradition.  It is also embraced by working-class studies

Fourth, we should create the kind of world we want in our classrooms.  We need not recreate the authoritarianism, the racism, the sexism, we experience in other areas of our lives.  This is why I discourage my students from calling me “Dr.” Hurst, and why I wrote an open access textbook for sociological theory that retranslated classical thinkers in a more accessible way and using gender-neutral language (where it did not distort original meanings).  This is what hooks does, making her books welcoming and accessible. She purposely eschews footnotes and show-off citations. It’s also why she did not capitalize her name. 

Fifth, commit to authenticity and embrace the value of claiming our identities in an educational context.  hooks modeled this in all of her work, letting her readers know who she was (black woman from the working class whose educational trajectory has been successful), where she came from (rural South), what motivated her (passion for justice), and where she has stumbled (I’ll let readers discover those themselves). 

Sixth, use theory as a way “to challenge the status quo.” This is how I teach theory to undergraduates, not as something oppressive and confusing, but as something that can help them stand up for themselves and their communities.  Or, as Bourdieu phrased it, as “a martial art, a means of self-defense — you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks.”

And, finally, have a deep compassion for others and commitment to love as a political project.  I see this in all of her work, but I feel it most personally when she talks of her family and her quest for belonging – a very common working-class academic story.  In Teaching to Transgress, she writes about her move to college, “I was desperately trying to discover the place of my belonging.  I was desperately trying to find my way home.”  I can understand how one can love one’s parents fiercely, be protective of them, remain ardently loyal to their world, and yet not ever feel “truly connected to these strange people, to these familial folks who could not only fail to grasp my worldview but who just simply did not want to hear it.”  I suspect a lot of us can feel the import of this passage.

Rereading Teaching to Transgress at her passing, I was struck again by her generosity of spirit.  It is always gratifying when our idols live up to our visions of them.  In the second chapter, hooks addresses the backlash to the movement to embrace cultural diversity in higher education.  Written almost thirty years ago, this section is striking for its (sadly) continuing relevance. In words that still feel fresh, she teaches us that “in all cultural revolutions there are periods of chaos and confusion, times when mistakes are made.  If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a cultural diverse place.”  We all stumble, but we can all pick ourselves up and learn.  Even Paulo Freire had a “phallocentric blind spot,” acknowledged hooks.

We are living in dangerous and deeply troubling times.  A period of chaos and confusion, when mistakes multiply before our eyes, and the center no longer seems to hold.  I would not argue against anyone who fears the future, who sees only a very long night ahead of imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.  But that is even more reason to reread hooks, to remind ourselves of the world we want to create, and the political promise of love.  There can be no love without justice.  But neither can there be justice without love. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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