The impact of bell hooks’ work on two teacher educators in Flanders
For years we, eva and karine, have been entering classrooms and auditoriums in (higher) education with the thought that we are entering a free, democratic zone. We teach about education, didactics and pedagogy and we think that we understand our students and their world and that we have a nice relationship with them. “We are very accessible,” “Students may email me with questions,” and “I always ask students to put their reasoning into words” are common statements in a teacher education class.
We also believe that students will exercise their right to free speech when necessary. We assume this because we are teacher educators, because we have already read a great deal of quantitative research on education, and because we have already taken numerous continuing education courses that would make us even better at our jobs.
For example, according to the all familiar and rock-solid John Hattie, we learned that student-teacher relationships have a (learning) effect size of 0.52 (10 Mindframes for Visible Learning). So we know from research, conducted according to the rules of the academic art, that it is important to focus on the student-teacher relationship. We also all learned the importance of taking into account the lifestyles of learners, and we constantly juggle expensive words like diversity and differentiation.
And yet, we know this with our heads. Recently, however, we also learned to know with our hearts and bodies, a strange experience in the professional field for us. Is educational expertise also being touched in your soul as a teacher, beyond (the necessary) didactic-pedagogical techniques and rational, science-informed insights?
Audre Lorde says it beautifully : “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”
– Audre Lorde
bell hooks, American author, feminist, professor, born under the name Gloria Jean Watkins, died on December 15. She published about 40 books where her focus was always on the message, never on her personality. Hence, she did not want her author name to contain capital letters and chose her author name in honor of her grandmother from whom she experienced true love as a child and whose directness she admired. karine shared “Teaching to transgress” on social media, eva read the book, bell’s ideas led us to each other.
In a recognizable and similar way, we were both deeply touched by bell hooks. After the first books we read from her, Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community, we realized that we were not at all as accessible as teachers. As bell writes in Teaching to Transgress, we were not at all explicitly acknowledging (enough) how much white supremacist thinking affects every aspect of our culture, including the way we learn, the content of what we learn, and the way we are taught. We did not talk about the class differences (which shape our values and norms, attitudes, social relationships, and preconceptions about how knowledge is transmitted and received) between us and our students or among students themselves.
After more than 15 years of teaching experience, we unexpectedly went through a professional process which we experience only once in a while. What exactly touched us in her work? First of all, the anchoring of love, hope and spirituality in higher education. Also, her critical, thorough analyses, her dialogue style, the way she consciously fuses theory and practice, her courage to always bring the unjust mechanisms of the system to the forefront and raise them with everyone. She speaks of love for students in a direct and empowering way. She taught us to carefully consider where we make students obey in our educational practice. She gives language to us, teachers, language to feelings and experiences that we could not name before.
We realize now more than before how language affects our thinking about students: “Vulnerable”, “language poverty”, “remediation”, … These are words that risk keeping people small. To empower people, we then use academic jargon that prevents the many great (e.g. feminist) ideas from reaching our students. This can be done differently.
bell hooks helps us look critically at the concept of diversity and the work that usually comes with it. We have to “unlearn” and “relearn” ingrained patterns of thought, which is damned difficult and brings conflicts, pain and obstacles with it. Diversity ís difficult, paradoxical and above all messy, as we also learned from Sara Ahmed in ‘On Being Included’. But as Brene Brown, another bell hooks fan and researcher of feelings, sometimes says: “The magic is in the mess”.
hooks makes us wonder if we in education are achieving the effects we are aiming for when we talk about diversity. We long for a more inclusive way of living together but at the same time never used so many separate boxes and labels to talk about people when it comes to integration in education and society: ethnic-cultural diversity, gender diversity, material poverty, religious differences. On the one hand, bell hooks extends diversity to every learner, and on the other hand, she cuts into the discriminating factors in our system connected to class, gender, and the intersections within them. She doesn’t talk about ethno-cultural diversity, gender diversity, vulnerable students and vulnerable children nor burnout. She talks about imperialism, racism, sexism, class and capitalism/neo-liberalism. She cuts into the mechanisms of the system and highlights the struggle, the resistance, the possibilities of crossing these discriminatory borders. She speaks about love for every student. Love means something other than “with care” or caring or affection. Love in bell hooks language is empowering and demanding. ‘Love is what love does’ she emphasizes following Pect in her bestseller All about Love.
bell hooks taught us to understand how our students can also unlock knowledge for us from their world, their situatedness and their lives. When we apply our theory in a non-dominating but empowering way, it puts us in a different relationship with our students. Without this disclosure, theory remains a matter of those in positions of power. hooks addresses the dominant groups in society rather than those on the margins (Teaching to Transgress, chapter 6). Education is not the path to freedom, education is the process of examining boundaries and then crossing them so that it becomes the praxis of freedom.
Systemic injustice is in the cement of our classroom walls, even in hybrid times, which must be consistently examined and questioned with students.
Moreover, she also taught us to fundamentally question whether we really know enough about the lifeworld of learners. We now assume that we do not know those lifeworlds and codes and how our students think and why they do what they do in order to force ourselves to throw open the dialogue in our educational activities and systematically invite them to respond and explain their motivations. We as middle-class, long-educated, white teachers who experienced few situations of violence and enjoyed a lot of privilege can relate especially to the students with a similar positioning and even then there is at least a generational gap. As a result, the knowledge we offer in our courses is already understood in a certain way.
With bell hooks we resist the idea that “nowadays you can’t say or name anything anymore” and cancel culture. On the contrary, she teaches us how you can expose the social injustice of friends, colleagues or students with razor-sharp precision and still respect that person’s work and the person himself. She does it with, yes, Paolo Freire himself. She openly calls him sexist and at the same time she expresses how his teaching approach was healing for her and preserves admiration and friendship and invites dialogue. Paolo Freire, by the way, responds publicly and indicates that he has grown as a result. ‘Critical interrogation is not the same as dismissal,’ she says (Teaching to transgress, p. 49). The respect and connection always remains.
The learning environment we now want to create with our students is one in which we are both fully in a learning position, rethinking the (power) relationships in the classroom. When we teach, we use hooks’ pedagogical adviceand encourage students to critique, evaluate, make suggestions and interventions. We name and discuss difficult issues like race, class and gender and take a hard look at the cement of our fancy classrooms in college to make it stronger. We try to let go of control while still setting high standards for students. In each course unit, we go through a process together.
I, karine, repeatedly emphasize that everything they feel and come up with when they see or hear something in class is important enough to put in the middle, talk about it and work with it within the theory being taught. I put everything on hold and engage in conversation when a learner says e.g. “I don’t know if this is what you want to hear, but I think…” about the first part of the sentence. I try much more than before to understand each student behavior in order to bring them to better learning from there.
I, eva, start each training session by making explicit that I too am in a learning position. That I want to go through a learning process together with the students that requires their knowing, experiencing and feeling in order to integrate theory and practice and to develop critical consciousness.
Again, we realized during the past evaluation discussions that we had reduced the distance, that we had evaluated more empoweringly, without sacrificing clarity and without lowering the bar. On the contrary.
We are and will continue to be two white, long-tenured teachers. We must all the more constantly “unlearn” and “relearn”. In every lesson, in every contact with students, in every research project. But we are no longer afraid. We are no longer afraid to lift micro conversations to a conversation about systemic injustice. We are no longer worried about getting too involved or not delineating well enough. We have more confidence to engage in difficult conversations. We do so now with abundance and much love. And with bell in our thoughts.
Have you become curious about bell hooks’ work and would like to talk about it after reading her work? Or can you provide us with something so that we can further ‘unlearn/relearn’ in this regard? If so, feel free to contact us via email: