Transgression and transformation
Jeff Leinaweaver, Ph.D., Senior Organizational Development Consultant, Professional & Organizational Development

I first read bell hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom” (1994) during my doctorate studies. Through a method called engaged pedagogy, Teaching to Transgress is about pushing against the boundaries of learning in order to challenge racism, sexism, classism and all forms of oppression and identity politics found in the educational world.

Her writing, thinking and activism inspired me to pursue activist research around the role of power and oppression found within the personal narratives of transracial and internationally adopted people of which I identify.

Recently, I have had the pleasure of returning to hooks’ work as a source of inspiration. In it, there are myriad lessons for educators, for those of us in the University community and for anyone engaged in racial justice and social transformation. I’ve been searching for language and methods to capture the mutual empowerment, reciprocity and trust-building needed to foster deep dialogue and respond to the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m drawn to hooks’ insights on power, engaged pedagogy and institutional transformation and how she highlights the ways in which each are integral to disrupting the status quo while building partnerships for an anti-racist society.

Two different educations

In “Teaching to Transgress,” hooks shares the joy of education she discovered within her racially segregated Black public school. There, children were the focus of their teachers and could thrive in their learning and think critically about the world around them. Through these childhood experiences, hooks found education to be the path towards freedom rather than a form of oppression. In contrast, hooks shares her dismay regarding how Black children are educated within desegregated schools, taught by mostly white teachers. Such educational institutions did not present learning as a pathway towards freedom, but rather as a method to induce students to internalize and accept oppressive narratives.

In hooks’ view, the oppressors teach the oppressed that their world is fixed. Oppressors do not like direct confrontation, and therefore use education as a direct method of assimilation or discrete form of “benevolent” instruction. In this, the oppressed must passively accept and adapt to the education they are given, not as they feel free to do, think, or act. Information for the oppressed to learn at school is therefore intentionally selected and narrowed down for the benefit of the oppressor. Students are told to sit, listen, digest and regurgitate knowledge back out again in an exam.

This approach is also known as the “banking model” of education, where information is seen like money in a bank where it is deposited into your mind without any dialogue or critical feedback from the student. Moreover, knowledge is hoarded by the oppressor, like money, and accordingly the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The oppressed brain is trained to be passive. If you ask questions or challenge the learning, you will be disciplined or pay some price.

Engaged pedagogy

As an antidote to the banking model of education, engaged pedagogy is a pathway towards mutually empowered partnerships and freedom for all. As hooks defines it, engaged pedagogy is a reciprocal and vulnerable-making process of critical learning and dialogue, led by many voices, involving shared risk-taking and responsibility and embracing the whole individual. In this, we must all learn how to welcome the stranger, and learn in public.

Through the lens of engaged pedagogy, we in POD are being called on to embrace radical, challenging, empowering, supportive and revolutionary methods in the way we engage in our partnership and client practices. We are increasingly turning away from the sage-on-the-stage or expert model and instead challenging ourselves to practice engaged pedagogy. This approach, for instance, inspired the Conversations About Race in the Workplace seminar series we launched this summer.

Partnership, in the case of POD and our work within the UW community, is about transforming the educational institution and liberating oppressive narratives that have hindered diversity, equity and inclusion. We must engage the institution from a place in which we can help facilitate a re-authoring of our social, collective and individual narratives.

True partnership

As hooks reminds us, “the work of transforming the academy” requires us to “embrace struggle and sacrifice. We cannot be easily discouraged. We cannot despair when there is conflict.” Partnership therefore leads to transgression: teaching and training in revolutionary ways, rethinking the source of expertise, and upending traditional hierarchies. “Transgression” may be difficult and risky, especially in university contexts where large classes and sage-on-the-stage teaching and training methods are common. It threatens the status quo. However, without a disruption of the status quo, the oppression will remain and social justice blunted while the ethics of our collective authenticity will be questioned.

Partnership must be attentive to the role identity plays in shaping power within the relationship. Overt and covert aspects of our identities inform the way we interact with each other, as well as how easily (or not) we develop trust and reciprocity in our partnership. Hooks calls us to be continually conscious of the “politics of domination,” or the assumptions we make based on shared and disparate identities which lead us to privilege the voices of middle- and upper-class straight white cisgender men—the hegemonic class in the United States and much of the world.

To create learning communities, with true partnership, everyone’s presence must be acknowledged and genuinely valued. It starts with the recognition that everyone influences the dynamics of the story, that everyone contributes and that these contributions are resources to everyone’s learning. “Teaching to transgress” means the teachers and trainers are learners and the learners are teachers. In that process, we can all learn from each other and gain new insights on how to act better in the world.

The classroom should be a collaborative space to enable learning to be a joyful experience. We invite everyone to become more engaged and activated. We also recognize we are not solely responsible for the joy in the classroom: Excitement can only be generated through the collective effort of the whole, in partnership, in our learning communities.

Summer 2020 | Return to Issue Home