Tag Archives: Higher Education

bell hooks and the challenges of teaching in higher ed

Though the month is nearing its end, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the amazing African-American thinkers and visionaries who have influenced my life. It’s unfortunate that we need to designate a month to ensure that topics that should be covered year long get mentioned.  Many have argued this same point, including someone I greatly admire–bell hooks. An African-American feminist teacher, hooks has inspired me with her progressive pedagogy and her unfailing willingness to venture into waters that many scholars avoid, such as the topic of love. I had the great pleasure of meeting her at the 2004 NCTE convention in Indianapolis and the even greater pleasure of discussing how love is ignored as a scholarly and pedagogically relevant subject. Her work on feminism, pedagogy, racism, and diversity have nourished me in my academic career. Her consistent commitment to accessibility has not only proven inspirational but has encouraged me to maintain my own commitment to making academic work and theory accessible to those outside of academia. hooks’ works are consistently easy to read and understand, accessible to multiple audiences, even as they express complex ideas and theories. Unlike theorists who preach accessibility while writing jargon-laden articles and books, bell hooks practices the kind of accessibility that she preaches. She manages to convey complex ideas to a broad audience without sacrificing quality, something that I also try to accomplish in my work as a teacher and scholar.

Since I am particularly fond of student generated media, here is a short YouTube video created in honor of bell hooks. (Point #7 is particularly relevant to Black History Month.)

A recent talk that bell hooks gave at Burton Street Community Center and Peace Gardens in Asheville, NC is also on YouTube. In her talk, she discusses community, technology, gender, and race and reads from one of her children’s books Be Boy Buzz. She ends her talk with the following: “In Buddhism we talk about the fact that the earth is my witness. So, we are here today to witness together the need to build community on all levels, to remember that community is not one-dimensional, to remember that we can come together in many different fronts and be together and belong.”

hooks’ scholarship and perspectives on community have been instrumental in my dissertation research. They have continued to encourage my belief in participatory research and education. Her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom profoundly influenced my own pedagogical approaches and introduced me to the Pauolo Freire’s “liberatory pedagogy.” I have continued to follow her work with great interest.

In a discussion with The Media Education Foundation, hooks talks about how “popular culture is where the pedagogy is; it is where the learning is” revealing how her interest in analyzing pop culture arose out of her experiences in the classroom. Students had difficulty understanding concepts of difference and otherness and how these were relevant to their lives, but when discussed in the context of films or tv shows, the students were better able to grasp the concepts. Part one of her discussion is included below:

An additional point that I appreciate here is her insistence upon the importance of critical thinking for all people and how the ability to think critically is an important tool that can make a difference in the lives of everyone, regardless of their material wealth or class status.

The most enabling resource that I can offer as a critic or an intellectual professor is the capacity to think critically about our lives. I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life and I really believe that a person who thinks critically who, you know, may be extraordinarily disadvantaged materially can find ways to transform their lives that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful in the same way that someone who may be incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically.

In addition hooks speaks against this idea that certain students should only be taught what are considered “practical skills” that they can use to get a job and make money. She doesn’t claim that this is unimportant; she simply emphasizes the importance of critical thinking as a tool and the right to learn it. Having taught in the Ivy League and at open admissions universities, hooks notes that the distinction between the students at the two types of schools is mostly based on their perception of their future:

My students were equally brilliant when I taught in Harlem as when I taught at Yale or Oberlin, but that their senses of what the meaning of that brilliance was and what they could do with it, their sense of agency was profoundly different….They don’t have that imagination into a future of agency and as such I think  many professors do not try to give them the gift of critical thinking. In a certain kind of patronizing way education just says all these people need is tools for survival, basic survival tools, like their degree so they can get a job and not in fact that we enhance their lives in the same way we’ve enhanced our lives by engaging in a certain kind of critical process.

The points that hooks makes here are some that I have struggled with myself. It’s crucial that we find the balance between equipping students with the skills that they expect to learn in order to find a job. The reality is that most students enter higher education with the objective of attaining a job, specifically one that is higher paying than the one they would get with a high school education. When I chose to go to college, while I certainly expected to get a job, my primary motivation was to learn knew things. I was lucky to have already been instilled with a belief in the importance of critical thinking and perhaps more importantly with the belief that it was my right to learn these things. (hooks mentions that Yale students feel entitled to that kind of learning in a way that her Harlem students do not.) I was also privileged enough that for me higher education was a given; I never doubted that I could and would go to college. Many of my students at Purdue have had similar experiences though it seems that most of them entered college with attaining a well-paying job as a primary objective. As educators we are faced with the challenge of meeting the wants and needs of our students as they perceive them and as we perceive them.

Ultimately, I believe that teaching critical thinking skills and the more “practical” on-the-job skills expected by our students are not incompatible goals. As educators we have the responsibility of providing students with the education that they want while maintaining our goals as teachers. Much of the challenge that arises here has much to do with not wanting to assume that we want to teach our students is more important than what they want to learn. The important point to recognize is that we have been educated and trained to know (or determine) what “global” tools that they need to learn the more specific or “local” tools. Teaching students how to think critically is a way of teaching them how to learn new things on their own. If we equip them with the global tools that they need in order to make learning a lifelong enterprise, we give them the gift of education and not just training. At the same time, if we are to successfully teach them the global tools, we must demonstrate how these tools can be translated into learning the skills that they seek. The important thing to recognize is that we can’t teach them all of the skills that they need for the workplace and the world, but we can help them learn the tools that they can use to continue to learn those skills beyond our classroom. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot and should not choose critical thinking over workplace skills or vice-versa. Instead we should create curricula that enable the learning of both. It’s analogous to the way that we teach revision in writing. Students work from global concerns such as content, clarity, organization, etc. to more local concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and editing. A grammatically correct piece of writing is of little use if it is not clearly written, well-organized, and contains well-researched and carefully considered content. In the same way, skills are only effective if they are accompanied by an understanding of how the skills can be used and are learned.

Friday Link Roundup

…a little late. I seem to be having difficulty getting my link roundup out on Fridays. Maybe I should just call it the “Weekly Link Roundup.” Hmmm, we’ll see. Anyway, here are the links for, uhm, last week.

Intellectuals do not understand the genius of the market. They ignore empirical evidence. They are elitists. They operate with ideological blinders. Ultimately, they are “unaccountable to the external world.” They judge ideas by how clever or complex they are, not whether they work.

Jacoby also notes that Sowell

writes that his book is “about intellectuals,” but not “for intellectuals,” and he cannot be bothered if his victims find fault with him. But who besides intellectuals would be reading a book on intellectuals?

Ultimately, Jacoby offers a fairly scathing review of Sowell’s poorly argued text.

Comments on the Huntsville Tragedy

At this point most of us in academia* know about the tragic events at University of Alabama last week when Amy Bishop, professor of Biology, opened fire during a Friday afternoon faculty meeting killing three professors and injuring three others. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the matter extensively with readers posting a range of comments in which they have speculated and responded to the violence that seems to be becoming so prevalent in the world of higher education. (Note: School shootings in secondary ed have been going on for some time, long before Columbine, which was more highly publicized because it was not an inner city school.) Since speculation has attributed to Bishop’s tenure denial this year, the shooting has raised questions about academic culture. Some have argued that the stress of tenure is partly to blame while others have wondered about how we care for mentally ill faculty and still others have firmly resisted making connections between the circumstances of Bishop’s work life and the shooting.

Let me begin my own commentary by saying that the tenure process is not to blame for this shooting. While few things in this world easily fall into black and white (the gray areas are far more prevalent), there are times when homicide can be understood. [I'm feeling chills of discomfort even here. I seem to be at a loss for words as to how to describe my feelings here.] A child whose parents have abused him or her mercilessly can suffer from PTSD (or a range of other mental disorders) causing him or her to dissociate and murder the abuser. I know that I am treading on shaky ground here. As I write this, I am still torn by my belief that murder is never right, never the answer. My next position is also shaky, given that I have just claimed that homicide can be understood. Still, I must say that many people do not receive tenure, and they don’t all go into faculty meetings and start shooting. By that same token, not all children who are abused kill the abuser. So, I don’t want to say that just because other people who don’t attain tenure don’t become shooters that Bishop’s failure to attain tenure could not factor into what she did. To be clear, this does not justify her actions. Ultimately, we will continue to have more questions than answers about her motivation and psychological state. Hopefully, her psychological evaluation will provide insight into why this obviously disturbed individual killed and injured her colleagues. All factors considered failing to attain tenure does not justify homicide.

In spite of some of the arguments that academic culture and tenure requirements can be blamed for Bishop’s actions on Friday, perhaps we can gain something by discussing the culture of academia– not as a justification for homicide, but as a part of our lives that might benefit from careful consideration, perhaps even a bit of excavation.

I have long been of the opinion that the culture of graduate school does not encourage self-care but in fact rewards behaviors that are unhealthy and even dangerous. How many of us have complained about the little sleep that we get while being secretly proud of our dedication? We work through the weekend, late into the night, at the expense of sleep. We fail to eat regular meals and crowd our schedules with additional projects and committees. Being busy demonstrates our ambition and dedication to our work, even when it comes at the expense of our health and relationships. I am completely guilty of buying into this culture and even having pride in my capacity to deny myself. In fact, it comes naturally to me. I’ve always been dedicated and obsessed with my work. It has been my life for so long that I almost forget that there are other things in the world. I inherited my mother’s workaholic gene. Yet this dedication that is so prized when demonstrated through our busy lives, sleep deprivation, and singular obsession with our work has often been to my detriment. Those who know me are aware of my health problems, which are extensive and at times have been disabling. There have been countless times where my obsession with work (and demonstrating the dedication that I have) has been extremely detrimental to my health, often resulting in set backs that I could ill-afford. As an epileptic, I must have a certain amount of sleep and avoid stress as much as possible. Two of the biggest factors in triggering seizures are stress and sleep deprivation. I know this and have tried to get enough sleep and avoid stress. (The latter of which is kind of a joke when you’re on the job market.) Yet even knowing all of this, last March I was working feverishly on a project, not getting enough sleep, and feeling the mounting stress of dissertation work and the upcoming job market. As a result, I ended up in the hospital emergency room, having my clothes cut off of me, and getting fourteen stitches above my left eye. I had a seizure and fell on my face, the cause of which, my doctor adamantly insisted, was my stress and sleep deprivation. This seizure could have caused me to lose an eye; the head trauma could have killed me; I was lucky. Every time I look into a mirror and see the arching scar above my left eye I am reminded of this. Yet even with this powerful reminder, I don’t always get enough sleep and the stress of dissertation and job market is such that I am losing my hair. My point in revealing all of this is simple: I can’t do this alone. I still live in a culture that praises lack of care and views care of self as indulgent. Continue Reading →

A Tech Blog for Teachers

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today discusses a blog set up by two professors, Jason B. Jones, a professor at Central Connecticut State University, and George H. Williams, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate.  The article includes an interview with Professor Jones.  Their blog, ProfHacker, which includes posts from a variety of contributors, discusses the use of technology in higher education. The most significant aspect of this blog, in my opinion, is that it discusses more than the tools and their uses; the writers also discuss the relevance of these tools to pedagogical goals. Ultimately, the site provides links, reviews, and tutorials for using technology in higher education.  As someone who integrates technology in the classroom and is careful to ensure that these technologies meet pedagogical goals rather than just fueling my excitement over new technologies, I believe this site will be a useful tool to those who already use technology in the classroom, helping them to keep up to date on new tools.  Even more importantly I think this site is a good starting point for instructors less familiar with the integration of technology in the classroom. The tutorials and information provided by the site contributors provide a great introduction to the tools and ideas for successful integration. Kudos to ProfHacker!