Transgressive Teaching: The impact of bell hooks

The work of bell hooks (1952-2021) had always been part of my feminist education, in college as well as in graduate school. Many memorials in the last few days have focused on her contributions to women’s studies and black feminist theory since her death on December 15th. It was when I was a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts twenty years ago that I came to appreciate bell hooks’ work on pedagogy and the vocation of an educator. Our program’s weekly colloquium on the scholarship of teaching included precious few women authors, and even fewer authors of color, and so when I finally got to read bell hooks and Paulo Freire, I could see the kind of teacher I wanted to become.

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Seeing Constellations rather than Stars

When it comes to BIPOC students, we have a tendency to celebrate individual stars rather than seeing the larger constellations of which they are a part. Patrick Reyes offers some suggestions for how we might better appreciate the beauty and wisdom of the communities and traditions which have formed our students. In his new book, The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive (Westminster/John Knox, 2021), Patrick offers new metaphors and a different way of thinking about how to help students cultivate a sense of purpose and empower their communities.

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Creative Agency: A Lutheran’s Perspective

 Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere (Die Farbenkugel), 1810. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Teaching vocation requires the instructor to strike a balance between making too much or too little of vocation. A good balance works out differently for instructing first-year students than it does for instructing seniors, and it likely works out differently for undecided students in a liberal arts college than it does for majors in pre-professional programs in a comprehensive university.

In my experience having also taught vocation concepts outside the academy, a priority for vocational discernment and reflection seems dependent on the audience’s affinity or urgency for conceptual frameworks. I generally have a more difficult time getting people who work in “fast time” vocations—action-, labor-, and task-oriented—to be energized by vocation concepts than those people who work in “slow time” vocations—thought-, relationship-, and process-oriented. I can only imagine the reactions I’d experience teaching vocation to people who are insecure about the things I take for granted; I speak from a point of privilege and to people who enjoy degrees of privilege.

What got me thinking about how much to make of vocation was an essay by Danish professor Anders Michelsen, in a book for Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, Your Color Memory. Michelsen’s essay is titled “Color and Self-Creation,” and it uses color systems to explore creative agency and cultural contingency. A phrase repeated in the essay is, “We create systems that create us.” This claim, confined to the domain of color, is elaborated by a historical overview of color theory that concludes with, “We organize our colored world around systems that are increasingly of our own making . . . by adaption, exclusion, interpretation, and creation.”

Against what prevails in culture as a hesitancy about color, Michelsen argues for the positive value of self-creation systems and for their creative agency. Color grants humans the field for deciding, reflecting upon, and setting color systems; color systems are modes of human imagination. If readers are interested in how this framework leads to a “politics of creation,” you may want to become familiar with David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, 2001. {For an excerpt, click here}.

Michelsen’s essay takes me in a different direction, however. How does the idea of self-creation systems apply specifically to teaching vocation concepts?

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