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.

In Teaching to Transgress, published in 1994, hooks described her pedagogical practices as emerging “from the mutually illuminating interplay of anti-colonial, critical, and feminist pedagogies” (p.10). Her essays “are meant to stand as testimony, bearing witness to education as the practice of freedom” (p.11). And they do. I don’t think I’ve written or spoken about pedagogy without engaging bell hooks’ work ever since I first read it.

One commitment I made early in my teaching career was to always include, in every course, work written by women and by people of color. I must continuously be conscious of this today because a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks’ own phrase) makes it easy to access and value work written by white people and by men. Educators committed to a different way must set an intention to work against this status quo. Conscious attention to race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, and intersectional equity experiences is at the heart of what I learned about teaching from bell hooks. It affects text choices, topics in courses, and tactics in the everyday classroom experience:

The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. … The experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel at all “safe” in what appears to be a neutral setting. (p.39)

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (1994).

She called us to re-think who and what sits at the center of our attention in the classroom, on a syllabus, and in a curriculum. bell hooks was one of the first feminist authors I read who wrote to the particular intersection of pedagogy, humanization, justice, and inequities. As a young theologian and as a woman, reading hooks helped me see that I was called to teach in a way that required paying careful attention to the ways that my whiteness can be weaponized in this culture.

The last paragraph of Teaching to Transgress still hangs on my office bulletin board:

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. (p.207)

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (1994).

Capturing the challenging realities and the powerful possibilities of teaching … no one has done it better than bell hooks.


Caryn D. Riswold is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Before joining the Wartburg community in 2018, she taught Religion and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College for sixteen years. She is the author of “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2015) where she considers the intersection of vocational discernment with issues of race, class, and gender identity. She has previously written for blogs like Patheos and you can now find her work at Medium.com. For other blog posts by Caryn, click here.

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