Education as the Practice of Freedom: bell hooks on Feminist Pedagogy
Visual by Karen Coelho
In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks chronicles her experience of teaching women’s studies and challenges a feminist classroom comprises. Her experience is rooted in the intersection of race and gender, and how gender analysis fails to take race (caste in an Indian context) and queerness into account. During my undergraduate years, I enrolled in a course on Feminism: Theory and Practice, and disappointingly, I was the only male-identifying person in the classroom on most days. Some men felt it was man-bashing, while others were scared of a powerful woman teaching the course. Our professor was awesome and taught us everything from scratch – from sex-gender distinction to patriarchy to feminist movements worldwide. But, a queer feminist perspective was missing. When I started with my women’s studies course at the postgraduate level, I always wondered if my classroom was a queer feminist one or not. I still don’t know if it has been. Nevertheless, there were newer additions of disciplines I never thought of before, like Feminist Science Studies, Indigenous Women’s Issues, Queering Feminism and Gender, Space and Culture.
bell hooks says that there is little accurate understanding of the ways feminist scholars engage with seeing, talking, and thinking to diverse students. This echoes discussions on caste and gender outside my classroom which have been limited to solely reservation. hooks adds that a feminist classroom has to respond effectively to students from different class backgrounds, levels of understanding, communication skills, and concerns. I felt that professors attempted to answer this within my classrooms, but the online measures have proved to be an obstacle.
I remember taking up the biography of trans rights activist A. Revathi for the paper Women’s Literature in South Asia. It redefined the terms ‘writer,’ ‘experience,’ and ‘normativity’ for me. Similarly, a friend used poetry by queer scholar Akhil Katiyal for their presentation, introducing a queer narrative. I feel that overall unfamiliarity with queer literature puts our class academically and culturally at a disadvantage position as gender studies scholars. And while I’d love to think of the classroom as a safe space, I do agree with hooks that it is also “a site of conflict, tensions, and sometimes ongoing hostility.” She further adds that we need to look at conflict to use it as a catalyst for growth instead of fearing it.
The notion of standpoint is also very crucial because, as a queer person, I would try to address every issue during the class discussion from a queer standpoint in a meaningful way. Queer, here, becomes a verb – a way to challenge the structure and its modalities themselves. I feel that the queer politics I hold close are opposite at times to what my peers and friends believe in, and that does lead to conflict. The way out of such conflict, as per hooks, is ‘constructive engagement.’ hooks explains that critically examining one’s own standpoint and transforming consciousness is the first stage of feminist politicisation. Sandra Bartky also says, “to be a feminist, one has first to become one.” The cultivation of critical thinking and dialogical exchange allows for change, as in our anti-intellectual society critical thinking is not encouraged. Further, the absence of reward is a hurdle in overall support for feminist scholarship.
As part of feminist pedagogy, we need mentors we can trust, someone whose intellect we respect and who would not view our work through any prejudiced lens. I found this space when I could share a poem about the most vulnerable parts of me while caring, and with an affirmative response from my professor; I am extending my understanding of caring through my thesis towards the formation of knowledge on queering care. hooks advocates for similar radical openness in learning spaces where students and teachers celebrate their critical thinking ability and engage in pedagogical praxis. Cultivating critical thinking is not easy as it falls within political activism and leads to negative consequences. Even within classrooms, challenging students might be deeply unsettling, but its rewards come through later. Due to this, one can either betray the promise of intellectual fellowship and radical openness or encounter the bitter truth of academia.
Through feminist pedagogy, students critique, evaluate, make suggestions and interventions as the course goes along, and while this is wonderful, the online space has limited it drastically. We did this in our Gender, Space, and Culture and Gender, Media and Culture courses, and they were awesome but also dull at some point. However, I would prefer this experimental form of learning over any rigid structure any day. As it goes about queer feminist classrooms and notes on feminist pedagogy, hooks reflects on learning as a place where paradise can be created, and education exists as a practice of freedom.
Standpoint: A feminist theoretical perspective that argues that knowledge stems from the social position. The perspective denies that traditional science is objective and suggests that research and theory have ignored and marginalised women and feminist ways of thinking.
Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
Bartky, S. L. (1975). Toward a phenomenology of feminist consciousness. Social Theory and Practice, 3(4), 425-439.