Since I have largely completed the work for my education degree at this stage, I thought I would make a rotation back: before student teaching, I wrote a lot about theory, and during student teaching, I wrote almost exclusively about practice, but now I’ll return to theory, relating it to practice (now that I have really had some of it!) where possible. In order to focus my thoughts, I’m returning to a book that a professor and I used to teach freshman composition, Considering Literacy: Reading and Writing the Educational Experience, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner. (Here is an entry on a composition instruction blog on this text as a textbook for a first-year university writing course.) I have previously blogged about essays contained in this collection, specifically Mike Rose’s literacy history entitled “‘I Just Wanna Be Average‘” and Mark Edmundson’s essay “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students“; however, there are a number of other works in this collection that deserve attention as well.

One such of these essays is “Engaged Pedagogy” by bell hooks, the nom de plume of Gloria Watkins.

I confess that “engaged” is one of those educational buzzwords that sort of gets to me, perhaps in the way (at least from personal observation) that the term “allopathic medicine”* irritates some medical professionals: in most contexts, all that it really signifies when it precedes “teaching” is that students are actually interacting with the teacher in a manner that will really bring about learning. In grammatically terms, it almost serves as an intensifier; engaged teaching is “real” teaching, not just the sort of pseudo-instruction that some poor teachers try to do in order to convey simple rote knowledge or maybe even just the semblance of learning.

Fortunately, bell hooks comes to this word in a way that does not seem contrived. “Engagement,” for hooks, is about liberation and a specific mode of thinking about learning:

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. (Adler-Kassner 68-69)

These are great notions that are, in my experience, very much ingrained in the training of educators at the university level – at least, they are at the university I attend, and I have encountered many teachers who espouse the same sort of philosophy as well. And fighting the notion that teaching is merely about conveying information to be regurgitated is nothing new to this space, either.

What hooks espouses in this essay is really an excellent example of humanist educational philosophy (which ought to be distinguished from humanism more generally), which is the notion that learning is about making better people, not merely about altering behaviors (behaviorism) or about teaching the skills necessary for students to generate knowledge (constructivism).  As a matter of personal preference, I have always favored constructivism, although I recognize elements of the other theories in my own philosophy of teaching.

I find it remarkable to read how hooks was influenced by certain individuals, specifically Paolo Freire (whose essay contained in the same collection I will blog about soon) and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk; in particular, hooks speaks of Hanh referring to teachers exclusively as healers, as individuals who sought to promote the overall well-being of the unified individual. But hooks states – and I agree, from my own experiences – that most students are socialized to think that bringing in one’s whole self to the classroom is a detriment to the classroom and that our classroom selves should be one-dimensionally oriented at the subject at hand. Facilitating the self-actualization of students, according to hooks, has not really been considered a task of the educator – that is, teachers have not been expected to be healers.

Of course, however, we are in many ways. I have been amazed in the time I have worked with a few teachers how they can be so nurturing and how they openly try to inculcate (reasonable) values in students, much of the time with great success. One of these teachers told me about the experience of having a student come out and how tormented but ultimately relieved that student was after making the confession to the teacher – here, the teacher helped the student heal a wound and come closer to self-actualization.†

But education is not, in my opinion, merely about moving students closer to self-actualization; I think that teaching itself should help teachers move further in that direction. To that end, hooks talks about educators’ own abilities to show their whole selves, not merely the professorial selves that students naturally assume them to be in the classroom. Near the end of the essay, hooks talks about encouraging student expression (something I also deeply esteem) and adds this about the role of the educator in this regard:

When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. …most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit. (Adler-Kassner 72)

In my very last unit of student teaching, I observed how vulnerability could be used – we were doing Our Town, and my co-op interrupted one day to tell the class about an experience she had had when teaching the play years ago and how its themes of appreciating the little things and making the most of life had spurred her to tell her daughter how much she loved her, only to have that same daughter leave later that same day and be involved in a serious car accident that left her in a coma for 12 weeks. And the students did get these themes as well, many of them finding truly authentic ways of responding to them in their final projects, which I enjoyed greatly. Even I saw how making myself vulnerable, even in doing something so simple as playing a song for my students, made them see me in a more 3-dimensional way instead of merely as an English teacher.

All of my qualms about “engaged” teaching aside, this much is clear: If engagement is to be something more than “real learning” – if it is rather to be the kind of learning where students can be find liberation through learning – then we as educators must bring to it all of ourselves, ready to show students that education is not merely about knowing facts and understanding concepts but also about learning how to live life, and live it to the fullest. When teachers do that, everyone wins.

*The term “allopathic medicine” is often used by proponents of so-called “alternative medicine” to describe conventional medicine, i.e. medicine that has been shown to work through normal scientific means.
†Here, I do not attempt to consider any moral argument against homosexuality itself; I will assume that a student coming to terms with his or her own sexuality is a step closer to developing a stronger sense of personal identity, which is clearly a step toward self-actualization.