I find the way hooks talks about fear and discomfort as a teacher in the classroom very compelling. She gets more into personal detail with this in Chapter 10, talking about particular class experiences which were fantastic or dreadful or anxiety inducing. A lot of those fears for her stemmed from shifting habits and sense of control, which are anxieties that I have felt myself in considering how to work in the classroom. All of Teaching to Transgress emphasizes the importance of freedom and dynamic exchange between individual learners, including the teacher, which creates an intimidatingly hard to find line between carrying too much versus too little authority. This seems like the kind of thing I’ll only be able to figure out through practice, especially because the needs and circumstances of teenagers are different from hooks’ college-age students. However, it was reassuring to see that a writer whose practices I respect has had the same struggles.
The discussion of “identity politics” and essentialism was interesting to me because I feel that this issue has only become more prominent and controversial through online culture, which was unimaginable in hooks’ context. Online spaces like social media depend so much on uni-facted, surface level representations of “identity” that these often become unignorable debate points in any exchange of ideas (more often arguments). For students in this current era, that kind of habituation to a form of social interaction seems certain to affect how they engage peers in offline spaces.
I agree that trying to cut identity and personal experience wholly out of educational discussion is absurd. This reminds me of hooks’ other point about the common separation of mind and body in academia. Those who have the privilege to emphasize their primary existence as a “mind” to the exclusion of a “body” (subject to oppression) of course are less likely to value the experiences which occur to the body in literary discussion.
In Chapter 2, hooks argues against the idea of creating a perfectly harmonious “melting pot” or even “rainbow coalition” among cultural groups. At first I was surprised by this point, because why shouldn’t our goal be to create peace and unity, especially in the classroom? But her perspective does make a lot of sense to me after thinking about it more deeply. Trying to gloss over antagonisms and cultural conflicts within a group is ultimately denying individuals their right to freely express themselves when they do have negative emotions, which is an essential part of the human experience. Especially when discussing art and literature, cultural conflicts are often at the heart of what makes pieces work, and I don’t think we should shy away from that. Also, in the context of the classroom, having these conflicts is important for preparing students to live in the adult world, where some level of cultural conflict will always exist, no matter how progressive we feel our society has become. If kids don’t learn how to process conflict and negative emotions with maturity and respect in school, they’re much less likely to act that way as adults.
Responding to the problem of necessary conflict, hooks’ suggestion of having students journal and share these entries with each other sounded like a really great idea. I’ve been reading about the benefits of journaling in other learning contexts as well, and altogether it seems like a very effective way to give students more control over their learning experience without totally shifting away from the teacher’s intended focus. Although Chapter 4 was staged as an interview, it almost felt like an example of this kind of practice. Hooks goes back and forth with herself, and at times gets almost argumentative about Freire, but she remains both very honest and respectful in her opinions. Even within that, she mentions in one line that: “this created a war within myself” when referring to making a decision on confronting Freire’s sexism. I can imagine that practicing interpersonal discussion and conflict would be immensely helpful in learning how to deal with and resolve internal conflicts as well.
In her introduction, bell hooks observed how much her school experience changed once she began attending a racially integrated school. This reminded me a lot of the book I’m reading for books clubs, Ways with Words (Shirley Brice Heath). Both writers noted how instruction in integrated schools was totally geared towards the white child’s experience, and it actually pushed black children further behind because it was more difficult to feel a personal connection to their education. hooks also talks about how much more politically committed her education was in an all-black school. I feel that aspect of school is very important to me, so I hope she writes more about that way of learning. If you’re really bringing education in touch with students’ life experiences, their political identities are a necessary part of that.
I enjoyed the way hooks assigned teachers many different social roles in relation to their students. First, acknowledging the “performative aspect of teaching” stood out to me. Film and comedy and other forms of performance are really exciting to me, so in my own work experiences I’ve had fun thinking of it as playing a teacher role. It’s difficult to find the balance between playing the role of Someone Engaging versus becoming someone who isn’t honestly yourself (which is not the right direction). I think it’s worth it to find the right mark, though, because of how much the students love it when they see that you’re having fun being the teacher with them!
The second role hooks described was that of the healer. Again, it’s hard to tread the line between providing a whole, sensitive education and stepping over into a therapist-esque position. Not crossing that line seems like it would become much harder in practice if you deeply care about and want to understand your kids. Maybe in some ways, I think teachers should be a little more comfortable softening that boundary when a student doesn’t have another reliable source of adult support. Either way, I certainly agree that every part of education should try to speak to the hearts and passions of students in a way that makes them become stronger in those capacities.
In chapter 6, the emphasis on flexibility in the face of new circumstances and teaching how to learn really resonated with me. I’m of the opinion that the actual content being discussed is one of the least important parts of the classroom experience. I think it is much more about helping students develop a framework and useful methods which they can use to understand anything. I wished that Rosenblatt had touched on this a little more, because it would have been interesting to read her perspective on how an effective literary education affects how students read texts and especially approach challenging ideas in other subject areas.
Another thing I wished that she elaborated more on was the idea of not forcing students into reading material which they are not “ready” for. I understand the reasoning, but I couldn’t find a solid practical explanation of how to tell when a student is ready to read a particular piece. Also, it makes me wonder how to arrange this level-appropriateness in a large classroom, which will certainly have some students who are mature enough and some who are not yet. Maybe you could select texts which are on everyone’s level for whole-class reading, and also arrange some choice assignments, which would feature those more mature texts as options for the ready ones to self-select.
One line in chapter 7 caught my eye, which was Rosenblatt’s speculation on the role of electronic education in the future. She stated that in her present time period, the illiterate or not well-read had a significantly more limited world-view because they could not vicariously experience the diverse worlds represented in literature. Reading this securely in the digital age, it seems that the ability to transmit so much more information through visual and auditory means has enabled a much greater segment of the population to engage with broader examples of life. But I’m not confident in saying that this is a totally good thing. I feel that in some ways, it has discouraged people from developing a desire to become well-read. More people are aware of a knowledge gap, but fill it with a cursory level of information and experience. The desire to understand is satiated, but isn’t self-propagating. This whole idea draws on a few other points Rosenblatt made later in the chapter about developing a rigorous sense of curiosity. This whole paragraph draws on a few previous drafts I made trying to not get too mad about social media.
This section of Rosenblatt’s book gave me a lot to think about in my approach to teaching. I personally enjoy history and social sciences, and so I always assumed that the best way to teach a text is to provide as much well-rounded information about the piece and how it came to be. Her example of presenting a text to the class without the context of era, author, or even title surprised me, but I think she explained the methodology very well. It is easy to get wrapped up in the “hard facts” of context and ignore the artistry and personal connections you have to the text. She doesn’t mean that context is not important to consider at all, but that having a genuine and individual reaction can help ground your use of the context as furthering a critical understanding. The idea of only providing background information once a student has requested it for clarification also interested me. I worry that students wouldn’t know to ask at first. I want to think more about how to gradually lead them to being able to see the gaps in their understanding without prompting
She also touches on the idea that students may think that they have a “critical understanding” when in reality they are relying on a wealth of stock responses to generalized cues in the text. This reliance also comes from the lack of awareness of the transactional relationship they might have with a text. Most students seem to expect that there is something specific which a book is meant to teach them. After all, isn’t that why the teacher selected it? However, if students can be led towards the sense that they can only get out of texts as much as they put in, they might begin to see the practical and self-satisfying nature of reading.
Rosenblatt described critical reading as a more reasoned and consistent system of thoughts and values in everyday life. I like this interpretation because it again points to the practical, and to the true value of reading. Language is a structure, and through practiced and intensive reading, we can improve our sensitivity to that structure. The ability to have a sincere reaction, evaluate the appropriateness (support based on evidence) of that response, and finally express that final valuation is an important—and equally structured—skill in everyday life. Thus, the hope is that all readers can practice those skills vicariously through reading, and come out of it knowing how to deepen their experiences through literature.
The most novel concept to me in this first chapter of Literature as Exploration was the idea of responsive reading. I feel like the role of the audience can often be neglected in art, so this was a really interesting way to frame the author/reader dynamic. If I had to make the distinction myself, written art comes from an individual experience and the purpose is individual catharsis; it becomes literature when that experience and catharsis engages another person and has the chance to reincorporate those feelings in a new light. And to do that, the reader has to earnestly look for meaning and personal connections! For as much value as close-reading analysis has, I think emphasizing that too much turns “literature” into a pure history or psychology or linguistics study, rather than balancing those with the crucial aesthetic experience of it as an artistic work. Especially because those more scientific looks into literature require outside knowledge and research, whereas investigating texts as art has an internal locus of understanding. Sure, this can be supplemented by the teacher and given helpful structure, but it retains a lot more autonomy on the part of the student reader to react both viscerally and conscientiously.
Another main thread I enjoyed was the placement of teachers as social educators and role models to their developing students. I love how much more nuance this brings to the role of teaching, because it absolutely cannot be only about the content of the lesson. Before their identity as students, they are children with an unavoidable capacity to decide for themselves how the world is, can, and should be based upon every interaction they have. Honestly, this is an intimidating responsibility to hold as a central adult in these young people’s lives… But! This challenge is very exciting to me, because it brings those sciences of history, psychology, and linguistics (and many more) back into the classroom as elements to be aware of and reactive to when designing a teaching method.
At first, I was surprised that we would be starting a current issues in English education course with two articles written in 1912. It made a lot more sense to me once I noticed that both of these essays were included in the very first edition of The English Journal. The beginnings of the 20th century seem to be a turning point in how the American education system viewed teaching English–although at that point in time it’s still focused mostly on the teacher’s feelings rather than administrators. Both essays emphasize the importance of students practicing reading and writing, rather than simply memorizing passages or facts about the history of literature. They don’t mention it in this exact phrasing, but I suspect that both authors would agree that critical thinking skills on the part of the student were becoming more and more important to teachers. Of the two, Hopkins’ essay captured me a lot more than Lewis’, so I'll be focusing more on his piece here just for the sake of the word-count limit.
I found it interesting that Hopkins referred to English as “laboratory teaching.” This is a really exciting idea to me, because I love to think about any education practice as a science. Every new crop of students is an entirely new experience into group social dynamics and each individual student’s psychology. You have to treat the situation as something needing constant attention and adjustments in order to reach your goal of getting through to these kids. And, more importantly, you need to get the kids to see reading and writing in the same way! These activities are absolutely just as much lab work as performing a chemistry experiment and examining the results. So, the question is, how can teachers show students that the trial and error process of writing is equally as exciting as something like playing with coke and mentos? I think putting an emphasis on the communication aspect is key. If you can show a kid that choosing their words carefully has real and essential impacts on how fully they can communicate with others, they will find a lot more joy and value in writing.
I did disagree strongly with one line of Hopkins’: “Then is or is not training in English expression necessary to a successful industrial and business future?” This felt very indicative of the industrialist culture at the time, which we have still not fully grown out of. To me, the primary value of English is the pleasure you can find in understanding others and being understood yourself. This is not even to mention the pure aesthetic pleasure of reading something well-written. In my opinion, choosing to emphasize career importance is the wrong tack, and doesn’t so easily encourage a genuine love for English.