Like fellow blogger, Libby Gruner,  I too spent the end of the semester in a lively discussion about teaching. Several of us gathered last week to discuss bell hooks’ newest book, Teaching Critical Thinking,  the last of the trilogy that includes Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community. Since it was the end of the semester, I anticipated very few faculty would attend this ad hoc discussion, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a large group including colleagues from history, social work, physics, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines — male and female, tenured and untenured. Although teaching is valued and supported at our institution, this was the one of the most intense and meaningful discussions of our core values as teachers in which I have participated. I was surprised by the differing responses to the book, and heartened by my colleagues’ willingness to listen respectfully and reflect honestly on the intense issues hooks raises. While I don’t find this book as powerful as hooks’ earlier work, I was struck, once again, by her ability to delve deeply into the human aspect of teaching; humor, touch, sadness, and even love have a place in the classroom, she argues.
One of hooks’ most powerful points is her analysis of the ways that academia denies the body — both the student’s body and the teacher’s. As a black woman at Stanford, hooks writes that her own body was seen as problematic by racist professors. She uses this example to argue for a radical acknowledgment of the material reality of our lived bodies in education:
before words are spoken in the classroom, we come together as bodies. We read each other through the gaze. . . . Our students are looking at us and wondering what our bodies have to say about who we are and how we live in the world. We see our students, too, as embodied presence. (153)
Although this passage doesn’t address the maternal body directly, many contributors to Mama, PhD have written about the ways that being a mother in academia challenges the western philosophical split between body and mind and between rational thought and emotion. However, hooks argues that learning takes place within the body, and that learning is also an emotional process. At the least, it’s pretty difficult to refute hooks’ argument that negative emotions can hinder learning. However, many of us female professors wondered if by creating a caring, nurturing space in the classroom, we might be enacting stereotypically ‘womanly’ personas; mothering students, in short. I’m aware that even by writing about the emotional nature of teaching I risk being labeled as less intellectual than my peers who ignore students’ lives/bodies/emotions. Sometimes I question my own teaching methods, which often include anecdotes about my daughter, humor, and concern for their nutrition. I will occasionally tell them how a piece of literature resonates within my own life and invite them to make similar links. Of course, I hasten to add, none of this takes away from my difficult assignments and rigorous reading schedule. But I often wonder if I’m not too human in the classroom.
Then a student in my general education course with whom I’ve never spoken outside of class asked to meet with me. A tall, handsome young man who does well in class and contributes to class discussion, he seemed without a care in the world. In my office with hands severely shaking and eyes downcast, he told me that he wanted to die. I listened to him for a long time, then strongly advised counseling. It’s grandiose at best and dangerous at worst to imagine that professors can serve as counselors, nutritionist, and parents to our students. After a couple of sleepless nights worrying about this particular student, my husband had to remind me that I cannot control what happens to him. But, ultimately, I am glad that he is real to me, and that I seemed approachable to him.