“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy...I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom”— from bell hooks

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom 

bell hooks was an author, professor, feminist and activist. She wrote and taught on subjects as wide-ranging but as interconnected as feminism, education, capitalism and American history. Love and friendship also came in for her treatment.

hooks, 69, died in December at her home in Kentucky. To celebrate her life and work, particularly her impact in the field of education, Nora Boyd, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy, and Shannon Draucker, Ph.D., assistant professor of English, organized a February 28 campus program of readings and reflections. 

“I’m so grateful that we got to celebrate bell hooks as a community,” said Draucker. “I’m especially grateful that so many students came to speak about hooks’ impact on their own learning and, for many of them, future teaching.”

Starting with Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981) hooks wrote nearly 30 books of literary criticism, children’s fiction, self-help, memoir and poetry. In Teaching to Transgress (1994), she argued that the American education system had been constructed to quiet dissent and shape young people into productive workers. Teachers needed to show their students how to break out of that stifling mold.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that hooks’ work forever changed how we think of the classroom,” said Draucker. “For hooks, the classroom was a place of community, pleasure, and excitement—'the most radical space of possibility in the academy,’ as she wrote. Reading hooks’ work in graduate school helped me dream up what kind of educator I wanted to be and what kinds of learning communities I wanted to co-create with my students.” 

Boyd noted that “bell hooks was a voice for the radical power of love and the transformative potential of education. 

“She herself was beloved by educators, students, political theorists, activists, philosophers and many more,” she said. “This event showed us some of the ways her life and work will continue to guide and inspire us in years to come.”

hooks wrote that “a devaluation of Black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of Black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.” This concept is one we may consider mainstream today precisely because of hooks’ impact on the intersectionality of the feminist and Black civil rights movements. She called for a new form of feminism that recognized differences and inequalities among women as a way of creating a more inclusive movement. She believed that in later years this had largely been achieved.

hooks lower-cased her names both to honor her great-grandmother (whose name she adopted) and to encourage a focus on her work, not her personality: the “substance of books, not who I am.” 

At the Siena event, Nodiaus DiTonno ’23 read from Teaching to Trangress. She said she was drawn to hooks’ emphasis on intersectionality and accessibility.

“Feminist concepts can be intimidating to those who don’t know much about it solely because the way some approach it in a complex way, while hooks does the opposite,” DiTonno explained. “She breaks down feminist ideology so that everyone can understand and apply it to their life. 

“Being a woman of color who is a first gen college student makes her work resonate with me in that she talks about her own struggles in being a woman of color in academia, which is so powerful coming from such an influential thinker and writer.”

Sofia Bock ’24 also read from Transgress, and said “Now more than ever, it is so incredibly important to keep bell hooks’ name both in education and in this world. As a future educator, I have learned so much from hooks and her teaching pedagogy, specifically in Teaching to Transgress. It is my wish to keep her memory and teachings alive in my future Spanish classroom, where mistakes can be made and life lessons will be learned. 

“hooks emphasized the fact that education equates to freedom, possibility, and community, which is so special. In being able to share valuable and beautiful quotes by hooks at this event, it is my hope that someone will take away how powerful language and learning truly is.”

Also taking part in the program were students Amir Taylor ’22, Shriya Matta ‘22, and Madison Loomis ’23; and faculty members Laurie Naranch, Ph.D., Annie Rody-Wright, Ph.D., Christine Dawson, Ph.D., and Keith Wilhite, Ph.D. They read from her works Feminism is for Everybody, Teaching Critical Thinking; Teaching to Transgress; her poetry; and reflected on her writing about antiracism, love of place, political cultural critique, restorative justice and other subjects. 

The event was sponsored by the programs for Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Multicultural Studies, and supported by the Committee on Teaching and Faculty Development.