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Notes on Teaching to Transgress in museums

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks reflects on her vision for engaged pedagogy across a series of essays that explore education as the process of freedom – education that is liberating, connects to the way we live, and at whose heart lies critical thinking. Like many readings on anti-oppressive pedagogy, her essays take place entirely in classrooms, specifically those in institutions of higher education. Many of the techniques outlined thus rely on having extended periods of time with students in which to build, practice and learn together in a space that is (in theory) entirely your own. Most museum educators do not have this luxury. All too often we have a very brief amount of time with students/families – anywhere from 5 minutes at a drop-in activity to 2 hours in a guided program – and are usually inheriting someone else’s power dynamics & learning culture. It’s therefore a fun intellectual challenge to take those same lessons for the classroom and apply them to the museum setting, and in reading Teaching to Transgress there were several that stood out as particularly applicable to the art of museum teaching.

Throughout her essays, hooks repeatedly runs up against a traditional concept of teacher that refuses to die. This teacher, presiding over their “mini kingdom, the classroom” is a concept that both educators and students often buy into and “stubbornly cling to” because they are unprepared for liberating pedagogy and have yet to learn how to navigate new ways of learning, thinking, and engaging with each other. This is a teacher/chaperone we encounter on a regular basis, those who lecture at learners or perhaps view behavior management as a matter of control, but it is also a habit that museum educators fall into. During a one-hour school program there isn’t necessarily time to teach people how to learn differently or how to navigate liberating pedagogy – and so one often feels compelled to find a middle ground or mimic some parts of the traditional classroom dynamic for practicality’s sake. It can be a fine line between meeting a group where they’re at and perpetuating power dynamics that support systems of inequality in the classroom, however. As we stress over our ability to cover content in a short amount of time, it’s important for us to pay attention not only to what we teach but how we teach it in order to avoid crossing that line.

Central to hooks’ vision of engaged pedagogy is the educator’s ability to build a learning community, that there’s a certain kind of love for each other and for the process that is present in the classroom. “A feeling of community creates a sense that there is a shared commitment and a common good that binds us,” she writes. For me, good museum teaching has a warmth to it and has a sense of learning together, not from the educator. “Where education is the practice of freedom…[it] will also be a place where teachers grow and will be empowered by the process.” In the museum setting it’s hard to create an instant community but we can still utilize techniques that help foster that sense of togetherness. Building team work and collaboration into the program structure, creating situations in which learners uncover material for themselves, and being open with students about your own learning process (and what you don’t know) are small examples of things that can increase the feeling of learning together.

A big part of creating that sense of community is making space to listen to each other. hooks employs pedagogical strategies “that affirm [students’] presence, their right to speak in multiple ways on diverse topics.” It’s important that the professor’s voice isn’t the only one, but also that all students feel heard, not just a certain few. Listening of course, requires making space for testimony. If personal experience is to be taken seriously as evidence, it’s necessary that the learning process rests upon a foundational belief that “we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge, [and] that this knowledge can indeed enhance the learning experience.” This is where museum education is often the strongest. With its contemporary ties to constructivist learning theory, most museum educational programming involves active participation, is learner-centric, and connected to prior knowledge & experience. Museum education’s favorite tricks, guided visual inquiry and dialogue, provide spaces for visitors to contribute to the learning process and make meaning together. For this practice to move beyond the surface level, however, requires a strong facilitator, one who is able to focus a conversation, step in, and be the critical voice if learners are unable to. To make space for testimony does not mean that everyone gets to talk willy nilly, nor that you listen to each other uncritically.

In an engaged pedagogy, emotions are a part of learning. hooks notes that in this kind of pedagogy it’s important to acknowledge emotions that may come up, that “there can be and usually is some degree of pain in giving up old ways of knowing and learning new approaches.” You often will have to teach students how to process these emotions and look at them critically. It’s not just negative/painful emotions that students/teachers need guidance in making space for. That joy can exist alongside serious study and doesn’t have to detract from intellectual rigor can be a hard concept for some to accept. It’s in making space for emotions that I most often feel museum educators are at a disadvantage because of the limited exposure nature of our programming. Students can be unwilling to open up on the spot about personal experiences in a new space with a stranger. Learners sometimes react negatively to content that challenges their world views, especially if caught by surprise. Other adults can be at odds with your teaching style, and often times both students and adults mistake informality for a lack of structure. I’ve often found that when fun is an integral part of the learning experience, students can have a hard time focusing on thinking critically or making connections, while chaperones struggle with providing guidance for their students. More dangerous, I find, is an assumption that because students are having fun they are not learning “serious” concepts or skills.

hooks also spends a significant amount of time investigating the “erasure of the body” that seems to dominate traditional concepts of teaching as intellectual work. She emphasizes that it’s important to acknowledge the physicality of teaching. Teachers are people with bodies: bodies with needs, bodies that get tired, bodies that move about in a space with other bodies. hooks points to the significant impact small changes such as a teacher stepping out from behind a podium to walk among students or arranging desks in a circle can have on a classroom environment. Although museum teaching doesn’t often involve podiums or rows of chairs, what we do have is the stop & talk. This physical model is equally as formal as a teacher behind a desk or a podium, for in both cases the educator is separate from the learners and requires a static and captive audience. It’s a pervasive structure, I think in part because it feels familiar to the traditional classroom environment and in part because supports the image of the museum as a formal environment. It’s never really been palatable to me as an educator. When I am done with a long day of teaching I am exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. I move around a lot at my current job – the space I teach in is volumous and filled with visual and auditory distractions that I have to compete with for students’ attention so I pace, make large gestures, get down on the floor, and do a fair amount of waitress teaching when students are working in small groups. I hadn’t really realized the impact it had on my effectiveness or the way that students react to me until I started watching and coaching interns on being intentional in their own practices. I’d always considered the way I moved when I taught a product of the setting I was in, but in reflecting on hooks’ words I began to draw connections across the ways I’ve moved in drastically different museum spaces. Previously I’d been working almost exclusively in small galleries with complicated nooks and furniture to navigate. In those spaces my teaching was constrained by space in an entirely different way, but the effect was still the same: I was among the students instead of in front or above them, dynamic instead of static, closer and more intimate rather than distant.  In learning to teach in these settings, becoming a physical part of the learning environment had become my preferred mode of being.

Throughout Teaching to Transgress it’s clear the influence Freire has had upon hooks’ vision of engaged pedagogy, particularly through his concept of praxis – “action and reflection on the world in order to change it.” She is skeptical of her colleagues who profess progressive personal politics but then do not bring these politics into their daily actions or classroom spaces. In order to engage in education as the practice of freedom, it is paramount that theory, content, pedagogy, and politics are interconnected and support each other. There are many things separate from the content itself that have an impact on the learning process, that can make a learning community liberating or oppressive. In aiming to alter your pedagogy to be anti-oppressive, it’s not enough to change the content. “Education as the practice of freedom is not just about liberatory knowledge, it’s about liberatory practice in the classroom,” hooks writes. It’s this synthesis that museum educators seem to struggle with – all too often I’ve seen personal politics that don’t appear in the classroom, progressive or critical content delivered via methods that support oppressive learning structures, or pedagogical methods that mimic engaged pedagogy but supply content that is unchallenging or harmful. Museum professionals across all functions of our institutions are quick to change up content in an effort to attract “new” audiences or as a method of inclusion and diversity initiatives, but continue to transmit that content in ways that maintain old systems of hierarchy and power. In order to truly shift museums towards anti-oppressive practices, we must be committed to thinking critically about how to change both content and delivery.