Embracing Change: In Memory of bell hooks (September 25, 1952-December 15, 2021)

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bell hooks speaking into a microphone at an event, November 1, 2009.jpg

bell hooks, by Cmongirl, is available to use in the public domain. 


In the fall of 1994, at the beginning of my second year of teaching at a two-year college in a large mid-Atlantic city, I found bell hooks Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom at a local bookstore. I flipped through the book, eventually landing on the essay “Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World.” In 2022, we would reframe “multiculturalism” as diversity, equity, and inclusion, and nearly thirty years later hooks’ words feel as moving and as relevant to me as that afternoon in the bookstore.


 “Embracing Change” begins: 

Despite the contemporary focus on multiculturalism in our society, particularly in education, there is not nearly enough practical discussion of ways classroom settings can be transformed so that the learning experience if inclusive. If the effort to respect and honor the social reality and experiences of groups in this society who are nonwhite is to be reflected inn a pedagogical process, then as teachers– on all levels, from elementary to university settings– we must acknowledge that our style  of teaching may need to change (p. 35).


These opening sentences were thrilling to me, and gave insight into my own teaching and learning about multiculturalism in graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, “multiculturalism,” in practice, often meant changing the syllabus to include writers of color, women, and working class folks. While these changes, in theory, seemed significant to me at the time, changing the sources alone did not lead, in practice, to antiracist classrooms.  


For example, as a TA and instructor of record for first-year-writing courses, I taught texts by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. to demonstrate how they used rhetorical appeals to structure their arguments. However, in the pedagogical approach introduced in our teaching practicum, teaching the rhetorical situation of audience, purpose, and occasion did not include  historical conditions of racism and white supremacy faced by Baldwin and King as writers and rhetors, and that necessitated antiracist arguments in the first place.  


The attention to racism and white supremacy was the gap that bell hooks’ work filled in my education as a teacher. Rather than presenting a generic one-size-fits-all pedagogy, Teaching to Transgress included both theory and practice through a Black feminist intersectional lens.  In other words, hooks suggests why “we must acknowledge that our style of teaching may need to change” ( and offers concrete suggestions for how teachers might approach changing our style. 


Years later, in revising Teaching Developmental Writing 4e, my editor and I agreed that “Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World.” seemed as pertinent as ever. The revision took shape in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, and the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young seventeen-year-old Black man, shot to death by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, In 2013, George Zimmerman’s acquittal of all charges in Trayvon Martin’s killing was the catalyst for the beginning of #BlackLivesMatter  as conceived by Alicia Garza, Patrisee Cullors, and Opal Tometi. 


For 2022 readers, hooks’ work in “Embracing Change” presents a means of activating diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond adding a few more sources to the class reading list. hooks’  description of the major tenets of a multicultural classroom include:


  • “To recognize the value of each individual voice” through keeping journals and writing paragraphs in class to one another (p. 40)
  • To learn from our students, and in order to gain an openness toward “different ways of knowing” (p. 41)
  • To study, understand, and discuss whiteness (p.  43). This does not mean recentering whiteness, but instead gaining a deeper sense of historical and cultural perspectives on coming to be seen as white, and such perspectives inform racism and antiracism


 While these pedagogical tenents might be seen as commonplaces in 2022, in 1994, hooks’ work felt revelatory.  When I finished graduate school in a decidedly rural setting, I moved from a well-funded Research 1 flagship institution to an urban two-year college that was one of the most poorly funded post-secondary institutions in the same state. The contrast in institutional resource was a deeply troubling introduction to the material and economic realities of neoliberalism. 


In light of these stark inequities, Teaching to Transgress opened my mind to reframing  teaching, as hooks suggests, as the practice of freedom, and to comprehending the work of this work teaching beyond the surface level. In other words, given the economic disparities so prevalent in funding for public higher education, it would not be enough to merely restate that all students are capable of learning and growing. Instead, as a teacher,  if the world was ever going to change for the better, I would also need to remain capable of  learning and growing from and alongside my students. Nearly thirty years later, I am grateful to bell hooks for sharing this wisdom, and for the opportunity to recommend her work to a new generation of readers.  


Keywords: bell hooks; diversity, equity, and inclusion; first-year writing; professional development

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.