In Honor of Thich Nhat Hanh: Kindness in the Classroom

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What a one-two punch to lose both bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh in successive months. I wrote about bell hooks’ influence on my teaching in my last post, and recently returned to her beautiful essay, “Engaged Pedagogy,” in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. In that essay, hooks introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s insights about pedagogy, which focus on ways instructors can engage with students on the project of “self-actualization.” Ah, no pressure there! But of course, writing instructors understand that serious engagement with personal growth is exactly what we do when we offer students tools, intellectual context, questions, and lots of practice in articulating what they believe and why they believe it. 

Not all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s message speaks easily to me, such as his vision of teachers as healers. (Who am I to claim such powers?) But I appreciate that, as hooks puts it, he “offered a way of thinking about pedagogy which emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body, and spirit” (Teaching to Transgress 14). This evergreen reminder that we have the privilege of accompanying whole people who share with us the ongoing embodied experience of living through a long pandemic reminds me that I am among friends who see teaching and learning as one way to heal ourselves.

Lest that sound impossibly aspirational, hooks translates this into terms that ring true to me: “[Thich Nhat Hanh’s] focus on a holistic approach to learning and spiritual practice enabled me to overcome years of socialization that had taught me to believe a classroom was diminished if students and professors regarded one another as ‘whole’ human beings, striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world” (15). Yes, indeed: Isn’t that  — learning how to live in the world — the charge for those of us who teach the liberal arts?

Along those lines, the title of history professor Catherine Denial’s essay, “The Pedagogy of Kindness,” caught my eye in a colleague’s social media post. I devoured Denial’s description of shifting away from her training in pedagogical “rigor” posited as “toughness,” to an approach of “kindness.” Like Susan Bernstein’s recent post on hooks, which draws on the Teaching to Transgress chapter “Embracing Change,” Denial focuses on hooks’ point that “there can be, and usually is, some degree of pain involved in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing and learning new approaches” (43). Consider the heavy thinking we ask of our students, and the implications for changing the ways they — and we — understand the world. Consider further that we are all doing this labor in a marathon of a global health crisis. The circumstances are so urgent, and kindness may be the only attitude that can bear us up and through.

For all that calm guidance, bell hooks was unafraid to admit the messiness of her human experience, too. Her description of revealing to Thich Nhat Hanh that she was often filled with rage at the racism and injustice in the world is so, well, kind. hooks said, “he met that rage with loving kindness. And I would just always remember the sweetness with which he told me ‘Oh, hold on to your anger and use it as compost for your garden’”  — as if, even in corrosive circumstances, kindness can make learning, and learning how to live in the world, imaginable.

As I write this post in South Bend, Indiana, on Groundhog Day, a blizzard has closed our campus. Springtime and growth feel impossibly far away, but I’m hanging onto this idea of compost, remembering that the kindness we try to summon for students is good for us, too.


Image Credit: Photograph taken by the author of this post, April Lidinsky

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.