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Students’ Advice for the New Year (Inspired by bell hooks)

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Count me among the multitudes mourning bell hooks, a teacher of teachers. My copy of her essay, “Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education,” in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989), is so inked up I can hardly read the text through my blue ballpoint comments. I have both starred and underlined her reminder that students bring expertise to our classrooms. She urges us to maintain those connections by “knowing, naming, and being ever-mindful of those aspects of one’s past that have enabled and do enable one’s self-development in the present, that sustain and support, that enrich” (79). Her commitment to sharing power with students in a classroom is a lodestar for me.

Compare hooks’ pedagogical humility with the recent viral post by a professor who tested whether students read his syllabus by hiding information deep in its pages about a campus locker with money in it, free to the first finder. No one claimed the money. Aha! Supposedly, this proves students are too lazy to read the fine print of a syllabus, yet another version of the much-memed complaint: “It’s in the syllabus!” But are all syllabi really worth reading? What could be gained by this “gotcha” approach, which positions students as disappointments, unable to appreciate an academic genre that is so often boiler-plate, by this professor’s own admission? What would bell hooks say about this power dynamic, and the conversations it shuts down?

Our students, in my experience, are quite prepared to see the classroom as bell hooks does — as “… the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (Introduction to Teaching to Transgress, 1994).  Last month, on the last day of the fall semester, I invited first-year students to compose a list of advice to next year’s class. One student took notes at the front of the room, and I sat back to enjoy their spirited debate and (sometimes hilarious) editing by consensus.

Among the items on their “Advice to Next Year’s Students”:

  1. Make personal connections in the class — with classmates and the professor. (Try putting down your phone when you come into class.)
  2. Be open and willing to put forth time and energy.
  3. Ask questions! Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  4. Take advantage of campus resources and support systems, including your professor’s office hours.
  5. Have fun!
  6. Be willing to make mistakes. Get the embarrassment out of the way by trying new things right away!

They debated the wording of #6 for several minutes, trying to figure out how to explain that learning means taking risks, and being vulnerable. “But we don’t want to freak them out!” one student said, wondering if there was a friendlier word than “embarrassment.” Another countered, “Yeah, but let’s be real — weren’t we all embarrassed at first? And then it got better and less weird?” I basked in their self-reflection, their flush of confidence after 15 weeks of college, and their protective tenderness toward these future students. At the end of the hour, my voice caught as I thanked them for their wisdom and care and told them we all share a vision of the risks and promise of education.

As our Spring semester begins, I sent these students their own suggestions hoping they will hear their wisdom. I imagine bell hooks cheering them on as they make the most of the “radical space of possibility” in our classrooms this semester. May we be worthy of them.

 

Image Credit: Photo of Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, taken by the blog’s author, April Lidinsky

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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.