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Ode to ‘radical openness’ at school. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Many of my students have never felt safe at school. I know because I ask. Early in my career, this thread of inquiry was prompted by students’ guardedness and/or surprise that I encourage dialogue, including debate and dissent. I insist that we all listen and endeavor to appreciate our distinct voices. I demonstrate that personal experience is as valuable as ‘book knowledge’ when both are subjected to criticality. This is distinct from the conventional objectiveness and alleged neutrality that we now know as universalising whiteness, maleness, bourgeois values (e.g. hooks, 1994: 16). If they hadn’t known, my students quickly learn what it means to bring the whole self into the classroom.ttt-hooks

Many fellow educators have never known a classroom where teachers build a community of “mutual engagement,” through what bell hooks calls “radical openness” (1994: 205). I am frustrated that rather than transform, they opt to re-instantiate the dominance/subordination of conventional pedagogy. This dynamic “often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience… or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students” (hooks, 2003: 91). This is intellectual sadomasochism (hooks, 2000: 165).

Unsurprisingly, that conventional banking’ model “where students are regarded merely as passive consumers” still receives credence in bureaucratic institutions worldwide (hooks, 1994: 40). Like abused children, many are eager to uphold that status quo due to “their cathected feelings for those adults” who were otherwise meant to care (hooks, 2000: 49).

Safe(r) in school

I have always liked school. From the memories I (now) select to represent the institution to me, it has always been a safe space of ‘radical openness’. The irony, of course, is that to love a place with integrity, one must know its opposite: I have experienced both love and terror within the classroom. I knew both by the time I was 6.

I continue to teach because I earnestly believe the classroom is the most radical space on the planet. It is the one space where there seems universal agreement that humans must grow. There is universal agreement that classrooms SHOULD be safe, though clearly there is no agreement on how that safety should be met. For example, I first realised I was gay inside a classroom, accepted it in another, and understood both its potential destructive and transformative implications in yet others.tc-hooks

In first grade, I had a crush on a guy named Freddie and a girl named Renée. In retrospect, I realised I wanted Freddie to like me the way that all the boys seemed to like Renée – the lightest-skinned black girl with the longest, bone-straight hair. Gay, right?

In 7th grade, when I was 12, I had two clear epiphanies during two separate chorus classes. First, an older classmate mocked my speech pattern as ‘gay’ to which I retorted: “Just because I talk proper doesn’t mean I’m gay.” He was one of the star basketballers on our school’s team; everyone looked up to him and laughed at his jokes. At that moment, it was hurtful and confusing. Crucially, however, that same classmate seamlessly continued to treat me like a little brother, and we grew even closer over the years. Teasing was his only means of discussing alternate masculinities. Typical jock, right?

Shortly thereafter, when our beloved chorus teacher went on maternity leave, her replacement was an effeminate Black man – what Brits call ‘camp’. Unlike our other teachers, he never said anything about his life outside the classroom – this was the Bible Belt in the 80’s. Yet, there was an immediate cathartic sense of identification that still warms me. I distinctly recall working out in my 12-year-old head that not only my school, but my state’s school system had to have approved of this individual. I was for the first time seeing someone like me ‘in the world’. Years later when I bumped into him at ‘the club’ I thanked him for his service. Representation matters!

That summer I participated in an enrichment program on the university campus where my parents and godparents all met one another. During one class, the guest speaker concluded his motivational talk by mocking an effeminate man who’d come to meet him after another talk. It was unclear why campiness had suddenly become the topic, so I asked a question to quickly change the subject. As the speaker began his response, another student muttered loudly “you’re talking to one right now”. No one came to my defense, including me. I couldn’t believe that a room full of kids and adults had allowed such a hateful slur. I felt terrified, yet held my tears for the bus ride home.

aal-hooksSuch incidents at 12 years old convinced me of two things: 1) The classroom is the safest space for radical openness, and 2) I had to leave Kentucky, as George Michael sang in Flawless: “You know you’re wasted here, wasted here/And there ain’t no miracles happening any time soon.”

I am an exile, yet at home everywhere else in the world where there is a classroom. Students generally appreciate my honesty and willing openness about my life’s journey. As educators, we tend to forget that unless challenged, students somehow believe that we were born like this – as fully formed teachers. Share your journey; it allows them to map their own.

For more inFormation

hooks, bell.

– (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

– (2000) All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Marrow and Co.

– (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

You can’t tell me what to do….

It seems that much criminological discussion centres on motivation. This ranges from focusing on the motivation to commit crime, the motivation to report victimisation, the motivation to work within the criminal justice system, all the way though to the motivation for punishment. In each of these circumstances, much is taken for granted, assumed and reacted to as if there were a consensus. 

However, how much do we really know about motivation? To be sure, there are plenty of criminological theories focusing on individual explanations for criminality and deviance, particularly around psychopathy, personality and biology. Others, such as Classical theory assume that we are all the same, rational creatures motivated by the same factors. But take a moment and consider what motivates you? Are those factors positive or negative?

Let’s take the prison for example. According to some politicians, the media and other commentators, incarceration can punish and rehabilitate, frighten people out of crime whilst also empowering them to move away from crime. It offers an opportunity to desist from drug taking, whilst simultaneously enabling prisoners to develop a drug habit. Prison can offer a haven from social problems on the outside, whilst also creating a dangerous environment on the inside and these are just a few of the many pronouncements on the prison. Although oppositional, these differing narratives all indicate the prison as a place of change; transformation, the only difference is whether this is positive or negative, in essence does prison make people better or worse?

Considering much of the blog’s readership is focused on education, it might be useful to apply the prison experience to our own personal motivations. Would it be helpful to have someone constantly telling you what to do? Escorting you to and from the toilet, the classroom, the workplace? Controlling your every move? Deciding when and what you eat? Determining if you can access a shower, the library, the gym and so on? Passing judgement on who can visit you and when they can come? Would these “motivational” factors inspire you to study more? What if you were locked in a very small room (think student accommodation) for hour upon end, would your essays be any better?

For me personally, all of the above, would not motivate; they might frighten or even terrify me. They would allow me to feel resentful, bitter, alienated, perhaps even aggressive. Maybe I would become depressed, self-harm, or turn to drugs for consolation. Maybe, I could retreat into studying as release from an oppressive regime, but is that motivation? or escapism? or even institutionalisation?

I wonder, surely there must be far better, less harmful ways of tapping into motivation? By looking at our own experiences and considering what has motivated us in a positive way previously, we can begin to consider how we might motivate ourselves and others. Some of the motivational factors I can identify from my own life include, people who are prepared to listen to my ideas (good and bad) without interrupting, to guide (but not tell, never tell!) me to finding solutions to problems and to treat me with dignity and respect. Other examples, include introducing me to important literature, but not batting an eyelid when I excitedly tell them all about the content. Being there for me as a fellow human regardless of status (perceived or otherwise), when everything is a challenge, and I just want to vent and celebrating all successes (however tiny). These are just a few, personal reflections, but what they have in common, is the focus on another human who matters to you, who is cheering you on from the side-lines and is able to empathise and encourage. The other commonality, of course, is that these factors are not entrenched within the prison or the wider criminal justice system.[1]

Have a think for yourself and see if you can find anything currently within the prison or CJS that would motivate you! If it doesn’t, you need to question what it is the prison is actually trying to achieve.


[1] This does not preclude individual positive interpersonal relationships within the prison or CJS, but it is not a primary function of either.

Terrorised into compliance

Edvard Munch, (1893) The Scream

Learning and teaching is a complex business, difficult to describe even by those in the process of either/or both. Pedagogy, as defined by Lexico is ‘[t]he method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept’. It underpins all teaching activity and despite the seemingly straightforward definition, is a complex business.  At university, there are a variety of pedagogies both across and within disciplines. How to teach, is as much of a hot topic, as what to teach and the methods and practices are varied.

So how would you feel if I said I wanted Criminology students to quake in their boots at the prospect of missing classes? Or “literally feel terror” at the thought of failing to do their reading or not submitting an assessment? Would you see this as a positive attempt to motivate an eager learner? A reaction to getting the best out of lazy or recalcitrant students? A way of instilling discipline, keeping them on the straight and narrow on the road to achieving success? After all, if the grades are good then everything must be okay? Furthermore, given many Criminology graduate go on to careers within Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ maybe it would be useful to give them a taste of what’s to come for the people they deal with (1977: 209).

Hopefully, you are aghast that I would even consider such an approach (I promise, I’m definitely not) and you’ve already thought of strong, considered arguments as to why this would be a very bad idea Yet, last week the new Home Secretary, Pritti Patel stated that she wanted people to “literally feel terror” at the prospect of becoming involved in crime. Although presented as a novel policy, many will recognise this approach as firmly rooted in ideas from the Classical School of Criminology. Based on the concepts of certainty, celerity and severity, these ideas sought to move away from barbaric notions and practices to a more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment.

Deterrence (at the heart of Classical School thought) can be general or specific; focused on society or individuals. Patel appears to be directing her focus on the latter, suggesting that feelings of “terror” will deter individuals from committing crime. Certainly, one of the classical school’s primary texts, On Crime and Punishment addresses this issue:

‘What is the political intention of punishments? To terrify, and to be an example to others. Is this intention answered, by thus privately torturing the guilty and the innocent?’

(Beccaria, 1778: 64)

So, let’s think through this idea of terrorising people away from crime, could it work? As I’ve argued before if your crime is a matter of conscience it is highly unlikely to work (think Conscientious Objectors, Suffragettes, some terrorists). If it is a crime of necessity, stealing to feed yourself or your family, it is also unlikely to succeed, certainly the choice between starvation and crime is terrifying already. What about children testing boundaries with peers, can they really think through all the consequences of actions, research suggests that may not be case (Rutherford, 1986/2002). Other scenarios could include those under the influence of alcohol/drugs and mental health illnesses, both of which may have an impact on individual ability to think through problems and solutions. All in all, it seems not everyone can be deterred and furthermore, not all crimes are deterrable (Jacobs, 2010). So much for the Home Secretary’s grand solution to crime.

As Drillminister demonstrates to powerful effect, violent language is contextual (see @sineqd‘s discussion here). Whilst threats to kill are perceived as violence when uttered by young, black men in hoods, in the mouths of politicians they apparently lose their viciousness. What should we then make of Pritti Patel’s threats to make citizens “literally feel terror”?

Selected bibliography

Beccaria, Cesare, (1778), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Edinburgh: Alexander Donaldson), [online]. Available from: https://archive.org/details/essayoncrimespu00Becc/page/n3

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Jacobs, Bruce A., (2010), ‘Deterrence and Deterrability’, Criminology, 48, 2: 417-441

Rutherford, Andrew, (1986/2002), Growing Out of Crime: The New Era, (Winchester: Waterside Press)

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