Activist Teaching in a Digital Age: bell hooks, Public Pedagogy, And Digital Rhetoric

I began this week in search of more information around situated knowledge and activist pedagogy, and since I seem to be getting to review some major titans of cultural theory here, I spent some time with bell hooks. hooks has written extensively on education, particularly in a trilogy of texts she’s been working on for the last twenty years: Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994), Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003), and Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (2010). This body of work was perfect for me this week, as hooks is philosophically aligned with Lipsitz, but focused here particularly on the question of pedagogy — she’s interested in what’s actually happening in the classroom, in what it means to be a practitioner of what she calls democratic education, or education that strives to be radically inclusive, grounded in hope, and focused on social justice.

I focused on the final two texts of of hooks’ education trilogy, which build on the first to outline a theory of education that draws heavily on Paulo Freire and Parker J. Palmer and emphasizes the same principles that Lipsitz articulated in the work I surveyed last week: good education is necessarily connected to the struggle for social justice, grounded in conversation and listening, inclusive of different forms of knowledge, and collaborative in nature. In Teaching Critical Thinking, hooks writes that “the future of learning lies with the cultivation of conversations, of dialogue” (44), and that “genuine conversation is about the sharing of power and knowledge; it is fundamentally a cooperative enterprise” (45). Like Lipsitz, she’s interested in Freire’s concept of the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges,” and emphasizes the importance of shared stories and personal experience as legitimate sources of knowledge (2003, p. 2).

Where I found hooks most helpful, however, was in her elaboration of two key principles of her educational philosophy: the importance of community, and the commitment to education that expands beyond the classroom. Community is at the core of all of hooks’ beliefs about education: the classroom must be a safe space, she writes, imbued with a sense of mutual responsibility, respect, hope, and joy. Part of creating that community, for hooks, involves understanding the boundary between classroom and real world as porous. Instead of the “false construction of the corporate university as set apart from real life,” hooks “seeks to re-envision schooling as always a part of our real world experience, and our real life” (2003, p. 41). This means both drawing on lived experience in the classroom, “challeng[ing] the construction of certain forms of knowledge as always and only available to the elite” (2003, p. 41), and making knowledge accessible and relevant to the community at large.

So hooks brings activist scholarship into the classroom. The next step, I believe, has to be to connect hooks and Lipsitz with the other body of literature we’ve been reading about digital technology, collaborative learning, and active pedagogy. The connections seem to me to be so close to the surface, but somehow, the two groups aren’t quite talking to each other. Lipsitz and hooks aren’t talking about blogs or video games, and James Gee wasn’t talking about critical consciousness and scholarship for social justice. And yet, it seems to me that this is all part of the same conversation.

I started to do a cursory exploration of some of the scholarship that’s out there about digital learning, social justice, and public pedagogy. What I found certainly affirmed that there’s a connection to be made, even if it didn’t necessarily do the connective work. I looked at a few essays published in Learning the Virtual Life: Public Pedagogy in a Digital World (Peter Pericles Trifona, ed.), including “Digital Literacy and the Spaces of Academic Discourse,” in which Peta Mitchell argues that digital literacy has the potential to allow students to reimagine the university altogether. Mitchell argues that the university in its current iteration relies on the primacy of the written word, and this “scriptural economy” has “generated a normative discourse through which academic credibility and authority are constructed” (Mitchell, p. 3). According to Mitchell, however, digital literacy has the potential to shake all this up in a major way, to challenge the fundamental teacher-student relationships and modes of assessment that constitute university learning.  The most exciting questions coming out of the digital revolution, Mitchell argues, involve “how it might allow us to rethink academic literacy” (p. 10).

These same themes are continued in “New Epistemologies: Rethinking Ways of Knowing In a Digital Culture,” by Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell. Like Mitchell, Jenson and de Castell are interested in how the shift from a print-based to a digital culture might cause us to rethink the way we think: “Today’s diverse forms of mediation,” they write, “effect transformations of what knowledge is, what knowledge is of most worth, what are legitimate processes of coming to know, and who can legitimately assume the identity of knower” (Jenson and de Castell, p. 16).

To me, this sounds like hooks. And if you needed additional evidence, you’d look no further than the last article I looked at this week, “Teaching Digital Rhetoric: Community, Critical Engagement, and Application.” This article, published in Pedagogy in 2006, is a collaborative effort born out of a Digital Rhetoric course at Michigan State, and therefore is of interest to our course for a number of reasons. What strikes me most about the article, however, is how much it echoes hooks. “As individuals and educators,” the authors write, “we have a responsibility to understand the power of purposeful discourse — particularly in public digital spaces — and the ways it can be used for democratic, socially responsible ends, or used to marginalize and colonize” (, p. 241). Accordingly, the authors are exceedingly thoughtful about what it means to effectively teach digital rhetoric in a classroom setting, and they outline 3 major needs that must be met in order for a digital rhetoric course to be successful. They are: (1) the need for a community “to which [students] can belong and relate,” the need “to engage in genuine collaborative acts within those communities that incorporate the digital rhetoric principles and practices they are trying to master,” and the need to “connect to others inside and outside of the classroom” (243).

Community, genuine collaboration, and connection to a world outside a classroom. Sound familiar?

Works Cited:

  • “Teaching Digital Rhetoric: Community, Critical Engagement, and Application.” Pedagogy 6.2 (2006), pp. 231-259.
  • hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge 2003.
  • hooks, bell. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Jenson, Jennifer and Suzanne de Castell. “New Epistemologies: Rethinking Ways of Knowing in a Digital Culture.” Learning the Virtual Life: Public Pedagogy in a Digital World, Peter Pericles Trifonas, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  • Mitchell, Peta. “Digital Literacy and the Spaces of Academic Discourse.” Learning the Virtual Life: Public Pedagogy in a Digital World, Peter Pericles Trifonas, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
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