Dead Teachers, Live Pedagogies And The Reanimation Of Hope

by Eric J. Weiner

January, 2022. East End, Long Island, NY. It’s getting colder. I just recovered from a bout with COVID. I am sitting around the fire pit sipping tequila, drinking homemade bone broth from a mug, and watching lists of very important dead people, ripped from various newspapers and magazines, burn in the fire. Life is good.

It is curious to me that the ending of each calendar year should signal the production of these lists. Against the backdrop of so much death from COVID in 2021, they are exclusively brief and, in the Marcusian sense, one-dimensional. Commodify your nostalgia: the bad and ugly exchanged whole cloth for the good. Death as salve, all is forgiven or, at the least, quickly forgotten. Beck got it right: “Time is a piece of wax falling on a termite/Who’s choking on the splinters.” No one gets out alive. But for those of us who are teachers, the lessons we learned from our dead brothers and sisters, those intimates who have touched and transformed our lives in deep and meaningful ways, can be reanimated through our teaching.

From the pedagogical perspective, the lexicon of death is not about lore, myth-making, or some other practice of forgetting. Rather, it suggests a critical practice of recognition that is concerned with how they lived their lives; how they taught their own students; how they treated their colleagues; the way they represented their work; the way they situated themselves within and beyond the university and school; the way laughter informed their interactions; and the seriousness by which they undertook their various social/political/educational projects.

Imperfectly beautiful and unfinished in life, critical pedagogies of remembrance resurrect and reanimate the dead by embodying and amplifying their central habits and conceptual maps. Like pedagogical alchemists, we transmogrify the lessons that they left us in a way that is unique to each of us and the particular brave spaces of learning that we share with our students. If the lists of the dead that come out at the end of each year reek with nostalgia and sentiment, are “flat” in E. M. Forster’s terminology, pedagogical reanimation recasts the death of those that we loved into a pleasantly plump and “round” form of characterization and “re-memory.”

Stanley Aronowitz, Michele Knobel and bell hooks are three people that died in 2021 that I feel an intimate connection with and that I reanimate through my pedagogy. Sadly, bell hooks is the only one I’ve seen appear on anyone’s list. As I mentioned in another essay, I met and spoke with Stanley several times but didn’t know him socially. bell hooks I never met, yet her influence on my thinking and teaching is immeasurable. Like Stanley, she is one of only a few dissident intellectuals who took education and teaching seriously. Her book Teaching to Transgress as well as her numerous talks and interviews about teaching and education feed my pedagogy in subtle and powerful ways. I’ve already written about what I called Stanley’s “radical educational imagination,” but I didn’t discuss how his life and work inform my own pedagogy. Both Aronowitz and hooks’ work always informed my teaching, but since their deaths, it feels even more important to discuss a few of their central lessons that continue to feed my pedagogical soul.

Michele was a colleague and friend, a scholar of enormous force, a loving person, a spectacular teacher, and a devoted mentor to countless graduate students. Her death was sudden and left her friends and family looking down at their shoes in sorrow and up to the heavens in anger or disbelief. Michele’s influence, unlike Aronowitz and beyond hooks, marks me like a tattoo, what Peter McLaren calls an “enfleshed” relation, more than an intellectual or pedagogical experience. She rocked the halls that we shared for more than fifteen years and my own sense of what could be will never be the same.

The lasting pedagogical power of Aronowitz for me was his irreverence. The “sacred cows” of intellectual and academic life were slaughtered with glee and good humor. His central message that we need to substitute “reverence for critique” informs all of my teaching. Nothing was too sacred for critical interrogation. The care in which he tore into the classical literature on science, education and sociology showed how one could be critically irreverent without being reactionary. Nothing was beyond the pale of critical analysis. He avoided easy answers by asking difficult questions. The more “sacred” the text, the more care he showed in his critique of it. His irreverence, however, was not a dismissal. And this is one of the central ideas that I try and teach my students in subtle ways in every class. We can be critical without being censorious.

We can agree with some things while disagreeing with others without erasing the work (or the architect) in its entirety. This is particularly important when the reflex from the left and right is to silence, erase, ban, or “cancel” that which is deemed offensive, triggering, “unsafe,” and uncomfortable. Engagement, dialogue, assessment, nuances of meaning, textures of knowledge, and the roundness of both power and oppression; the aesthetic dimension of Aronowitz’s critical contributions to my pedagogical reanimation of his life and times is formative at a cultural level. Every time I teach, I feel Stanley’s presence, his commitment to creating the educational conditions that might support a vibrant and convivial life of the mind. Ideas matter and the struggle over their value and influence is a form of work that is worth doing.

bell hooks’ asked a simple but transformative question that follows me around, year after year, like the scent of a lover not quite lost to time and circumstance: “Transgression in the service of what?” Her book Teaching to Transgress reached and transformed many lives since its publication in 1994. In it she grapples with the work of Paulo Freire specifically and the neo-Marxist framework of critical pedagogy more generally. She was one of the only feminist women at the time that had refused to reduce critical pedagogy and Freire’s work to a broken theory blinded and devastated by its own patriarchal assumptions. In the same way she employed her irreverence for white feminist scholarship in the development of a more complex and nuanced radical black feminism, she did the same in her treatment of critical pedagogy. She saw in critical pedagogy so much to be learned, reproduced, and reimagined, yet she also saw absences and contradictions. Her core philosophy of love and even Eros in teaching had profound effects on my own struggle to reconcile what it meant to be critical on one hand with feelings of love, desire and compassion on the other.

Transgression for hooks was ultimately defined by the project the transgression was serving. I remember a poetry reading I attended decades ago at the Nuyorican Poets Café on the lower Eastside of Manhattan and listened to a male poet perform a poem in which the female character in his poem is subjected to a brutal beating by her male partner which culminates in her getting thrown down a long stairwell. The poet paused between the sounds of her yelps as her head smashed against the metal edge of each linoleum stair. He used the microphone to great effect and the audience could hear her fear and pain. The poet had transgressed established standards of how a poem could be read and what it meant to listen. The audience clapped and congratulated him on his creativity and the power of his poem. Yet there was a voyeuristic dimension to his performance that troubled me. He encouraged us to watch instead of bear witness. He had reduced male violence to an aesthetic experience. Gratefully, I couldn’t stop hearing hooks’ question: Transgression in the service of what!? The question continues to haunt my teaching in similar ways.

To say these lessons from hooks inform my teaching would be a mischaracterization of their impact and influence. They do more than inform. They permeate the flesh, penetrate the heart and soul, entangle the mind in ideas specific and vast. When I challenge a student, knowing it will potentially make her uncomfortable, I think about hooks’ commitment to love and justice. When I think I am being a creative and transgressive teacher, I always hear her question: “Transgression in the service of what?” The “what” for hooks should be justice, fairness, love, complexity, compassion, community, deep learning, shared conversation, mutual exploration, respect, toleration, and beauty: searching beyond the edges of reason, playing in the spaces between being and being something different than what we are, hooks’ long shadow will, for as long as I am able, bring comfort and hope to my teaching.

Michele’s scholarship was vital and meaningful, but it is not the thing that travels with me into each of my classrooms and into the pedagogical relationships I have with my students. Michele, like hooks and Aronowitz, was a brutally honest cultural and pedagogical broker. Her commitment to authenticity was exceptional.  Her courage to stand-up for what she believed in the face of criticism was unwavering. She walked her walk, dressed the way she wanted to dress, spoke in her own tongue, and was committed to her graduate students’ intellectual development in a way that few do. She was somehow able to participate in university life while not sacrificing the things that made her a unique and dissident force for change.

I would marvel at her energy and ability to point out the mistakes in your thinking while making you feel smart while she did it. This is a pedagogical superpower. She would take apart an argument bit by bit, all the while showing her students how brilliantly wrong they were. They would always leave, in the aftermath of her critiques, feeling smarter and more capable. She loved her students and that love—deep, radical, and authentic—allowed them to take risks, laugh at themselves, and find joy in the hard struggle that all meaningful and transformative learning demands. Michele embodied a radical feminism that amplified her powers—intellectual, sexual, aesthetic—creating a great tapestry of love that I try to wear, in celebration and recognition of her critical pedagogy, on my proverbial sleeve. Although I know I will never be able to meet the pedagogical standard she set, Michele still makes me want to be a better teacher.

Those of us who teach are privileged to be able turn our memories into critical pedagogies that help to seed the imaginations of our students, shape behaviors and attitudes, and provide them a moral compass from which to navigate a complex world. These pedagogies reanimate the central ideas of those that have died but not in strictly methodological or instrumental terms. Rather than teach my students about their ideas (which I do as well), through pedagogies of remembrance their ideas “speak” through me, are enfleshed in my behaviors, emotions and thoughts, and reanimated in my praxis. As I think about my relationship to the dead teachers who lovingly haunt the edges of my life and classrooms, I am reminded of Psalm 23:4: Yea, even if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid of evils: for thou art with me…”

Wishing all my readers a peaceful, loving, and healthy 2022!