the rigours of pleasure or the pleasures of rigour?

I’m still all over bell hooks. Last week’s post (“when teacherly desires meet rigid resistance”) was inspired by her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and this week I’m back at it; I can’t stop thinking about hooks’ musings on pleasure and learning. If you are looking for some very readable work on teaching in the university (or teaching in general, really), hooks’ book is a great place to start. Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do is much more widely read, to be sure, and offers some very practical advice and techniques practiced by successful teachers and instructors. Bain’s book reads both like a teaching manual and an inspirational piece– if I were to go looking for it at my local bookstore I would be inclined to look for it in the “How-To” section and would likely find it sitting on a shelf next to Teaching for Dummies (such a book must exist, I’m sure). Failing that, I’d check the “Self Help” section. Is that a put-down? Possibly, yes. But as another instructor described Bain’s book to me: “It makes great bed-time reading.” And really, it does.

Teaching to Transgress is equally as readable as What the Best College Teachers Do, but hooks’ text differs from Bain’s in one very important regard: it does not exclusively seek to evaluate, analyze and classify the mechanisms of strong teaching as though teaching were, indeed, a mechanical process that can be broken down into component parts. hooks is more concerned with the politics of teaching; she uses her book to think through how teaching practices might best bring politics and social reform into the classroom. In my mind, politicizing the classroom is a must, if not an inevitability. There is nothing today that so resembles (physically, at least) the street-corner soapbox as the lecture podium, with the exception, perhaps, of the pulpit.

But back to pleasure. I find hooks’ insistence on the role of pleasure in learning refreshing. She writes:

“The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere…. But there seemed to be no interest among either traditional or radical educators in discussing the role of excitement in higher education.” (hooks 7)

I agree with hooks that scholarship on undergraduate-level teaching tends to leave the question of pleasure in learning unaddressed. What’s going on here? As hooks notes, pleasure is a constant in literature on and discussions about teaching children (7). What happens after high school graduation? Do adults lose their faculty for pleasure?

Pleasure v. Academic Rigour

A quick scroll through the numerous comments provoked by James Ricky Cox’s recent polemical blog post, “Academic Rigor: Lessons from Room 10,” gives us some insight into the cause of the reluctance to mention learning and pleasure in the same breath at colleges and universities. In post-secondary education, pleasure, fun, and comfort are often invoked as evil nemeses to the noble, heroic trio of rigour, challenge, and productive discomfort. Many comments on Cox’s post clearly demonstrate the recognition that pleasure and rigour are not mutually exclusive; others, however, clearly do not.

The debate on Cox’s blog, and the rigorous zeal with which some commenters there have defended academic rigour is enlightening. It demonstrates just how difficult it can be to discuss the merits of pleasure in a culture so deeply invested in rigour, where merit, intelligence and one’s pay scale is often attributed to years of arduous learning, exacting solitude and solemn self-sacrifice.

Rigour is a strange word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it outside the walls of the university. When I do hear it, it has the smack of the paddle to it– when that word crops up in a conversation on campus, it carries with it the distinctive ring of discipline. It’s the type of word you hear at your thesis defense: “Would you describe your research as rigorous? What methodologies did you employ to ensure that you researched your project rigorously?” It quite literally puts you on the defense. Alternatively, concerns about rigour are mobilized in academia as measures of preemptive defense– academic journals “rigorously” review the submissions they receive, and conference organizers reject applicants based on “rigorous” selection standards. Academic rigour is invoked in efforts both to conjure fear, and to ward it off. It’s a semi-magical, but very powerful, incantation in the academic world.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a bit suspicious of academic rigour, and of those who wield it like a weapon. Its use in connection to fear makes me think that it is also closely linked to anxiety, perhaps to the growing anxiety surrounding the diminishing role of the university in North American society, and the diminishing status of professors and the questionable or uncertain value of graduate degrees. Last week some fantastic friends helped me move; as a group we were comprised of four Ph.D. students and one engineer, plus my partner, a millwright. When cleaning out the basement– a scary-ass dungeon-like space full of spiders and motors, tools, pipes and wiring– I picked up a few large coils of hose (used for what purpose I have no idea), and, having slung one each over a shoulder, proclaimed, “Look at me! I’m a worker! See, I do things… with things.” A friend then picked up a massive spool of wiring; I yelled, “Look! You do things too!”

We spindly-armed academics can get pretty anxious about the wider world not recognizing that we do, indeed, do “things,” albeit abstract things. We lament the lack of recognition of the hard labour that we do, and we worry that people don’t see value in our work. Invoking the need for academic rigour is one way for an academic to flex some intellectual muscle; it’s the equivalent of a weight-lifter “just happening” to flex his/her biceps during a tense meeting with the boss, or when meeting someone new.

My own comment on “Lessons from Room 10” sums up my concerns pretty clearly: “claims of maintaining the supposedly fast-eroding standards of academic rigor ring false when high demands are not coupled with a strong dose of empathy…. Empathy is so important to any work that involves people. There is nothing more alienating than to be treated as though you are not a whole person, but exclusively as a student, or as some sort of student-automaton.”

Why Student Feedback Might Be Misleading

If one way out of the pleasure-rigour divide is to temper any productive discomfort with empathy, then we must keep in touch with students to ensure that productive discomfort doesn’t derail into debilitating fear. This is where feedback and student evaluation comes in: if we wish to challenge students, we must also check that the challenge is paying off, both in terms of how students feel in a classroom, and how they perform.

The pleasure-rigour divide is not so easily bridged, however. What if a student defines pleasure as the least amount of effort required of her or him? Or as the absence of pain and discomfort? In their study on active learning (“Is Active Learning Like Broccoli?”), C. Veronica Smith and LeeAnn Cardaciotto found that active learning, though effective in improving students’ performance, does not necessarily result in positive student feedback. “It appears,” they conclude, “that active learning may indeed be like broccoli: Although it is good for students intellectually, their overall impression Sad Broccoli (who_stole_my_bike) Tags: of it may not be completely positive” (58).

I had some broccoli last night for dinner that had been left in the fridge a bit too long–it tasted like water-crunch-mush-gross, and it somehow bore the faint reminder of, well, pee. Let’s hope active learning is not like broccoli.

Nobody in the entire world likes plain, steamed broccoli. Maybe, just maybe, there are four people total who think that it tastes alright. These are the type of people that feign joy while chomping down a dry carrot stick whilst you sit their eating your doughnut. You’re a kind and generous person, so you got them one, too, but no, they “really, really like” dried-out, old-ass carrots. “Really,” they say, “truly, I’m happy with my carrot stick.” What do you do? You stare back at them angrily, with slitted eyes. (Slitted eyes indicate suspicion. People who profess love for such bland food should be watched).

If you’re going to eat broccoli, why not make it delicious? How about broccoli with sliced, caramelized garlic & red chili flakes? Or, squash, peanut & broccoli stew? Listen: kids will eat their broccoli if it doesn’t taste like ass. Or urine.

You can see where I’m heading with this. Deliciousness and vitamins do not need to be mutually exclusive. Neither do rigour and pleasure. But in order to plan some strategies to introduce both pleasure and rigour to a classroom, it is necessary to figure out what, in fact, constitutes or produces pleasure in a learning environment. Broccoli plus lemon or garlic or yoghurt-dill dressing, balsamic vinegar, salt & pepper, cheese, chilies & peanut oil, roasted almond flakes and so on… all of these things added together equals pleasure. A good cook knows this. But what equals pleasure in the classroom?

Teaching as Ars Erotica

The division between rigour and pleasure in post-secondary teaching may in fact trace the age-old fault line that tears its way between the mind and the body in Western thought.

This is a point that hooks raises, implicitly, in her chapter entitled, “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process,” which is a must-read, especially if you want a few real-life examples of what passion in the classroom can actually look like. hooks writes:

“Professors rarely speak of the place of eros or the erotic in our classrooms. Trained in the philosophical context of Western metaphysical dualism, many of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind.” (191)

And, in an earlier chapter, she notes:

“as a black woman, I have always been acutely aware of the presence of my body in those settings that, in fact, invite us to invest so deeply in a mind/body split so that, in a sense, you’re almost always at odds with the existing structure” (135).

It’s a strange world that asks us to check our bodies at the door, that demands that learning be a mystical, free-floating, out-of-body experience, when, in fact, history, race, class, individuality, emotion and thought all speak, in one way or another, through the body. As a woman of colour, hooks can’t leave her body at the coat check, and neither, do I imagine, would she want to.

How Wikipedia visualizes out-of-body experiences. Enlightening, no?

hooks proposes bringing “eros,” or love into the classroom, and if you’re wondering what she means by that, I’d have to say quite simply that, well, she means love in the fullest meaning of the word: empathy, good will, caring, and, of course, desire. Scary shit, yeah. Love means intimacy, maybe even getting to know students. And desire, well, desire has a pretty bad rep; when power is involved, desire becomes that-which-shall-not-be-named for fear of the heady concoction the two, when combined, can make.  Erica McWilliams, in her work on love and desire, is helpful in understanding how we might define eros or passion in the context of teaching. She talks about teaching as an ars erotica founded on both “a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love” (307). And Steven Ungar, upon whom McWilliams draws, talks about powerful teachers as “professors of desire.” Ungar’s words are themselves quite powerful:

“A teacher who confesses or professes desire can no longer be scandalous except to those who still believe that the so-called life of the mind has nothing to do with the rest of the body.” (82)

McWilliams sums up the issue perfectly. “Despite a trend to the disembodiment of pedagogy via information technology,” she writes, “the teacher is still some body who teaches some body” (312).  It amazes me how such common sense can be so mind-blowing.

Pleasure and the Body

If “the teacher is still some body that teaches some body,”  it’s important to remember that pleasure–even intellectual pleasure–is a physical, bodily experience. With that in mind, I want to close with Vicki Davis’  “Typology of Cognitive Pleasures in the Classroom”, where she discusses how eight cognitive pleasures known to make gaming addictive (discovery, challenge, narrative, self-expression, community, cognitive arousal, thrill and sensation) could potentially transform learning into a lifelong addiction.


hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York, 1994. Print.

McWilliam, Erica. “Touchy Subjects: a risky inquiry into pedagogical desire.” British Educational Research Journal 22.3 (1996): 305-317. Online.

Smith, C. Veronica and LeeAnn Cardaciotto. “Is Active Learning like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 11.1 (January 2011): 53-61. Online.

Ungar, Steven. “The Professor of Desire.” Yale French Studies 63 (1982): 80-97. Online.