Introducing bell hooks to teachers of behavior analysis


bell hooks (1952-2021) born Gloria Jean Watkins, was a scholar, educator, feminist, activist and so much more. hook was a Distinguished Professor at Berea College, KY, which houses the bell hooks Center. As presented on Berea College’s website: “The bell hooks center honors hooks’s legacy by supporting students as social justice leaders who are active in the creation of a radical undercommons where their many and varied expressions of difference can thrive.”

It’s not a typo, her name is spelled in lowercase letters. hooks “assumed her pseudonym, the name of her great-grandmother, to honour female legacies; she preferred to spell it in all lowercase letters to focus attention on her message rather than herself.” (

File:Bell hooks, October 2014.jpgPhotograph of bell hooks, October 2014. Image from Creative Commons

In this post, I want to tell you about a book by hooks titled Teaching to Transgress, Education as the Practice of Freedom, published in 1994, the first of a trilogy by hooks dedicated to pedagogy, completed with two later publications, Teaching Community, A Pedagogy of Hope (2003), and Teaching Critical Thinking, Practical Wisdom (2010).

I read Teaching to Transgress for the first time after teaching in higher education in the United States for approximately 14 years. A small group of sociologists (our offices are in the same building) introduced me to bell hooks. Thank you, colleagues in sociology! I’m grateful for how the physical proximity of our departments facilitates conversations, sharing of knowledge, interdisciplinary collaborations, and friendships.

But ok, ok, how is this related to teaching behavior analysis? In this post I invite you to consider bell hooks’s ideas on pedagogy into your teaching philosophy and approach, when teaching behavior analysis. Below I describe some pedagogical approaches that bell hooks wrote about that not only enhanced my experience in the classroom, but made me feel at ease and allowed me to grow as a teacher and a scholar. Here is my favorite quote of the book:

Photograph by M. Elcoro of a paiting showing a quote from bell hooks: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” (1994, p. 12) of painting by Panhandle Slim, artist based in Savannah, GA.

In the introduction of Teaching to Transgress, hooks elaborated on terms that I had never read or discussed in my experience as a teacher of behavior analysis. Some of these terms are: vulnerability, the banking system of education, excitement, and education as the practice of freedom. Her writing opened my eyes and changed my approach to teaching and scholarship.

Following hooks, vulnerability is the availability that a teacher brings into the classroom to take risks. I see this approach as related to humility and openness to the possibility that the dynamic in the classroom may change on a moment-to-moment basis. Beaulieu and Jimenez-Gomez (2022) and Jimenez-Gomez and Beaulieu (2022) elaborate on the concepts of cultural humility, responsiveness, and awareness in applied behavior analysis research and practice. Their framework and research to address the need for education of professionals in the applied behavior analysis to learn and applied culturally responsive practices is also relevant in how we teach behavior analysis.

Creating a flexible and adaptable agenda, assessing constantly what is happening in the classroom by listening and respecting each of our students are some ways to be vulnerable and create community in the classroom. One risk that a teacher may take is to use confessional narratives. According to hooks, “Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive” (p. 21). One of my colleagues and friends in the department of sociology aforementioned taught me that being vulnerable is to be strong. Wait, what? That was a novel idea for me.

Afraid to use my history and idiosyncrasies because I would infuse biased perspectives into the classroom, I hid and erased many experiences and feelings, trying to emulate strong voices of knowledgeable white men that I definitely could not strive to become. Reading and reflecting on the words of bell hooks allowed me to reclaim my identity as a teacher and scholar. I do not see hooks’s ideas as separated from what I have learned in behavior analysis. I strive to integrate knowledge from other fields into teaching behavior analysis and make the case in this post, to promote interdisciplinarity in behavior analysis, and particularly in teaching in our field.

The banking system of education is “based on the assumption that memorizing information and regurgitating it represented gaining knowledge that could be deposited, stored, and used at a later date.” (p. 5). hooks related her experience being part of the racial integration process in education in the United States and leaving her all Black women teachers who were educating hooks through the practice of freedom. This banking system of education focuses on delivering content; the more, the better. Such pedagogical approach, hooks pointed out, leads to boredom and apathy. She imagines and practices, as described in her book, “that teaching and the learning experience could be different.” (1994, p. 5)

Excitement is one of the key elements to such different teaching and learning experience. “Excitement in higher education was viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process.” (1994, p. 7). hooks wrote about excitement as genuine way to resist boredom, passivity and control in the classroom.

File:A bell overlooking the Taudaha Lake.jpgA bell overlooking the Taudaha Lake. Image from Creative Commons.

In Teaching to Transgress hooks shared 14 essays with “insights, strategies, and critical reflections on pedagogical practice.” (p.10). hooks wrote: “I intend these essays to be an intervention – countering the devaluation of teaching even as they address the urgent need for changes in teaching practices.” (p.10)

To honor the influence and legacy of bell hooks, I joined my colleagues and friends in sociology to create and deliver a panel for our yearly university conference in January 2022. We titled this panel: “Feminist pedagogies for an anti-racist classroom: Imagined conversations with bell hooks” (Gönen et al., 2022).

In this panel, we focused on quotes and sections of Teaching to Transgress and how it impacted our teaching. After the introduction of her book, the 14 essays are titled (in order of appearance): Engaged Pedagogy; A Revolution of Values; Embracing Change; Paulo Freire; Theory as Liberatory Practice; Essentialism and Experience; Holding My Sister’s Hand; Feminist Thinking; Feminist Scholarship; Building a Teaching Community; Language; Confronting Class in the Classroom; Eros, Eroticism and the Pedagogical Process; and Ecstasy. Each of us imagined having a conversation with bell hooks about her work and our current experiences in teaching.

Since reading and re-reading Teaching to Transgress, I have had conversations with colleagues and friends in behavior analysis who are teachers. They agree, bell hooks is rarely mentioned in the teaching of behavior analysis. This is one more reason to practice interdisciplinarity in our teaching of behavior analysis. One of those colleagues mentioned that although the work of hooks has not been yet formally integrated or introduced to behavior analysis, the work of Maria del Rosario Ruiz (1950-2017) is in line with hooks’s approach. My colleague was referring to Ruiz’s (1995) advanced study of epistemology and philosophy to build a feminist revision of radical behaviorism. Similar to hooks, Ruiz’s (1995, 2003) approach allows for elevating the research of women and others with marginalized identities in behavior analysis, promoting community-guided research inquiry, and including gender, race, and other socially constructed terms in an experimental analysis of behavior.

I would like for us to reflect on the implications that a feminist revision of radical behaviorism can have on how we teach behavior analysis. Particularly how understanding behavior in context (social, political, cultural, etc.) (see Morris, 1988; Ruiz, 1995) and intersectionality (see Biana, 2020) can enrich our approaches to teaching. Ruiz’s students described her as a “the complete behavior analyst” (Soreth et al., 2017, p. 553). Her students described her conceptual and methodological contributions in behavior analysis, particularly outlining the compatibilities of radical behaviorism with feminism. Her students wrote: “Although Maria’s conceptual contributions were considerable, her greatest impact on the field may ultimately be through her legacy as a teacher and mentor.” (Soreth et al., 2017, p. 555). Following her students, Ruiz was also, “Influenced by the personal challenges she had faced and the conceptual alliances she established with feminist scholars, Maria became a dedicated advocate for marginalized groups, including women, immigrants, individuals with disabilities, and the LGBT community.” (Soreth et al., 2017, p. 555)

Ruiz reached outside of behavior analysis and collaborated with feminist scholars. Learning from other disciplines colleagues who work in other fields via collaborations can only enrich learning, teaching, scholarship, and service in behavior analysis. These collaborations are fruitful within and outside of behavior analysis. 

Although the work of hooks may not be common in behavior analysis, I am only one of many other teachers and scholars who have been positively impacted by the work of bell hooks. In this video from Berea College you will listen to testimonials from Brené Brown, Kim Sykes, M. Shadee Malaklou, Laverne Cox, Monica Casper, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Arthur Jafa, and many, many others. Let’s bring the work of bell hooks and other great teachers into behavior analysis.

Link to video titled Remembering bell hooks (1952-2021):


Beaulieu, L., & Jimenez-Gomez, C. (2022). Cultural responsiveness in applied behavior analysis: Self-assessment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis55(2), 337–356.

Biana, H. T. (2020). Extending bell hooks’ feminist theory. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 21(1), Article 3.

Gönen, Z., Pearson, H., Elcoro, M., & Whalley, E. (2022, January). Feminist pedagogies for an antiracist classroom: Imagined conversations with bell hooks. Panel presented at January Day, Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship, and Service. Framingham State University, Framingham, MA.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge

Jimenez-Gomez, C. & Beaulieu, L. (2022), Cultural responsiveness in applied behavior analysis: Research and practice. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 55, 650-673.

Morris, E. K. (1988). Contextualism: The world view of behavior analysis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 46(3), 289–323.

Ruiz, M. R. (1995). B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism: Historical misconstructions and grounds for feminist reconstructions. Women of Psychology Quarterly, 19, 161-179.

Ruiz, M. R. (2003). Inconspicuous sources of behavioral control: The case of gendered practices. The Behavior Analyst Today, 4, 12-16.

Soreth, M.E., Dickson, C.A. & Terry, C.M. In memoriam: Maria del Rosario Ruiz (1950 – 2017). (2017). The Behavior Analyst, 40, 553–557.