book cover: radical hope: a teaching manifesto
Kevin M. Gannon, Radical Hope: a teaching manifesto (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University, 2020)

For a variety of reasons, I have often thought of my teaching as a form of hope. In my long journey to the classroom as a teacher, I first went to seminary, which meant that I have thought of the idea of calling for most of my adult life. That process of reflection works well for me as a college teacher and my sense of work as something larger than myself. It also means that I think of teaching less about how an individual class session goes—I do think about those sessions often—but more about what my students may recall ten, twenty, or more years after they have left the classroom. I think about first-year, general education students in this way as much as I do fourth-year history majors, which leads me to frame my teaching as an act of hope.

Following Kevin M. Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) on Twitter, I have appreciated his pedagogical approach from afar. Posts about his engagements with teachers in higher education settings, workshops he leads, and commentary on higher education in general in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education allowed me to sense a kindred spirit in the classroom. It also helped that he was a history professor by training. If you choose to follow him on Twitter, his posts about dogs and smoking meats rate as high as his pedagogical guidance.

When he posted that his book Radical Hope: a teaching manifesto would be out this spring, I pre-ordered it, a first for me. The book examines higher education from a variety of angles, including the administrative drain on faculty and why shaming students might feel good but suggests a toxic environment in the classroom. I am grateful for the overarching framework of teaching as an act of hope both to the students we meet in class and institutions we work within every day. We want to make positive changes in the world be inhabit, and teaching is one of those ways. As Gannon concludes the manifesto: “The real work of change in higher education is done student by student, classroom by classroom, course by course, and it’s done by educators who have committed to teaching because it and their students matter.” (152)

The manifesto recognizes the precarious nature of higher education, which may grow worse in light of the pandemic. While administrators follow trends and worry about paying the bills, teachers have to work within an environment that has evolved to thrive off a contingent workforce. Poor student evaluations means that teachers may need to be careful with how much they push students in critical reflection on their assumptions, which resides at the core of much of what teachers do. Outside political pressures have made this prospect even more tenuous. A faculty member might want to help students see the value of negative feedback on their scholarship but have to think about whether they can afford to look like something other than an expert.

In the final chapter, Gannon gives an example of using readers’ reports from his first journal article submission, which were harsh (why is always Reviewer 2?), so that upper-division history students can see how we all go through this process of critical feedback, even mean spirited, and how to learn from it. After a good bit of detail into the pedagogical strategy at stake, Gannon then explains that if the faculty member were an assistant professor, particularly a woman or person of color, or an adjunct instructor, the risk might be too great to reveal that level of personal failure. We know those faculty members enter the classroom with students ready to dismiss their expertise. The recognition that we all enter the classroom differently matters as we continue to help new faculty in roles for which they receive little training to do in graduate school.

His ability to situate the careful dance every teacher in higher education has to do in front of the class is helpful for the first time teacher and the full professor who needs to be careful with relying too much on what worked before. Each chapter comes with suggested exercise to help teachers think about their own habits of teaching. This would have been a good book for me in those first few years of teaching, starting at the high school level. As such, I am grateful for it now. While it affirms much about what I think I do in class, it also challenges me to try better.