Teaching With Tenderness: Toward An Embodied Practice

Teaching With Tenderness:
Toward An Embodied Practice
by Becky Thompson

Cover art by Isolina Limonta

Cover art by Isolina Limonta

The following essay on historical memory as an embodied concept comes from a forthcoming book by Becky Thompson, Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice. In the tradition of bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Thompson invites us to draw upon contemplative practices (yoga, meditation, free writing, mindfulness, ritual) to keep our hearts open as we reckon with multiple injustices. Teaching with tenderness makes room for emotion, offers a witness for experiences people have buried, welcomes silence, breath, and movement, and sees justice as key to our survival. It allows those of us in higher education to rethink our relationship to grading, office hours, desks, and faculty meetings. It sees paradox as a constant companion, moves us beyond binaries, and praises self and community care.


The place of connection and joy that teachers hope for in the classroom asks us to invite in a culture of belonging. Such an invitation requires understanding “belonging” in the big sense of the word—not only to the people who are physically present but also to all of their relations, both living and ancestors. When I became a mother to LaMar (many years ago now), one of the many lessons I learned, quickly, about many older “adoptions” is that they not only involve one particular child but also their whole family. Our lives are connected through history, experience, love, and hardship. In a similar way, I have come to see that students bring to the classroom our own individual stories as well as those of many others (biological and chosen family, friends, spirits). Nurturing high-quality and original writing and discussion asks us to see students as capable of tapping into knowledge and wisdom that pre-dated their current physical presence on earth. And tapping into emotions related to this historical memory as well.

Historical memory makes us aware that the past is with us in the present, that previous unresolved, complicated, and multilayered events are replaying themselves in various forms in the present. Historical memory can be transmitted through tangible processes—writing, art, song, dance, photography. This memory can be imprinted on the body (in any or all of the body’s sheaths). It can be imprinted on trees, stones, in taste, scent, and sound. While it can be handed down directly from one generation to the next, it can also skip generations. It can be transmitted in dreams, rituals, and visions. Much of historical memory resides in the unconscious, in the back body, which is partly why yoga can be so useful for tapping into this knowledge base, since the spine connects the mind~body~spirit. One place that tenderness may live is in the synapses between these connections. Because historical memory is often unconscious, it can often take the form of a haunting presence, a reminder that people have not yet come to terms with the memory and the trauma often underlying it. Our work as teachers asks us to explore our own historical memories (individual and collective), so that we can then welcome this embodied awareness from students.

Welcoming emotions tapped by historical memory depends upon faculty to get the support we deserve for ourselves and our students. Few faculty have received formal training about teaching in general, never mind about how to both invite in and work with emotions. Perhaps especially for new teachers (graduate teaching assistants, new tenure-track faculty), it can be overwhelming if students talk about abortions, police brutality, anorexia, transphobia, racism, or suicide attempts if you are just beginning to deal with those issues in your own lives. This deep listening becomes even tougher if you need to catch a bus to teach an adjunct course at another college or run home to care for an elderly relative. Sometimes, the issues that students are shouldering are too much, too close, too confusing, too overwhelming to begin to respond to well.

Over the years, it has made all the difference when I have known specific people in student affairs, the dorms, and the counseling center whom I can trust to really listen to and honor the emotions students carry with them. Sometimes I have felt that my most important work in academe is as a conduit between the classroom and the counseling center. I know that expert therapy can save some students’ lives. If not that dramatic, therapy can at least make it possible for students to stay focused and determined to do their best work. I have walked many a student over to the counseling center or to a trusted dean of multicultural affairs. The walk in that direction is an insurance policy for me, that they will continue to be willing to walk into my class, and to hang in there when other students face their own historical memories, their own demons.

While I am forever appreciative when there has been high-quality therapy available to students, I am hesitant about the tendency to outsource the emotional content of our courses to therapists. Over the years offering workshops and seminars on embodied pedagogy, I have been struck by how hesitant faculty are, across the age span, to listen to students, out of a fear that they will say something wrong, don’t know enough, or have not had the experience themselves. It is as if we forget that we don’t have to experience a particular tragedy to listen carefully. We forget that surviving is itself a moral act in a situation of oppression. Living to tell about it means the worst is over; the healing has begun. The counseling center, residence life, and dean’s and student affairs offices are often the locations designated as the outsourced locations for distraught students to find steadier ground (as individuals). The tendency to create certain designated places where “emotional” people can go and get “fixed” sometimes undermines our own capacity to witness each other’s healing within classroom communities.

As we have witnessed the partial democratization of higher education as more people of color, returning students, and people with disabilities have entered colleges and universities, the range of student services has increased. I wonder about the extent to which, with the rise of these services, faculty then do not deal with the emotion that students bring along with their intellectual hunger to the classroom. What happens when we conceptualize the body as traumatized but not the mind? What does it mean that yoga teachers are more likely to have been trained about trauma (as part of their certification) than are faculty? What are the consequences of sending upset students to counselors, people with learning differences to the writing center, and students of color to their racially designated dorm halls? To what extent do we then sanitize the class, strip the class of the warp and woof of what makes us human? Might this outsourcing of emotions, challenges, and troubles parallel the way the prison system in the United States serves to banish those labeled antisocial or trouble causers, while not dealing with the social problems underlying the “acting out”?

I continue to be grateful for the student services available to hold students together while so much threatens to unravel them. However, for me, the challenge is to honor that work without shunting the emotional effort involved in staying embodied in the classroom. What I have felt students are looking for emotionally and spiritually is assurance that if they speak openly about what they may really be struggling with—shame at being female, depression, parents’ unemployment, a history of being abused, alcoholism, coming out, internalized racism—that I will not run away, stigmatize them, or be unable to see them as capable budding intellectuals. I think it helps that I can tell them that I lived through a number of real challenges as a child; that feeling whole is a contingent, not a given, identity for me; that therapy in my twenties saved my life; that seeing a skilled therapist may be a sign of sanity in an insane world. I think it helps when we let them know that confronting the emotional content of the curriculum is not the same as being in group therapy. I think it helps when we try to stay in our bodies as we teach; listen, make referrals, and walk them to other support; and then show up again, the next class, our faces open.

If teachers work with counseling and student affairs offices while still seeing the classroom as a possible location of healing, we then can convey the message that much suffering is inevitable (not to be run from or patched up). One of the reasons I have felt lucky to be a college teacher is that I get to witness students during a time of remarkable change in their lives, when they bring a questioning spirit to think about their families, lover relationships and friendships, religious and spiritual beliefs, and more. They are willing to drop out of school to study at sea for six months; wear a head scarf, not wear a head scarf, and then wear one again; live in a triple dorm room and then in a tree; and get arrested for civil disobedience. While these transitions may leave them raw and vulnerable emotionally (particularly if a history of previous abuse is just beginning to be conscious) that may require therapeutic support, these shifts may also be what Gloria Anzaldúa and Ana Louise Keating have conceptualized as nepantlera, “a threshold person or world traveler; someone who enters into and interacts with multiple, often conflicting, political/cultural/ideological/ethnic worlds and yet refuses to entirely adopt, belong to, or identify with any single belief, group or location.” As teachers, we have the capacity to offer students theoretical concepts that may help explain the psychic passages they are negotiating (which may help them avoid potentially pathologizing medical diagnoses). This is an exciting example of where a theoretical concept (nepantlera) can sidle up to the “psychic restlessness” that students often experience in their minds~bodies, an example of where reading deeply, particularly the contemporary work of theorists who willingly trace their own mind~body~spirit struggles, can help students frame their struggles as brave, understandable, survivable, and worthy of intricate consideration.

In my teaching, I find myself wanting to guide discussion on historical memory into a land of solutions, in the land of freedom, perhaps because memory, and all its dealings, can be so heavy. What we store in our bodies is often what can’t yet be assimilated, what is too hard to digest. Hard, gripping, confusing memories often take more time than happy ones. They seep into dank corners, lodged behind heavy psychic dressers. Many years ago, I found myself asking poet Sonia Sanchez why dealing with memory was worth it. After I passed her one of my poems, “Naptime in the Basement,” she read it quietly and then passed it back to me along the smooth wood of our shared table, saying, “You’ll be okay, Becky. Now you can make new memories.” At first I was confused. Was she saying that the poem wasn’t real (a particularly scary thought for those of us whose memories are fragmented, followed often by a voice, “You are making it up”)? With time I came to understand that the when we do the hard work of remembering, for ourselves, for our ancestors, what we have been taught to forget, another clothesline of memory can emerge, with clothes-pins of resilience riding in the wind. In Echoes of a Tattered Tongue, poet John Guzlowski writes about unspeakable horrors that his family faced in Poland, finding underneath that pain his family “dreaming over a backyard/ of bright red lilies,” and a mother whose “fingers carve space/ into a room without seams.” Belonging sewn into the notes of families’ tender songs.

A decade since the poems that Sonia Sanchez first helped me to birth, I am visiting my mother’s house in Los Angeles. She is no longer teaching but continues to travel, her mind electric. A poster of Proust, a dancing sculpture, and a painting in Kufic script of Muhammad’s ascent to heaven are adorning her guest-room walls. As a bird’s song lifts the sun in the early-morning sky, I’m rereading my beloved copy of Pedagogies of Crossing, the chapter about Jacqui Alexander’s search for Kitsimba. From a Trinidadian plantation at the crossroads of Jacqui’s childhood, to the Mayombe region of central Africa, to New York City neighborhoods, Alexander shares her ontological gift with us. She couldn’t use conventional means (libraries, state archives) to ask the big questions she had—about the Middle Passage, about the mind~body~spirit in exile, about transnational feminism as an embodied, spiritual practice. She needed to go to basements in immigrant neighborhoods in New York City, become a priest herself, and along the way be contacted by Kitsimba, who started by saying Alexander had not been calling her by her true name. To find Kitsimba, she needed to follow the oceans, cast her wave with ancestors.

With Alexander’s soulful tracings, I see a parallel—might we sometimes be looking in the wrong places for what we are seeking? Looking to the test? Looking to the desk? Looking to the PowerPoint? Looking to the one who first raises her hand? Looking to the brain, not the heart? So what if we look to the process? Look to the hands in motion and those wrapped in balls? Look to the shift in an energetic presence? Look to the invisible guides? Look to the mind, swirling, perched, melding, and at rest?

Tenderness doesn’t like to be cordoned off. Like historical memory, it doesn’t live in linear time. Both can come in a flash, a feeling or insight powerful enough to rotate the axis of our psychic worlds. Tenderness and historical memory both breathe, and if there is not enough air or space in the room, neither may feel welcome. They are relatives to each other. Tenderness can live inside of historical memory—inside a student’s beloved Zuni bracelet, a family photograph, someone’s cheeks, a handmade toy chest. An embodied classroom makes room for memory in places it has been tucked away. Free writing, asana, meditation, poetry, close time in office hours, walking together, and laughing can welcome historical memory, sometimes wrapped in tenderness.

Links between historical memory and tenderness are reasons it can be worth it to support students as they understand better where they come from and who their people are. I am reminded of a story my colleague Diane Harriford told me of an Italian American baseball star student in her Black Intellectual History class who announced, on the day they talked about Avery Gordon’s book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, that he wasn’t haunted by slavery. He said he grew up with Black people and didn’t feel the need to beat himself up about something he didn’t do. During office hours later that week, Diane asked him if he had heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian American anarchists who were executed in Massachusetts in 1927 despite international outcries, or about Italian Americans who were confined to internment camps during World War II. The student said he had no idea what she was talking about. When he saw Diane a few days later, he told her that Sacco and Vanzetti had been “double crossed and that if more white people knew our history, we might be more involved.” Diane had found a bridge, watching as this student engaged in class in ways he hadn’t before, as he talked about how haunting mattered. Diane explained, “When I teach Black Intellectual History, I understand that I am teaching to the students in work is to make room for the Black ancestors and everybody else’s ancestors too. We are all there. On tender ground.” The work is to make room for the Black ancestors and everybody else’s ancestors too. Find the bridges that they travel on, what haunts them. §

This in an excerpt from Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice. Copyright 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.



Becky Thompson, Ph.D. is a scholar, poet, activist, mother, and yoga teacher. She is the author of Teaching with Tenderness (in press), Survivors on the Yoga Mat, and several other books on social justice, trauma and healing. Becky is Professor of Sociology at Simmons College and teaches yoga internationally.