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Synergeo - The Practice of Teaching as Hospitality

In her 2014 article in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Claudia Ruitenberg reflects on her visit to the Critical Theory Archives of the University of California Irvine to study Jacques Derrida’s (largely) unpublished 1995 and 1996 lectures on hospitality.

These he originally delivered at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris. The lectures consisted of both a multifaceted engagement with the concept of hospitality and at the same time a performance of hospitality in the context of his own teaching practice. Claudia Ruitenberg[1], a philosopher of education, holds that there is value in Derrida’s exercise of the philosophy of hospitality for the context of tertiary teaching, which she terms Derrida’s “pedagogical gestures”.[2]

Derrida proposed that hospitality is as subject to economies of exchange as any other transactional interaction.[3] What he means is that the hospitable action supposes reciprocation and thus only offered with the imagination of some kind of return in mind. At the same time civilization construes a false purity in these hospitable actions, as if these actions were in fact wholly selfless. Thus, best hospitable intentions towards the other are rarely and perhaps never quite able to equate to true selflessness. Hospitality to Derrida is a question of the possibility of “radical openness to the other”, and true hospitality, summed by Ruitenberg, as an “event and a gift that ruptures such an economy of exchange.”[4] As such, hospitality is a principle that can be aspired to but never fulfilled. Recognising pure hospitality as aspiration and not full reality is a humbling acknowledgement. And in educational interactions, acknowledging that one’s hospitality is always already contaminated by or complicit with exchange does introduce a troublesome truth. Hospitality as "gift" however might be possible and can be seen as an unforeseen escape from the economy of exchange; a kind of grace:

… absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner, but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them …[5]

The question for Ruitenberg is in what way Derrida “gave place” in his Hospitality Lectures to his students, as host, with both the content of his lectures and with his interactions.[6] Did he perform a teaching practice, with aspirational integrity, with the very notion or assertion he was describing? And thus, how can one as a lecturer to adult students aspire to a pedagogy of hospitality, what might that look like? And further, in what way do Derrida’s texts on hospitality contribute to a wider frame of theologically grounded and integrated pedagogy in a religious tertiary institution?

On the subject of theology and theological integration, one might question the relevance of Derrida as a relevant discussion partner. John D. Caputo in, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion attempted to do so, painting Derrida as a kind of second St Augustine, a Jewish Augustine.[7] Caputo depicted Derrida as like Augustine indeed, a man of prayers and tears. And that in spite of Derrida’s self-described “broken covenant with Judaism” and claim to atheism, he “speaks of God all the time”.[8] And in fact during his most prestigious and idiosyncratic time of writing, in the 90s, when the lectures on hospitality took place, Derrida referred to biblical literature and notions of the sacred routinely in his writing, engaging many of the stories of the patriarchs of the Hebrew bible, such as Abraham and Isaac, Laban and his daughters, Jacob, the Levite’s concubine, Moses and the law, the prophets, Elijah. He also spent many pages writing about Jesus Christ, the New Testament and the notion of sacrifice, including the Epistles of Paul. Caputo insists that what we see of Derrida especially in the last years of his life, is man “alone before God … eyes swollen with tears, unaware that we are observing him”.[9] That he is a man, who late sought the beyond, truth and Truth in equal measure, and who searched in the most innovative and articulate way for this divine “wholly other”. As he writes of himself in Circumfession: “… you have spent your whole life inviting calling promising, hoping sighing dreaming, convoking invoking provoking, constituting engendering producing, naming assigning demanding, prescribing commanding sacrificing …”[10] Derrida offers us something unique in this search for the divine Other, and this spirituality under erasure in his reflections on hospitality and his associated pedagogy.

Much of the critical discourse around pedagogy over the last decades has been a focused move from the “banking concept of education” that is, teaching predetermined sets of knowledges as if to brutally deposit such into the minds of students. This master-slave dialectic of learning was authoritatively critiqued by educationalists like Paulo Freire as pedagogy of propaganda.[11] A move towards learner-centred teaching, buoyed further by educational applications of Carl Rogers’ person-centred approaches to therapy, has been taken up strongly in primary and secondary teaching but has failed generally, thus far, to make any kind of stronghold in tertiary educational settings in many respects.[12] This partly due to structural, organizational and architectural constraints for example the building of large lecture rooms, or as Roland Barthes described, the tyranny of “the rectangle” in the university, rectangular classrooms, or the building of amphitheatres angled towards a central and singular platform for the “sage on the stage”, projectors placed front and centre, central lecterns, and further constraints via technologies such as placement of microphones, screens. All of this in effect forecloses opportunities for collaborative teaching and learning. Moreover, economising strategies enter the scene that weigh profit against ideal learning environments, such as the prioritising of large classes with numerous students against smaller learning groups that allow for face to face, discursive interactions.[13] And not only this, but the government regulation of accrediting bodies that lead to a diminished curriculum and programme design culture that valorises fixed and predetermined learning outcomes and thus does not leave sufficient space for transformative and responsive development and/or creative or unique kinds of student achievement. Government further prioritises those programmes of learning whose graduate outcomes lead to valued market outcomes rather than societal, ecological or community/grass-root yields. It is very much due to this economic model of tertiary education that the humanities (including religious studies and theology) remain under threat in the western academy.

Derrida, in his lectures on hospitality, is presented with similar constraints. He faces a large seminar hall packed with students and voyeurs. Will his pedagogy succumb to the architectural mandate to instruct the audience using the instructional-deposit format and thereby these students will then go on to parrot his own set of predetermined findings? Ruitenberg argues that the performance of his hospitality lectures amounted less to “instruction” and more to “attending to, thinking together, and asking questions, but … [not shying] away from seeking the translation of these insights to concrete legal and political action”.[14] She argues that the seminars became a profession of a sort that does not relinquish the hearer to a passive status but performed a welcome to the student into interwoven and complex concepts, poetic concepts, biblical concepts “which do not arrive at a conclusion or wrap material up neatly …”[15] , material that is thus left open for them, or opens to them. There is also a level of purposeful ambiguity, or purposeful unfinished-ness in his teaching that signifies a “hospitality for what is to come”[16] and that gives the student the gift of making meaning rather than the lecturer taking the privilege for oneself. It is often in the humanities, and of course in theology, that concepts do not always arrive easily but open to the learner as if making meaning is a journey of layer upon deeper layer. This is especially so as one approaches the study of God.

Ruitenberg argues that in this purposefully non-linear, non-concrete presentation of inter-related concepts Derrida deconstructs the authority of the University, its will to power, its craving for legitimation and external validation, and invites the students to participate in a collaborative project.[17] The lectures, while a monological event, were invitational on other levels beyond speaker and participant. Invited into the discourse on behalf of students were multiple languages (expression of concepts crossing languages such as French, German, Latin and Greek), and multiple textual voices (Heidegger, Levinas, Freud, Nietzsche, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Ulysses, Don Juan) so that the performance of the lecture by a single philosopher became a chorus of philosopher’s voices through history.[18] The invitation to hear a phrase, and then to read it was another multiplication that purposed to open meaning and then to further or differentiate meaning. The lectures also incorporated multiple scenes, reified for the audience ranging from the childhood home to the global politics of asylum and the refugee camp. The lectures also invoked a scene of mourning, creating a bridge from the theoretical to the personal, the intimacy of Derrida’s grief over the passing of Deleuze. Derrida also writes regarding his pedagogy; that in lectures he resists mentioning or directing students to his own prior work, as he hopes that his relation to his audience, though a fictive one, will be as if “we were all complete beginners”, that is to deconstruct law of the master.[19] In one of his later lectures that year, Derrida invokes Levinas, and particularly Levinas’ pedagogical style which unlike the “delivery” practised by Socrates was one of “welcoming students into texts and discourses as objects of study, and of accompanying them in the process of study without knowing where that study might lead them”.[20] It was an invitation, he says, to travel together, as if on the road to Emmaus, to talk together, to speak together and to wonder at our burning hearts.

For Derrida, teaching is a site of an implied ethics. In the prescribed delivery style of tertiary education that aims for mastery and exclusion, there is a kind of pedagogical violence enacted. There is a reduction of the other, the student, who is led or forced along a certain learning path, to a certain destination, to be a certain way in terms of outcome; to reduce the student to a reproducible same. There is in effect a refusal in teaching to recognise the distance between self and the other, and refusing to recognise the difference between self and the other, as well as the unpredictable potential of the learner to learn something radically new or to come to an unpredicted or unique conclusion. This institutionalised teaching co-opts the lecturer as a tool to reproduce the self-same, rather than opening learning as a liberating journey with the other; a journey away from the tyranny of the Proper. Derrida hopes for a kind of teaching where it is possible to have “non-violent or less violent relations with the other”,[21] where the teacher lives willingly in the tension of sameness and otherness with students. This pedagogical care demonstrated in part by Derrida, might signal that for him students are not or must not be reducible to “pre-specified outputs” and pedagogies similarly not reduced to “prescribed strategies” that function purely to produce prespecified outputs.[22] Hospitality to a diverse student body resists the totalising gaze of the institution that prioritises reproducibility and control. As Levinas might add, this kind of hospitality must be a function of turning towards the other, that engenders an unfulfillable responsibility to the other’s voice, to be empathetic, to hear, to recognise and to admit, that one has already exposed to this other in the classroom, and one has been made vulnerable to it. However, pressing back against this very human meeting in the classroom, the machinations of the institution “i.e. the set of prescribed strategies and scripts, controls and criteria”[23] actually function to desensitise the lecturer to the “cry” of the student in the classroom, suppressing and dulling the need to perform the mode of sensitised justice.

The art of teaching as an act of multiple welcomes and hospitable liberations from the weight of the totalizing gaze of politics, economics, and state-sanctioned educational hegemony was very much the educational project of Paolo Freire. His pedagogy of love characterised his literacy teaching in Brazil.[24] His theoretical foundation for his pedagogy very much shares in the characteristics of the afore-described Derridean pedagogy. Freire called it a pedagogy of hope, or a pedagogy of incarnation. It was a theologically grounded educational project that sought to offer hospitality to the illiterate. Literacy teaching in Brazil thus became an escape from oppression and a social movement that resulted in more than just redistribution of power but an enfranchising of the poorer majority in their struggle against political greed and corruption. Education at the time had been a hierarchy of exclusions and elitisms. Freire’s pedagogy asked the teacher to let go of this hidden curriculum, and to offer up and hand over and give a true gift of learning and knowledge. Education thus as an act of hospitality that frees itself from expectation of transaction and return, and one that humanizes the learner as opposed to objectifying the learner, and one that allows the learner potentiality.

Prominent African-American educationalist, bell hooks, is influenced by the critical educational theory of continental philosophers like Derrida, and also Latin-American theologians and educationalists such as Freire. She explores notions of hospitality and justice in her conception of engaged pedagogy.[25] She describes a way of tertiary teaching characterised by mutual recognition, recognition and affirmation of difference, as well as teaching’s potential to engender wholeness and well-being (actualisation) in students especially where the web between knowledge and life experience finds place in the classroom. She believes there is a potential in teaching and learning to heal. But hooks reminds the teacher that pedagogies that welcome or are hospitable towards the voice of the cultural or bicultural other (and the other of any other salient difference) do not necessarily produce a comfortable, benign teaching space—hooks labels institutional desire for the controlled, the benign and the predictable as a colonizing fantasy.[26] Teaching and learning that is hospitable in actuality becomes one where collaboration, welcome and potentiality is really put to the test. It can be discomforting when students begin to speak up. When students are welcomed in their learning, recognised in their diversity, when power is shared, students begin to speak and to engage in unexpected ways.

In conclusion, Derrida invokes for the lecturer the possibility of thinking creatively with him about hospitality in the lecture room. Pedagogies of hospitality are characterised by openness and welcome in tension with (and resistance to) institutional controls, and in this regard, teaching is very much everyday an ethical dilemma. These pedagogies of hospitality are marked by an altruistic turn towards the other; that lecturer and students very much make an appeal towards hospitality as a form of justice in a multilayered and complex way that does not necessarily rest solely on institutional scripts and codes. Finally, that teaching cannot be reduced to a reproducible and institutionally advocated mode of best practice but relies on memory and imagination to realise its potential forms.[27] Lastly, in terms of theology, what Derrida has opened up here is the same tension that exists between love and law, and between law and grace. It is this pull between prescription and liberation, reformation and transformation that is at stake both theologically and pedagogically. At its most radical, (divine) hospitality lies within the raw centre of concepts such as salvation and grace as its originary gift.

Yael Klangwisan is the Head of Education in the School of Social Practice at Laidlaw College.

[1] Claudia Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures in the University Lecture: Analysing Derrida’s Pedagogy,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, 48, 1 (2014): 149-164. Also, Claudia Ruitenberg, Reconceptualizing Study in Educational Discourse and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2017). See also, Jacques Derrida, “Hostipitality ,” Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical, Humanities, 5, 3 (2000): 3-18., and, Anne Dufourmantelle & Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[2] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures, ,” 149.

[3] Derrida, “Hostipitality,” 4.

[4] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures, ,” 150.

[5] Derrida & Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, 25.

[6] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures, ,” 150.

[7] John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), kindle edition.

[8] Caputo, “Introduction,” Prayers and Tears.

[9] Caputo, “Introduction,” Prayers and Tears.

[10] Jacques Derrida, “Circumfession,” in Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 314.

[11] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 72.

[12] See Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (London: Constable, 2003).

[13] Roland Barthes, How to Live Together (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 113.

[14] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures ,” 154.

[15] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures ,” 154.

[16] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures ,” 163.

[17] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures ,” 154.

[18] G. Ofrat, The Jewish Derrida, cited in Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures,” 155.

[19] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures ,” 159.

[20] Ruitenberg, “Hospitable Gestures ,” 160.

[21] Shilpi Sinha, “Derrida, Friendship and Responsible Teaching in Contrast to Effective Teaching,”

Educational Philosophy and Theory, 45.3 (2013): 259-71, 259.

[22] Sinha, “Derrida, Friendship and Responsible Teaching,”

Educational Philosophy and Theory, 45.3 (2013): 261.

[23] Sinha, “Derrida, Frienship and Responsible Teaching,” 267.

[24] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

[25] Bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[26] Shilpi, “Derrida, Friendship and Responsible Teaching ,” 259.

[27] Shilpi, “Derrida, Friendship and Responsible Teaching,” 267.