radical openness is a margin

In “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” bell hooks writes,

for me this place of radical openness is a margin—a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a ‘safe’ place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.

There are a lot of paradoxes at play in this quote: “profound” is a word of depth, but “edge” is a word of surface; being “unsafe” and at “risk” necessitates and maybe even generates the existence of “community.” And perhaps most provocatively, “open,” a state that we sometimes think about as being the shedding of margins and borders, is represented as a margin.

I think a lot of this is really helpful for thinking about open education. Lots of times we think about openness and margins in one of two ways when we talk about open learning:

  • we think about centering margins. For example, we look at learners who have been left out or marginalized and try to design solutions that center their experiences in order to create better pathways for them, and hopefully for all students. This inverts and possibly subverts the relationship between center and margin, flips or flattens power dynamics, and can shift the flow of knowledge.
  • we think about transcending margins. For example, we think about asynchronous learning as a way of transcending time limitations that can confine learning to certain contours, or we think about connected learning as a way of transcending academic silos that keep students sectioned off from complementary fields or transdisciplinary communities of practice. This is a negation of or challenge to marginalization, and an attempt to redraw structures to eliminate traditional boundaries that exclude vulnerable learners or limit conditions for learning.
Photo by Pierre Leverrier on Unsplash

These are both ways of thinking about margins that could yield direct benefits to diverse sets of learners, especially those who have been traditionally underserved by our universities. But it’s not quite how hooks frames it, is it? She’s not trying to bring the margins to the center, and she’s not trying to blur, obliterate, or move past them. She’s interested in locating the margin, and locating her self in the margin, and diving into it to make it a place to dwell in, a kind of rough and fraught physical space. I wonder what it would look like to think of the academy’s margins in this way. And then to rethink our efforts to “innovate” inside the academy around this kind of relationship to our margins.

So how would we go into these margins, and stay there? And what would we do there? And how dangerous would it be? And for whom?

To make this at least a little more concrete:

When we think about accessibility as “accommodations,” are we dwelling in a radically open margin, generating community that resists the forces that push marginalized students to the edges?

When our students do service learning projects in the community, are we dwelling in a radically open margin, generating community that resists the forces that separate academia from the “real world?”

I want to imply that the answer to these last two questions is yes. I want to imply that because my daily work includes advocating for lots of accommodations for students who need them, and for project-based learning experiences that partner students with organizations outside my university. But I also know the answer to both of these questions is, in many ways, no. Accommodations and service learning both enable the very systems they seek to challenge. Accommodations mean that we don’t have to radically change how we teach or design learning ecosystems because individual students with (“abnormal”) needs can always be handled in one-off and legally required acts of benevolence. And service learning means that we can continue to think of spaces of learning as separate from spaces of living, and this is made obvious in the suitcase one can pack and the MOUs one can sign when journeying from the college to…anything outside of it.

There’s nothing awful here, and accommodations and service learning: that’s the good stuff, the stuff we believe in and fight for more of. But it’s also nothing radical. I wonder what hooks’ university looks like, what it feels like to learn there. In the margins. I’ll keep captioning my videos after I make them, and keep helping my students find their internships, but I’m thinking the next place we build needs to be radically open. A margin in which we dwell.


  • What is something your university does to serve marginalized learners? Are there any ways that those services reinforce the divides that they are attempting to soften?
  • What would it look like not to accommodate an individual or group of students, but to change a structure so that accommodation were no longer necessary? Can you give a specific example?