So We Went to Prison …

Full vitae so we went to jail

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By Katie Owens-Murphy, Christopher W. Purser, and Yaschica Williams

It was a mortifying yet common experience for academics: We walked into our team-taught course one Wednesday evening to find only five students out of 40 in attendance. It was a session we’d rescheduled after canceling class the previous week. For five weeks we’d been building rapport and momentum. Had our students suddenly lost interest?

A few more trickled in. Toward the very end of class, a final student joined us to make 10. He was visibly frustrated and upset as he delivered the reason for our low attendance: Some correctional officers had failed to notify their cell blocks that we were conducting our rescheduled class.

Yes, this classroom was in a prison. Last year, in an essay for The Chronicle, Alex Tipei challenged academic scholars "to go to prison — not because volunteering in these institutions is the ‘right thing’ to do (it is), but because, as individual instructors and members of an academic corps, we have much to learn by participating in such programs" In "Why All Humanists Should Go to Prison," Tipei focused in particular on the benefits of learning to teach without technology in a necessarily "low-tech" setting.

Unconventional classrooms offer many other valuable pedagogical lessons that can be applied to the academic classroom, as well. Having accepted Tipei’s challenge, we offer here some insights from our own team-taught course in a close-security men’s prison, including the importance of class space, class size, egalitarianism, diversity, and innovation in facilitating a healthy and lively classroom dynamic.

We gleaned the importance of those elements when we ended up with only 10 prisoners in class, and the experience turned from a shortcoming into a pedagogical success. That day, we enjoyed one of the best class discussions we have ever experienced in three combined careers of college teaching. For two hours, this small group of students debated and collectively analyzed the ascent of Malcolm X within the Nation of Islam in his autobiography. It was such a compelling class that many of the absent students later lamented having missed it. Here are some of the things we learned that day that apply to teaching — in a prison or in a traditional classroom.

The quality of discussion in any classroom is largely contingent on the physical space of the room itself. This was all the more evident in our prison classroom — a large cafeteria featuring tables and chairs that were spread throughout the room and bolted to the ground. The acoustics were problematic: White noise from the vending machines and from the entrances open to hallway traffic echoed throughout our spacious, uncarpeted classroom. Students on one side of the room were unable to hear their classmates on the other side, and that made lectures and discussion particularly cumbersome.

Equally unwieldy was our prison class size. Our discussions were much more organic and free-flowing on the days in which attendance was low. Smaller classes truly promoted intimacy, honesty, and greater participation and interaction among our incarcerated students, who huddled together over two adjacent tables and offered anecdotes and connections to the material based on their personal experiences. Students who had never before spoken in the larger group were full participants during that day’s discussion, only to recede into the background again when we returned to full capacity the following week.

Our experience in our prison course substantiates the faculty preference for maintaining enrollment caps, especially in upper-division, discussion-based courses. Low enrollment caps and flexible seating arrangements (such as allowing students to "huddle up" during sensitive discussions) create a classroom dynamic in which everyone feels encouraged to participate.

In college classrooms, many students who are reluctant to speak in class offer some of the most insightful entries in writing — in online discussion forums, journals, and essay assignments. The importance of supplementing in-class discussion with a more intimate outlet for individual reflection was underscored by our experiences with our incarcerated students, as well. And, there, too, some of our best and most insightful journal entries were submitted by our least vocal students.

One particularly reserved student stunned us with a journal reflection that excoriated his peers for their lack of professionalism and motivation, chiefly out of his concern for stereotype threat: He was afraid that their behavior would confirm cultural attitudes that criminals are apathetic and lazy. He saw this course as an opportunity to prove to us, and to himself, that he could excel. Another quiet student turned his final entry into an insightful meditation on time. Incarceration, he reflected, had taught him the value of time, which made the time we volunteered with him all the more meaningful.

Human beings, from an early age, attempt to manipulate their environments as a way of negotiating power differentials. Traditional students typically save such manipulation for the end of the semester, when a sudden influx of illnesses, crashed computers, and sick grandmothers creates a flood of requests for extended deadlines and other leniencies.

Our incarcerated students did not wait nearly that long to begin negotiations. After our first session together, one student lingered to ask for an extra notebook so that he could follow in the footsteps of Malcolm X by copying extra words from the dictionaries that we had provided for them. Another lingerer made the same request. And another. Finally, we began turning them away, since we were running out of notebooks.

Then a correctional officer noted that inmates often use these items to barter for food and other supplies, destroying our collective fantasy of our students straining to read by the light of the hallway like Malcolm X, who acquired his astigmatism while teaching himself to read at Norfolk Prison Colony. We had now also inadvertently created a power differential in which some students had managed to acquire extra notebooks while others had not.

Prison dynamics revolve around power, which is not surprising given the powerlessness of inmate populations, who are legal wards of the state. For this reason, genuine equality as well as the optics of equal treatment — important in any classroom — are especially important in correctional settings. As Jeffrey J. Williams wrote in a 2007 essay in The Chronicle, "The Professor Was a Prison Guard": "The ecological balance of prisons is probably not much more fragile than those of other institutions … but its imbalances take on a particular intensity."

Our course punctuated the monotonous routine and daily operations of the prison, so we were under special scrutiny. One student harbored resentment after accusing us of ignoring his raised hand. Other students interrupted lecture or discussion to call us over to their tables for special attention because our class size was so large.

On campus, our classrooms also contain power dynamics in which students look to their professors to model fairness and equity. Undergraduates likewise resent the inequitable distribution of our attention. If favoritism is expressed inside the classroom, it is visible, and alienating, to those who do not receive it.

Due to disparities in criminal sentencing, our prison class was far more racially diverse than our university courses.

According to the most recent statistics from the Alabama Department of Corrections, African-Americans make up nearly 58 percent of the state’s prison population. At our university, African-Americans remain a numerical minority, constituting 13 percent of our undergraduate student body. Additionally, almost all of our prison students (97 percent) are aged 25 and older, while only 14 percent of the undergraduates on our campus are aged 25 and older.

As a result of those demographics, our prison classroom environment was much more open and conducive to discussions about racial justice during our sessions on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Many of our incarcerated students, for example, were African Americans who were old enough to have lived through the experiences and aftershocks of desegregation. They brought a level of maturity, confidence, and life experience to the complicated and sensitive issues embedded in X’s initial insistence on the benefits of black separatism over integration.

At our university, located in the deep South, students are often reluctant to discuss race or to engage with scholarship that focuses on historical and contemporary racial inequities. Our incarcerated students had no such inhibitions. Through their discussions, they showcased a sophisticated understanding of structural racism: Unsurprisingly, many felt they had experienced it within the criminal-justice system. That provided a framework through which they could better understand some of the more inflammatory passages of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Even those white incarcerated students who were put off by his rhetoric were sympathetic to his sentiments because of the historical and social contexts surrounding his life and work.

By contrast, many of our white university students tend to feel alienated and shut down when they encounter such racially charged literature. They struggle to understand racism on a structural level and are prone to dismiss this material itself as reinforcing or even promoting racial tensions. Our university students would benefit from being in the same classroom with — and learning material alongside — our incarcerated students. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, based at Temple University, provides a model for precisely that sort of collaborative learning. We will begin using that program at our own university next spring.

Because we were teaching in a nontraditional setting with a slim budget and little prep time — we received funding for books and supplies through the Alabama Humanities Foundation, and we volunteered to teach the course in addition to our regular teaching loads — we improvised out of necessity. None of us had ever attempted team-teaching before, but we created efficient mechanisms for divvying up our grading and were better able to work the room during our break-out sessions.

As John L. Jackson, Jr., writes, however, quality collaborative teaching involves "more work, not less." We spent a lot of time outside the prison classroom planning our teaching and assessing our students’ responses. We also developed an innovative and robust curriculum for our course, "Crime and Punishment in American Culture," based on our three respective fields of expertise: American literature, criminology, and sociology.

The result was a creative and often improvised experience that has inspired us to import this flexible and interdisciplinary methodology back into our home classrooms. We now frequently incorporate criminology into the literature classroom and vice versa. We have learned to switch gears quickly when factors (such as class size) become suddenly unpredictable. We have also learned the value of team-teaching, which allows faculty members from different disciplines to establish a pedagogical community with the same point of reference. We used our long commutes to and from class to prepare lessons and activities; compare notes, observations, and methodologies; recast our course material as needed; and troubleshoot our challenges together. We have also learned much from our incarcerated students and their life experiences, which enhanced, exemplified, and challenged our course material in ways that are impossible to convey here.

All academics should indeed go to prison: It has expanded our horizons as teachers, scholars, and citizens.

Katie Owens-Murphy is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Alabama, Christopher W. Purser is an assistant professor of criminology at the university, and Yaschica Williams is an associate professor of sociology there.

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