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thinking towards the spring semester...

Anne Dalke's picture

So, after shouting for months that we should talk about the essays in Radical Teacher, I finally found the time, betwixt semesters, to spend a morning reading through them. Sad, heartening, discouraging, inspirational….I want to include some of my reading notes here, and also some thoughts about next steps. And I want to invite y’all to think w/ me about what our “course” of action might be this spring. I’m ready to be more ambitious!

We have volunteered to offer a “preview” of the book group on Friday, Jan. 24th, so I’d like us to have a plan sketched out for the semester by then, and a mini-class to offer @ that point, too—one that definitely includes writing.

For starters, I’m wondering about organizing the group around a topic or two: Freedom? Isolation? Abolition? Agency? Change? Power? Code-Switching? Reformation? Discipline? Inequality? Challenging Women? Creating a Civil Community? Learning to Think Critically? Writing Our Stories?....and I really am thinking about taking writing seriously this time ‘round, actually building the class around that. So we could give a certificate to those who attend 10 of 14 classes, and write 10 pp—or something like that.

For me, by far the most powerful piece in the Radical Teacher collection was “An "Impossible Profession"? The Radical University in Prison,” by Atif Rafay, who directly challenges our orientation of seeking material that is “relevant” to the prisoners: he rejects

"the project of devising a radical theory of education specifically for prisoners…a separate set of educational outcomes inevitably perpetuates the marginalization of imprisoned students…"rejecting that project may be "the most important curricular decision a prison education program can make…. The best education for the best is the best education for all.” Efforts to tailor curricula to make it "relevant" surrender at the very outset the autonomy that frees universities to be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, interested in their students as potential participants in that enterprise; this autonomy is what enables students to imagine themselves as more than creatures of circumstance. The margin of freedom thus afforded students is never anything but fragile, tenuous, and even to a great extent wishful-but it remains nevertheless precious, perhaps especially so in prison. The university must insist on teaching its own, immanent idea: the radical impulse should complicate the practice of teaching the incarcerated, but not betray it.….prison is a "cauldron of broken time”…making nearly impossible the sustained concentration necessary for serious academic work….A habitus hostile to learning is… prison's principal educational achievement….which can all but foreclose reflection and imagination.”

I got so interested in Rafay’s take on these questions that I did a little more reading, and uncovered a really remarkable piece that he published in The Walrus, On the Margins of Freedom, which challenges the “fairy tale” of “inner mobility”: “There is one relief: nothing is expected of you, you have no responsibilities, you are at ultimate and absolute liberty…[but] the self and the spirit, you come to realize, do not exist deep within, but extend far beyond you; they exist only through the connection with all of that with which you share an interest.”

Rafay is devastating in describing the effects of prison, and also cautious about the effects of higher education there; in the Radical Teacher essay, he quotes Ann L. Mullen, who “concludes in Degrees of Inequality that, far from being subversive, expanding higher education "palliates the problem of class conflict" by promoting the notion that opportunity prevails and denying the reality of acute, worsening inequality…."the college swindle" actually underwrites the sometimes heartfelt but invariably fatuous belief that more education is the panacea for social ills.”

But I also found a wonderful counternarrative to this position, in an essay published in an earlier issue by Doran Larson, “Abolition From Within: Enabling the Citizen Convict,” Radical Teacher (Fall 2011): 4-15,80--which describes his work in a writing workshop, and the book he’s publishing of his students’ writings—as well as in a piece by Anke Pinkert and three of her prison students, on “The Transformative Power of Holocaust Education in Prison: A Teacher and Student Account,” Radical Teacher (Spring 2013): 60-65,79-80:

“the students …took issue first and foremost with the label and characterization of ourselves as "victims." We agree that structural (racial and class-based) forms of exclusion contribute to mass incarceration and to our present circumstances. But we do not wish to be seen by others-particularly liberal educators or radical critics of the Prison Industrial Complex-or to see ourselves as victims of the system, without agency or the power to change it….we related the power and possibility that comes with agency rather than the helplessness often associated with victimhood.

In Pedagogy of Freedom Freire states, "I like being human because I know that . . . my destiny is not given but something that needs to be constructed and for which I must assume responsibility.” We assume responsibility for our crimes. We believe that we are the products of our decisions and actions, and we recognize ourselves as such. This represents the transformation of the prison system from within….education in prison is the vehicle through which we meditate, analyze, and transform ourselves and, ultimately, society from the inside-out.”

Both of those essays are about creating civic communities within the prison. They are inspirational.

So…what do you think? Could we put together a packet that begins with, say, Friere and bell hooks on “teaching to transgress,” and then read, oh, I don’t know, The Color Purple and Sula and…?



sara.gladwin's picture

diversifying texts in order to honor complex personhood

There is so much here to get through!

For now, I am going to start with Rafay's text because I have been thinking for some time now about diversifying the literature we choose to read. I haven't quite been able to articulate why yet, but I been wondering about whether every text needs to be relevant to prison. This first popped into my mind when we were discussing Taste of Power, and as I was doing my own reading notes, it struck me that it might be interesting to pair up a Taste of Power with a book such as Animal Farm. I think reading Animal Farm would have brought to light some of less discussed metaphors and aspects of Brown's text, such as calling white men (or any oppressor for that matter) "pigs," and/or the significance of the word "comrade" to communism. I began to think that there was definitely an untapped wealth of topics to discuss that was being obscured by our particular focusing on what we've deemed as "relevant" narratives. What I then began to think, was that perhaps having a conversation about communism with these two texts, could have actually gave us an entry way into the more political discussions we had been trying to have. Maybe if we diverge from what is conventionally "relevent" to the prison narrative, we might just end up having a conversation that is not only relevent, but reflects our desires to discuss institutions/systems with the women. I don't think I'm saying quite the same thing as Rafay, because ultimately I have relevancy in mind as an end goal. I think what I am getting at is that if the only texts we see as relevant to these women's lives are narratives of prison life, then we severely limit the complexity of each identity we have encountered. I think diversifying would actually be a reflection of the multiplicity that each woman holds, and possibly a way to better honor complex personhood.

sara.gladwin's picture

with this same thought in mind

I was thinking further about other kinds of narratives that might be interesting for the group to read that are not necessarily prison narratives and wondered if we could do a literary work with strong biblical themes/allusions/metaphors. I've mentioned a couple times now how the women inside do not have access to outside sources the way we do at Bryn Mawr, that their main source for anaylizing a text is themselves/their lives and experiences. However, I realized that many of the women have mentioned the bible and faith at one point or another. I think someone even said a bunch of the women in the reading group were also in a bible study together. I have always said that my own particularly strong biblical background has been a huge asset when working with literary texts that make references to the bible. The bible itself could serve as a resource for anaylizing the texts we read. Especially if we are still thinking of teaching the women skills (such as the note-taking we were talking about toward the end of the semester), having an outside text that the many women already know so well to help form connections when reading might be a huge benefit, as well as tapping into the religious connection that already exists with the group. I was thinking something along the lines of Anita Diamant's the Red Tent, which is one of my favorite books, and retells the story of Dinah. Another book I was thinking that I read a bit ago is called Jesus Land: a Memoir by Julia Scheeres ( This book deals with race and family, and could potentially spark discussion around those topics as well. If we wanted to work with a prison narrative, we could also work with Brothers and Keepers, which the very title is a biblical allusion. It would also be interesting to see whether we could do something like East of Eden by John Steinback (which is by no means even close to my favorite book but as a literary person I can't help getting excited by texts that have lots of conventional literary devices for me to muddle through and attempt interpreting).... I'm curious about whether reading East of Eden and Brothers and Keepers one after another would inspire connections since they both use the same bible story in Genesis about Cain and Abel. Most things by Toni Morrison are also going to have biblical references as well, although I think for me I've always found Beloved to have some of the strongest biblical ties (because my theory is that beloved, Sethe, and Denver are a representation of the holy trinity).

HSBurke's picture

Thanks, Anne, for bringing

Thanks, Anne, for bringing all of these great texts into the conversation. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't still working my way through them -- lots of complex ideas here. I am intrigued by the idea of creative a civic community in prison. I see this taking shape in our program in that the women recognize their place within the system but instead of feeling helpless and labelled as a victims, other emotions like anger and frustration emerge, catalyzing Freire's ultimate notion of "transform[ing]...society from the inside-out". This process of realization > anger > change maps on to the sociological concept of sociological imagination (understanding one's problems in the context of greater social milieu) which Michael Schwalbe says is "supposed to inspire outrage and a desire to change things. Unfortunately, when awareness of problems is combined with feelings of powerlessness, the result is often despair. Being sociologically mindful, however, we know that the social world is, for all its seeming solidity, a social construction. All the ideas, habits, arrangements, and so on that make up the social world are human creations. We know, too, that the social world keeps going as it does because of the beliefs people share and because of how they keep doing things together on an everyday basis. If we are mindful of all this, we can see that the problems that exist now need not exist forever; they are all within our power to overcome." 

How might we begin to approach this last bit about social constructions in our work?

I think it would be interesting and fruitful if we suggested individual writing as a way to reach towards this civic community. With a patchwork of narratives, it would be unlikely, if not impossible to fall into the trap of a common label -- though I don't think we've ever done this, or that the women we work with would ever let us do this (I'm thinking now back to Jessica (?) who argued adamantly that Elaine Bartlett's hopes and expectations were too high, that she was partially to blame for her difficulties upon release from prison). Anyhow, I like the idea of incorporating lots more writing, telling a complicated story, leaving room for anger but also hope, complexifying the binary between the powerful and the powerless.

Hoping this makes sense, my thoughts aren't really in order but reading through Anne's post, I am constantly reminded of how complicated, multidimensional, sensitive and inspiring that the work we do is. I feel like every time we turn one corner and think we've got a grasp on what it is that we're doing, we hit another fork where we must consider again the direction we’d like to go. 

I'll keep thinking on this..

jccohen's picture

thanks and some ideas about readings...

here are some suggestions from looking around online (including at some other classes in prisons) and asking a few folks i've connected with who do this work.  some are more intriguing to me than others but for now i'm just sending on the list:

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous;


** Dorothy Allison's Two or Three Things I Know For Sure;


bell hooks' Bone Black: Memories From Girlhood;


Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton's Emmanuel's Book II: The Choice For Love; and works by various women poets.


It should go without saying, but Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" is recited quite often.




Writings by women in prison:



non fiction:




the story within us – megan sweeney


toni Morrison – tar baby?  The bluest eye? Sula?


Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women


All of the class participants read literary and historical memoirs, such as "The Narrative and Life of Frederick Douglass," a collection entitled "Women's Indian Captivity Narratives" and more recent works, including


  Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face and


 "The Only Girl in the Car" by Kathy Dobie. 


A league of their own (came up when we asked for suggestions at rcf)


Two other books that we used which were fruitful for discussion:
Marc Mauer's new illustrated rendition of Race to Incarcerate
Wally Lamb's edited volume of Couldn't Keep It To Myself - which is a collection of writings from women in his writing class in prison.

sara.gladwin's picture


I really like the idea of doing poetry because I think it would be good entry way into writing, especially since the group seemed to really enjoy the poetry exercise and a couple women mentioned that they write poems. We could definitely incorporate different forms and kinds of poetry as well; and have them attempt writing in different formats.

Another poet that might work is Gwendolyn Brooks.