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Learning in Institutional Spaces F'15

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Jody Cohen, Education 290: Learning in Institutional Spaces
Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2015, TTh 1-2:15 pm

This class is part of a cluster of three courses in a 360° on Arts of Resistance,
which focuses on the constraints and agency of individual actors in social spaces, with a particular focus on the
institutional settings of colleges and prisons and the “critical spaces” that can open up within them.

 “Teachers never can be sure when or exactly how education works—what a student learns, remembers, or finds useful.  The transmission of knowledge (and power) may be delayed, or it may be refused, or it may operate in ways not intended.  (Rena Fraden, Imagining Medea)

“The break from the pattern of speech is where character lives, and where dialogue, ironically, begins, in the uh, in the pause, in the thought as captured for the first time in a moment of speech, rather than in the rehearsed, the proven.”  (Anna Deveare Smith, Fires in the Mirror, xxxix)

“Survivance, in my use of the word, means a native sense of presence, the notion of sovereignty and the will to resist dominance.  Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victimry.”  (Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities, 422)


This course will consider how the different and yet linked institutions of schools and prisons operate as sites of various kinds of learning.  How do such institutions, defined as “places of care or confinement,” interact with the human beings within their scope, both constraining and propelling their learning?  And how do human beings act as agents in, on, and beyond such social institutions? 

Beginning with brief histories of educational and penitential institutions, we will examine the evolving purposes, structures, and practices that characterize these spaces.  We investigate how identities inflected by intersections of race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, religion, and age interact with experiences of learning and teaching in these institutional spaces.  What can we learn about education inside the walls of K-12 schooling, and about the links sometimes described as the “school-to-prison pipeline”?  What of the learning and teaching that go on in prisons, in both intentional, programmatic contexts and less formally?  We will consider official, explicit curriculae for learning, alongside implicit, even hidden curriculae, looking at how people inside these spaces collude with, subvert, and challenge these curriculae as they create their own agendas for learning. 

To help us look in other ways at what goes on in institutional spaces, this course will also investigate the role of “voice”--speaking out, expressing in various modes, and engaging in dialogue—in learning and teaching.  How is “voice” suppressed and expressed, and how does and might voice emerge in the contexts of these institutions?  How do marks of social and cultural identity, difference, and power operate in these arenas, and how are they re-presented, performed, and resisted?  We will look at how “voice” can instigate understanding, communication, and even change, and also at how this notion is itself complex and problematic. 

We seek instances of “arts of resistance” that deliberately challenge the boundaries of institutions in efforts to empower learners and engender structural change.  

The approach we take here is premised on the assumption that we all bring to the classroom our prior knowledge, diverse life experiences, and experiences as learners and teachers.  The goal of this seminar is to create a space in which, through discussions, reading, writing, and activities, we are able to develop our awareness of the challenges and possibilities of learning in and about “institutional spaces” and also impacting the worlds of and beyond those spaces; we will work closely with the other 360 ° courses to develop our imaginations and sense of efficacy in relation to these issues.

Learning Outcomes:

This course seeks to develop participants’ knowledge, skills, and awareness of the following areas:

  • Conceptual underpinnings and evolution of educational and penitentiary institutions as sites of learning and teaching, constraint and agency, including ways that differently inflected identities inhabit and shape structures and practices;
  • “voice” as a complex medium that can catalyze and/or inhibit meaning-making, expression, dialogue, and action;
  • approaches to using education-related strategies as part of community-based efforts to impact learning and struggle for social justice inside and outside institutional spaces.

Course Policies

  • This course will involve students as critical readers and writers of texts, active participants in class discussions, and participants in other education-related settings.  Your presence and active engagement are essential. If the need arises for you to miss a class, be late or leave early, please email me ahead of time if possible.
  • If there is a reason why you cannot complete a paper by the due date, speak to me about an extension BEFORE the date that the paper is due.  Please limit your use of this option to one paper.
  • Course papers may be revised and re-submitted.  Please consult with me on the revision process.  Revisions are due the last day of classes.
  • In all written assignments, please take care to edit and proofread your work so that needless errors do not distract readers from the strength of your thinking.
  • Students who think they may need accommodations in this course because of the impact of a learning difference are encouraged to meet with the course instructor early in the semester.  Students who attend Bryn Mawr can also contact Access Services Coordinator Deborah Alder at or 610-526-7351, to verify their eligibility for reasonable accommodations.  Haverford Students can contact Patty Rawlings at the Office of Disabilities Services, or 610-896-1290.  

Readings will include the following texts, available at the Bryn Mawr Bookstore and on reserve at Canaday Library:

Seamus Heaney, transl., The Burial at Thebes, A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone

Erica Meiners, Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies

Megan Sweeney, Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons 

Other readings are available in our password-protected file.



** EVERY SUN. BY 5 PM (except where noted on syllabus) PLEASE POST ON OUR ON-LINE FORUM IN RESPONSE TO PROMPTS, OUR VISITS TO THE JAIL, AND/OR OUR READINGS AND CONVERSATIONS: sometimes there will be a specific prompt, other times this writing will be open-ended; sometimes you’ll initiate writing, others times you’ll respond to others’ posts.


1) Identity Memo: (adapted from Toews, “Toward a Restorative Justice Pedagogy”)

Sample questions to guide an identity memo:

(1) Personal and professional experiences with victimization and offending.

(2) Experiences and perspectives on privilege, power, racism, poverty, and structural


(3) How those experiences and perspectives:

(a) Relate to your interest in participating in the Thurs./Fri. class inside.

(b) Inform your understanding of what this work is and is not, its goals,

promise and pitfalls.

(4) Ability to actively listen to and respect the experiences and perspectives of others and

transform your own thinking.

(5) Ideas/assumptions about victims, incarcerated individuals, each of their respective advocates

or service providers, and correctional staff and administration.

(approx. 3 pp.)

Tag as web event and Education


2) Research proposal: Select an area to research toward our collective ‘arts of resistance’ project.  You may collaborate with peer(s) or conduct this research on your own.  We will skype with our consulting artist early in the semester, discussing possible research directions, and meeting as needed to clarify and facilitate this process.  Tag as web event


3) Voice/dialogue/bodies: How does thinking about voice/dialogue/bodies illuminate processes of teaching and learning?  Use theoretical and practice based perspectives to reflect on this question in an actual setting; this could be our field setting, the Bi-Co, and/or another education-related setting you’re familiar with. (approx.. 3-4 pp.)  Tag as web event and Education


4) Prison and education: 

Do a “close reading” of one or several of the education scenarios -- classes, groups, approaches, etc. -- that we’ve read about and discussed during Part III of the course.  Draw on other readings, as well as experiences and posts, if/as helpful, as part of your commentary on what we can learn here about possibilities and/or constraints of education in prison.


Explore your current thinking about higher education in prison.  You might consider one or more of these questions:  What do you see as the purpose of education/education in prison?  What kind(s) of education would you advocate for in prisons, and why?  What can we learn from the various programs/approaches that we’ve learned about? Draw on our shared texts and discussions, particularly during Part III of the course; you may also draw on your experiences and our posts.

(4-5 pp.) Tag as web event and Education

Please select one of the following dates for your due date for this paper:

Wed., Nov. 25

Fri., Dec. 4

Fri., Dec. 11

5) Final reflections on the field experience emerging from work across the three courses, and final portfolio:  To be discussed in and across our classes





“We seek to make visible the sturdy neo-liberal policy matrix… [how] these policies simultaneously install in public institutions mechanisms for corporate and carceral profit while accelerating the disparagement of the public sphere; how they simultaneously inject in youth of color a deep sense of structural outrage and a shadow discourse of personal responsibility.”  (Fine and Ruglis, “Circuits and Consequences of Dispossession”)

Week 1:  Purposes of education

Day 1 (T, Sept. 1):  Orienting to the course and teaching Citizen

Day 2 (Th, Sept. 3):

John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,”  

James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,”


Week 2: Brief histories of and links between schools and prisons

** SUN. POST:  IDENTITY MEMO due by 5 pm on our online forum, tagged as web event and Education

Day 3 (T, Sept. 8):

Joel Spring, excerpt from The American School (in our password protected file)  

Walter Silva, “A Brief History of Prison Education in the United States” in Higher Education in Prison (in our password protected file)

Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Who Were Raised by Wolves” (in our password protected file)

Day 4 (Th, Sept. 10):

Fine and Ruglis, “Circuits and Consequences of Dispossession” (in our password protected file)

Raymond Jones and Peter d’Errico, “The Paradox of Higher Education in Prisons” (in our password protected file)


Week 3:  Schooling and/in prisons


Day 5 (T, Sept. 15):

Meiners, Right to be Hostile, Introduction and chap. 1

** Due WED. SEPT. 16 @ 5pm: RESEARCH PROPOSAL on our online forum, tagged as web event

Day 6 (Th, Sept. 17):

Meiners, chap. 2



“Dialogue supposes that I am an autonomous, individual, complete subject—and that so are you.  Otherwise, why would dialogue be necessary?  It is our solitude that makes communication both necessary, and a big problem.  How do I connect with you across the disparities in our private realms?” (Elizabeth Ellsworth: Teaching Positions)

Week 4: Language and voice


Day 7 (T, Sept. 22):

Anna Deveare Smith, Introduction, Fires in the Mirror

Michelle Cliff, “A Journey into Speech” in Negotiating Academic Literacies (in our password protected file)

Day 8 (Th, Sept. 24):

Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” (in ourpassword protected file)

Maisha Winn, Girl Time, Act I (in ourpassword protected file)

Week 5:  Voice into dialogue

** SUN. POST: 

Day 9 (T, Sept. 29):

Rena Fraden, Imagining Medea, Introduction and chap. 2 (in ourpassword protected fil

Day 10 (Th, Oct. 1):

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, chap. 3, ONLY pp. 86-97 (in ourpassword protected file)

Week 6: Voice inside-out


Day 11 (T, Oct. 6):

Sophocles, Burial at Thebes, trans. By Seamus Heaney

Day 12 (Th, Oct. 8):

Sophocles, Burial at Thebes, trans. By Seamus Heaney


** Due Fri. @ 11:59 pm:  Voice/dialogue/bodies: How does thinking about voice/dialogue/bodies illuminate processes of teaching and learning?  Use theoretical and practice based perspectives to reflect on this question in an actual setting; this could be our field setting, the Bi-Co, and/or another education-related setting you’re familiar with. (approx.. 3-4 pp.)  Tag as web event and Education

FALL BREAK (Oct. 9-18)




“…teachers [in prisons] must constantly work to develop pedagogy that can effectively navigate this institutional crossroads of education and mass incarceration….while remaining focused on the pedagogical needs and interests of specific people in a specific classroom.” (Drabinsky and Harkins, Radical Teacher)

“We believe it is critical for colleges to view higher education programs in prison as a key part of their overall education and community engagement strategy and as an opportunity to adapt enrollment strategies targeting nontraditional (off-campus) students, instead of a small service opportunity for a few instructors.” (Gould et. al, “College Civic Engagement and Education Behind Bars”)

Week 7: About and beyond the school-to-prison pipeline plus Antigone cont.

** SUN. POST: 

Day 13 (T, Oct. 20): 

 Maher, “Teaching Academic Writing in a Maximum Security Women’s Prison” (in our password protected file)

Moore, “The Transformative Power of Sankofa: Teaching African History Inside San Quentin State Prison” (in our password protected file)

Day 13/14:  For Wed., Oct. 21, in preparation for seeing production of AntigoneRead the Wilma Antigone Education Guide (in our password protected file)

Friday groupPlease look over the Education Guide quickly for Tues., since it may well help with lesson planning; note especially the Family Tree on p. 15 and the In the Classroom suggestions on p. 20-21.

EveryoneNote that I’m also posting the translation of the script used for this production, the “Intro” by the translator, Marianne McDonald, and the complete version of the article, “Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Lessons of Greek Tragedy,” in case you want to consult any or all of these. (all in our password protected file)

Day 14 (Th, Oct. 22):

Discussion of Antigone prep materials and production!


Week 8: Learning and teaching inside


Day 15 (T, Oct. 27):

Sweeney, Reading is my Window, Introduction and chap. 1

Day 16 (Th, Oct. 30):

Pinkert et. al, “The transformative power of Holocaust education in prison: A teacher and student account” (in our password protected file)

 Week 9:  Learning and teaching inside


Day 17 (T, Nov. 3): 

Research project work

Day 18 (Th, Nov. 5)

Research project work

 Week 10: Learning and teaching inside


Day 19 (T, Nov. 10): 

Irizarry and Raible, “A Hidden Part of Me…”  (in our password protected file)

Day 20 (Th, Nov. 12):  Learning and teaching inside

Irizarry and Raible, “A Hidden Part of Me…”  (in our password protected file) (also listed for Tues.)

Fine et. al, "Participatory Action Research: From Within and Beyond Prison Bars" in Working Method (in our password protected file).

Week 11:  Learning/teaching, research, and writing

** SUN. POST  

Day 21 (T, Nov. 17):

Gaskew, “Developing a Prison Education Pedagogy” (in our password protected file)

(and Irizarry & Raible and Fine et. al continued)

Day 22 (Th, Nov. 19):  Learning/teaching, research, and writing

Cohen, “Being Here” (chap. 1,   Note: this is NOT on Serendip, but on Wordpress, and you will need to sign in to comment using your twitter, facebook or e-mail account. You are part of our 'soft launch,' as Anne and Jody try out the web dimension of our book project!  Please respond via the commenting function on the website and/or the survey for quick response @ 

 Week 12:

Day 23 (T, Nov. 24):  Learning in institutional spaces

Sweeney, Interlude 1 or 2 and chap. 6

WED. NOV 25:  PRISON AND EDUCATION PAPER, DUE DATE 1  (see assignment above)

Thanksgiving Break (Th, Nov. 26)

 Week 13:  Learning in institutional spaces


Day 24 (T, Dec. 1): 

Meiners, Right to be Hostile, chaps. 5 and 6

Day 25 (Th, Dec. 3):

Preparing for final event


FRI. DEC. 4:  PRISON AND EDUCATION PAPER, DUE DATE 2 (see assignment above)


Week 14:

Day 26 (T, Dec. 8):

Preparing for final event

Day 27 (Th, Dec. 10):


Halkovic, “Redefining Possible:  Re-Visioning the Prison-to-College Pipeline” (in ourpassword protected file) 

** FRI. DEC. 11: PRISON AND EDUCATION PAPER, DUE DATE 3 (see assignment above)


** Final reflections on the field experience emerging from work across the three courses

     Final portfolio

     NOTE:  We will discuss these in detail during the semester.



Fasching-Varner et. al, “Beyond School-to-Prison Pipeline and Toward an Educational and Penal Realism” (in ourpassword protected file)

Gould et. al, “College Civic Engagement and Education Behind Bars: Connecting Communities, Creating Change” (in ourpassword protected file)