Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Prison reflection

saturday's picture

I was struck in my final conference by a kind of “revelation” I had about my experience planning for prison with regard to how I learn. I’ve encountered many pedagogies and pedagogical strategies that clash with me, for various reasons, which has caused a lot of frustration in my academic life. This seems to translate into my lesson planning, as I try to give activities the balance of structure and flexibility that I personally find helpful to me, in the hopes that it will be accessible to as many learners as possible (while realizing that any choice will exclude someone). I find that I thrive within certain types of structures, that too much uncertainty and choice is frightening and inhibiting. Once our Friday group began to fall into a predictable structure for our classes, it became easier to engage.


Making our class activity based seemed to be a way to make sense of the structure of prison education in of itself, as well as our place in it. In the beginning of each session, we framed ourselves as a “reading, writing, and discussion” group. We seemed to agree from the start that we weren’t really a “teaching” group per se, as in we weren’t coming into the space in order to teach the other students any sort of facts or skills. We were bringing in materials and facilitating a space for discussion and writing activities. As a result, the lecture-centered style of running class wouldn’t fit. Rather, centering our group on activities with varying levels of guidance was a more natural fit.


One reality of working in the prison space that had to be adapted to was the lack of continuity and certainty from class to class. A situation that occurred to varying degrees every class and had to be accounted for was the natural ebb and flow of participants in our class. How many returning members would we get? How many of them read the material assigned? How many newcomers will there be? Will we have a class of ten students or two? Due to the uncertainty of each class setting, it was easy (and honestly kind of necessary) to have a set structure for each class that could be tweaked depending on the makeup of the other students. Over time we developed a little toolkit of activities and prompts to fall back on. We could pull out writing prompts and themes and passages to guide discussion and incorporate students who have and haven’t engaged with the chosen text.


The moments where I was lost in the class are when we went off-script. One moment that comes to mind was a large group discussion of Antigone that spiraled into a debate on whether or not Christianity deemed suicide a sin. I remember locking eyes nervously with some of my peers, trying fruitlessly to wind the conversation down and call to order without shutting down discussion entirely. It didn’t come from nowhere – these are the thoughts and issues that cropped up from the text, the deeper levels of emotionality we wanted to crack but were at the same time unprepared to handle. On a larger scale, this cropped up in “that” Friday class, which ended with the group in splinters, thoughts focused on the one loud voice, or the group in the corner, and certainly not on the tasks we’d assigned. Was it wrong for me to gnaw my lip and close in on myself, praying that we could just return to the book already? What some others deemed a natural progression of the class and a necessary break into rawness, I saw as something panic-inducing and unwanted. What do I lose by crafting a pedagogy that relies on emotional control and calls to order? Is it possible to craft an educational space that can hold the wide uncontrolled breadth of human emotion?


My weakness, as I’ve learned through trials and errors in the educational system, is that I can only thrive under conditions of emotional sterility. I leave my complex personhood at the door, only daring to identify myself in an academic space where it’s allowed – not too vulnerable, always couched in the academic and concrete. It’s not a total censorship of the self - I will gladly bring up my queerness in a relevant context, it’s a part of my identity that I can proudly claim, something I feel more safe and confident in bringing with me. But there parts of my identity I just don’t engage with on an academic level. I don’t bring my entire self into these settings, and don’t expect it of others – I don’t know how to handle it when it happens. How then, can I learn how to teach those who dare blur that line, who bring passion and realness into their education? I leave these classes with a sense of purposeful frustration, feeling that my idea of pedagogy is somehow wrong or incomplete, but not yet able to adapt or change. Yet a part of me is stubborn, too – the part that urges me not to consider my own educational values as lesser than for being safer, less radical, less liberal. “Making sense” of these dynamics can only take me so far.