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Who is in Control? The Student-Teacher-Prisoner Contradiction (voice paper)

saturday's picture

In trying to connect our prison classes and voice, I keep returning to the ongoing discussions our Friday group has about the structure of our class. One conflict we’ve had is how to open up the space we create, and be able to have “something for everyone”. We want to be accommodating, but it’s impossible to create a space accessible to all learners. Having a silent space or encouragement to write, moving on conversation when it’s off-topic, interrupting discussion for activities versus letting the discussion flow naturally. Additionally, there’s the consistent issue of having one or two strong voices among the inmates that can dominate the conversation. How do we intervene in that scenario? At the crux of these questions is our personal willingness to enforce the structure that we come into each session with. We are reluctant to be heavy-handed in making sure these guidelines are met. We come into the class with goals in mind but we also want to be flexible in how this space is used.


This is different than a traditional classroom setting; while they do not choose to be imprisoned, their participation in this club is entirely voluntary (as far as I know). How far does that agency go? Can they use this space however they please or can we invite our own regulations and instructions and suggestions? In our meetings we bring up our self-created code of conduct, one that we agree to follow when sharing the space together. Does the fact that they choose to be here voluntarily mean that they ought to follow our rules? Does that give us as educators the agency to structure the space and provide some sort of discipline without necessarily robbing these people of their voices?


This ties into an overarching question we’ve had since before we first ever stepped foot into the prison: what is our purpose? What are we even doing, exactly? What kind of space do we want to create? Examining these conflicts through the lens of Freire can help gain a deeper understanding of these conflicts and potentially point the way towards something substantial (not a solution or resolution, since I don’t think there can be a true end to this questioning – nor do I think there should be. I’m missing the vocabulary to conceptualize what I want to achieve here, but regardless).


Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed begins by describing the failure state of education as “banking”. This model is as such that teachers hold knowledge and then insert it into the students without dialogue or question; this learning is rote memorization, passive. For Freire “the banking concept of education [is] an instrument of oppression” that undermines the ideal nature of education – “a mutual process, world-mediated; people as uncompleted beings, conscious of their incompletion, and their attempt to be more fully human (Freire 7).


In our constant questioning of our roles in the classroom we hoped to avoid an inequality in power, or at least to be aware enough of it to not perpetuate it needlessly. Is structure inherently oppressive? Is there any way to have an environment with a clear teacher/student divide that doesn’t perpetuate those negativities?


Freire addresses this question in the form of the “student-teacher contradiction”. While there are facilitators who bring something (materials/structure/goals) in a space, they all hold the identities of student and teacher within them – one cannot be a teacher without also being a student in this ideal learning space. “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (72). I can see in our Friday group that we attempt to do just that; we provide a text to read and framework for discussion, but we don’t enter the discussion with ‘answers’ in mind. By the nature of our group everyone can bring their own equally valid interpretation of a text, produce their own piece of writing, and contribute something that wouldn’t exist without them. We can teach our own experience and learn from those of others.


Besides that of teacher and student, there is another divide of power present in our class: incarceration. Though our classifications of “inside” and “outside” are limited, as argued by Friere: “the truth is, however, that the oppressed are not "marginals," are not living "outside" society. They have always been "inside" the structure which made them "beings for others." The solution is not to 'integrate" them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become "beings for themselves" (74). While we have struggled in defining our purpose, there are negative traits that we have asserted since the beginning: we are not a community service group, we are not here to rehabilitate or fix or even teach. However, we must compromise that with the fact that we do have goals and plans as we enter this place, and that there’s something that we expect in return for what we provide, be it space or time or materials. We feel disappointed when the group size shrinks due to a large portion leaving early, and hesitate to provide our materials to members who won’t be present (i.e. giving the assigned reading to someone who is not a part of the discussion today). We did not force the inmates to stay, or refuse to give the book to an absent member, but there was some form of discomfort involved. There is something that we wish to get out of this as well, a take to our give.


“While it is normal for investigators to come to the area with values which influence their perceptions, this does not mean that they may transform the thematic investigation into a means of imposing these values” (110-111). The objectives of our group have to be acknowledged for dialogue to occur, and we’ve attempted to do just that. Rather than coming into the space hoping to ascribe values or skills into these people, to Friere we must act as “sympathetic observers with an attitude of understanding towards what [we] see” (110). There is an aim to foster mutual trust and understanding, so that the group can feel comfortable both learning and teaching in the space.


It seems like we go in circles about how to best run things and never reach an answer. But is there even an answer to be reached? If these questions seem repetitive it’s because they ought to be repeated and re-evaluated over the life of a course. What we set out to do two months ago may not meet the needs of what we are doing now. The only thing that seems to come close to a solution is communication, allowing those in power to communicate with those they serve and work with in order to create something that benefits everyone. Making our lesson plans and assignments more open-ended, and being willing to let go of what we want the course to be so we can enjoy what it is in the moment. No one solution can please everyone, but as long as that dialogue is present, there can be progress made. 


jccohen's picture


Your opening paragraph is interesting in terms of the shifting meaning of “voice” here, which becomes particularly intriguing in relation to the last sentence: “We come into the class with goals in mind but we also want to be flexible in how this space is used.”  Is part of the issue here that the “goals” that we bring into class and the many ways the folks in the room (including us, I’d say!) take up those goals and/or bring other goals creating a kind of cacophony of voices in the room, metaphoric and sometimes literal? 

Another angle on this question of “structure” or “discipline” seems to be a tension between ourselves as “educators” and participants with their own agendas and voices…and this is where Freire is helpful to y/our thinking – I like the way you think through the “student-teacher contradiction” in our context, and then observe the further layering of incarceration here.  And then, what a nuanced reading of our “discomfort,” since there is also “a take to our give.” 

Finally, I appreciate your ending with “dialogue,” and would like you to push that a bit further:  why is dialogue crucial to continuing to grapple meaningfully with these questions and tensions, and how could we make the dialogue as real as possible in this space and given the inevitable slippage between us as human beings and in the contexts as they are?  Fraden might help here, as she talks about how Rhodessa Jones continually pushes for the women’s genuine presence in the room, in the work…