Saturday, July 25, 2015

Prison Teaching

I just finished my sixth week teaching in a maximum security prison. I work with this program, to be precise. Six weeks is a ridiculously short time to have any ideas about prison work, so I will mostly being quoting from others, and suggesting some books in this post. I will get to that in a bit. But first, let me say something about the program. It is an all volunteer program. There are no grants supporting the program at this time. It is run, for years now, by non-tenure track professors. And while I can't speak for the program in general, the majority of the people I have met so far who are teaching are also non-tenure track, but with terminal degrees. This matters, because the program is very expensive to run. Books, paper, pens, photocopies, etc. all have to be provided for every class and every student, every semester. Think about a normal size classroom of 20 or so students, and now imagine having to also pay for all their books. Even cheap books add up quickly. There are well over a hundred students in the program, and there are six courses running this summer semester alone. All of this can be a pretty big expense for people, even with everyone volunteering their time and gas. Above I linked to the patreons account for the program, but here it is again. Think about giving something. You will notice they are really close to the first milestone goal, you could probably get us a lot closer there.... [Well, thanks particularly to one person, first milestone already hit since this has gone up. Thank you! But trust me, more help would be greatly appreicated]. Also, you can give money directly via paypal, or volunteer to teach a class if you are in the area, and that information can be found here.

Now, again, I have only been teaching there for six weeks, so I don't have a lot to say. But the two people who have organized the program for several years co-authored an article for a special issues of Radical Philosophy Review. So, let us turn our attention to Joshua Miller's and Daniel Levine's "Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison." (If you click on Download from archive, you can download a word document of a draft of this paper). All quotations come from their paper, the non-quotation parts are my brief reflections. I suggest reading their paper.

In a recent interview, Axel Honneth asserted that the “whole idea of a university” is to “represent a space where free thinking is possible.”  This idea is critical to the value of prison education, even while it transplants values that now seem quaint even in the university into much more hostile soil: what a university ideally provides is a space where thinkers can interact without the pressures of conforming to accepted ideas or the direct subordination of the interplay of conversation to instrumental goals. This free intellectual play is central to the goal of creating new practices that instantiate new values. As members of the relatively privileged social group, prison educators can create spaces in which dominant ways of thinking about and living social values can encounter the social and value practices of marginalized groups, can be put at risk, and can change. Free thinking—because it allows for new patterns of intellectual interaction to occur—creates new forms of such interaction in which prisoners and other members of marginalized populations are no longer marginalized. And like novel skills and practices, the new ideas generated from this encounter can be “exported.” When prisoners and other members of marginalized groups face the challenge of “no alternative” and status quo bias, they can now respond with concrete ideas of how things might be done differently.
The program is working to figure out how to provide credit for the courses the students take. But as of now, they don't have a way. You would think that might the kiss of death for the program. After all, the students could be doing anything else besides coming to class and doing the homework. They could be working, or playing. And yet students show up, anyway, ready to debate the points of often dense philosophical and theoretical texts. In many ways, the classroom space is what many professors dream of. I have never needed any of the tricks to get my students at the prison to participate. Indeed, I might have to find new tricks to better guide an over eager classroom of discussion, overflowing with debate. There are no grades, but students still turn in notebooks of written reflections on the readings. But why is this?

What then does an education in the liberal arts offer our students in prison? For one, it offers an escape from dullness and the lack of progress and growth that characterizes prison life.  This escape is not simply escapism, and in many ways it is precisely the alien character of the cultures, questions, and texts of the humanities and liberal arts that makes it so effective. 
When I was discussing with Josh Miller what course I should teach, and I was worried that environmental philosophy would be too far removed from the daily realities of my students, he assured me it would be fine (he also really didn't want me to teach a course on Alfred North Whitehead, which might have something to do with his assurances). The students find the same value in academic work that can be rigorous but abstract as any of us. Also, of course, they are quick to bring the subjects to their own lives. I will certainly not forget while discussing corporations trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for environmental damage, one of my students said, "They're the real criminals." Well, he has a point. Not to mention the way they got a lot out of our reading of the intro to Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, and their quick pushback on some points. So even when I come in to teach the debate between Eric Katz and Andrew Light on ecological reconstruction, and one of my students began with, "Professor Scu, you got to stop giving us such boring readings," we proceeded to have our best day of class discussion. While the readings might have been boring (sorry Katz and Light, I liked it) everyone became engaged when they realized not everyone in the class agreed with them. Indeed, the same student who complained about how boring the readings were, said at one point during the class discussion (with regards to Katz's "The Big Lie"), "This guy seems to answer my objections in the article as I make them. It's like he is in my mind."

As teachers in a prison, we cannot escape the fact that we are representatives of the dominant, oppressive system, and of its “criteria of rationality.” But we can leverage our complicity, both directly and indirectly. Directly, we can put the hegemonic moral and social norms into play in the prison classroom, opening them to contestation rather than mere refusal. Indirectly, just as our students can bring thoughts about value to the broader communities in which they take part, we can use what we have learned in prison to challenge the views of other elites. We should be realistic about the potential impact of prison education. The benefits of any one class, or one program, are going to be small. But the utopian vision of a society in which the whole encounter between currently-dominant and currently-subordinated social groups is transformed is likely to be made up of a multitude of small, piecemeal encounters like this. We do not know how to spark a revolution that will overthrow mass incarceration all at once and transfigure our society, but we believe that it can be made to fade away through a proliferation of non-carceral practices.
We can hope. I do believe there is something there. Sometimes we put too much faith into some grand unified strategy, which a variety of positive tactics can have more of an impact. I do know that students make teaching worth it, and this is no different for me.

For those who are interested in reading about prisons and issues around prisons, here are a few (obvious, yet important) suggestions:
Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? (spoiler alert, she seems to think the answer is yes). This is a very short book, and an excellent place to begin if you need to understand some of the scope of the problem.

Lisa Guenther's Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. This is a philosophically sophisticated work, and I am particularly suggesting it for readers of this blog, because it also includes a brilliant chapter intersecting the issues of solitary confinement and factory farms against animals.

And for a very recent and insightful publication, I suggest Joshua Price's Prison and Social Death.