This article is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.”
As I leaf through the notebook I used while teaching courses at Oakhill Correctional Institution, I can picture many of the moments, both large and small, that transformed the way I now think about the humanities. There was the time we discussed Kafka’s brilliant and frustrating short story “Before the Law,” and one participant announced, despairingly, “This dude took me somewhere I didn’t want to go.” Then there was the conversation about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” that led us to draw and explore different conceptions of time in a session that remains my favorite classroom experience to this day. As part of a creative writing workshop I ran, the students’ writing introduced me to a whole host of characters: the punch-drunk boxer and the jazz musician; the eponymous Gogol-esque hero of “A Tale about a Nose”; and Chop Chop the superhero pig whose creator invested as much thought into the imagery as into the sound of his dynamic texts. There was also the story of a lightning bug caught in a jar. With each flashing of its lantern, the author Scott explained, it grew more and more aware of the passing of its life.
I can attempt to retell the stories I heard within the bare room on the second floor of the prison’s education building, but my own words fall short. They remain only a pale glimmer of their original forms. What I can impart instead is the significance of these encounters. In Oakhill, a men’s minimum-security prison located about twenty minutes south of Madison, Wisconsin, I witnessed immense talents gone unnoticed by society and a pure desire to learn and engage with new material that rivals that of any so-called traditional college student.
My time at Oakhill began in June 2011. I decided to go through the prison’s training session after hearing from a friend about her experiences teaching there, and I began offering courses two months later. Eventually, in 2013, a number of volunteers teaching fiction, poetry, and creative writing came together to form the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project (OPHP). We received two major grants that allowed us to both cover our expenses (copies, books, mileage, etc.) and to create a dedicated position, a Project Coordinator who would oversee all operations and communication. As Project Coordinator, which I served as for over a year, I recruited volunteers to teach classes on new topics such as art, history, and theater. I likewise organized a travelling exhibition entitled Artists in Absentia that featured the art, music, and writing of participants. My goal in all these efforts was twofold: to diversify the educational opportunities provided to the men in Oakhill and to expand the exchange between the incarcerated individuals and the outside world, from which, of course, they often feel estranged. My hope was to permit the exhibition’s audience to see the humanity in the art produced by the contributors, and, while they needed little help in finding their artistic voices, we gave them a wider venue to showcase their talents.
The statistics regarding prison education programs’ positive effects on recidivism, post-release employment opportunities, institutional expenses, and the general well-being of everyone involved, from incarcerated individual to correctional officer to warden, have been well documented. According to a report by the RAND Corporation: “Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not.”1 These are very real and very substantial factors to consider as we advocate for the public humanities and for broader prison reform.
My own involvement in the OPHP, which should be noted is not a credit-bearing program, was, of course, excellent professional training. But most of all, it was the single strongest affirmation of what I, and many of us, do: read and absorb ourselves in stories that in many ways transcend differences in space, time, and experience. In a prison, everything is stripped down to its essentials of pen, paper, words, minds. Nothing else, but much more. We were simply fellow enthusiasts seeking to learn about the worlds around us and to have meaningful conversations about the imagined situations found in those readings. Sometimes, as when we discussed Waiting for Godot, our conversations would swerve toward personal experiences related to being incarcerated for lengthy periods and the mental anguish that comes with that uncertain state. More frequently, we came to understand better more universal dilemmas, such as the pain of loss as expressed in Hamlet and Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory.
Teaching at Oakhill was also a lesson in humility and perspective. The men there did not always need to hunt for symbols or to link a text to a particular theory. It was instead enough to appreciate the art on its own terms, to allow the writing to provide insights into our own behavior, and to see how others live through these texts. As a quote from my notebook (jotted down after a co-instructor tried to invest too much meaning into a participant’s technique) read: “I just write, bro.”
At its best, the public humanities is an exchange, rather than a one-way street. At Oakhill, for example, the men would frequently thank me and the other volunteers for offering classes and for visiting the prison. The truth is that my gratitude extends to them in ways they can never know. Teaching at Oakhill demonstrated to me that we can blend the personal with the literary, the emotional with the theoretical, and in doing so, we can come to profound conversations in any classroom. I realize that this idea will not necessarily come as a revelation to most; it was not exactly to me either. Yet my time in prison only solidified that belief and made me a better instructor for it. What the humanities—and not just of the public variety—do is reveal the way others might live. For many of the men in my classes, though by no means all, this process let them consider their own pasts, as well as the effects of their actions on their victims. The humanities thus bridge gaps in our understanding and bring us at least a little bit closer to recognizing another’s perspective. In our conversations about poetry and history, we similarly learn to appreciate the way others think and feel. I felt this each time I went to Oakhill.
In turn, the public humanities aim to redirect the conversation from a feedback loop within universities toward others who may have been underrepresented or underserved by our communities of higher education. The costs of the prison-industrial complex remain vast, but as a volunteer instructor at Oakhill, the one that always struck me as a remarkable pity was the loss of perspectives that comes from having so many people locked away. I can only speak for myself, but I know I was enriched by the men with whom I debated the merits of magical realism and the meaning of death in Anna Karenina.
We should all be so lucky as to spend at least one evening discussing favorite short stories with our hidden interlocutors in prison.2
1 See, for example, the following report produced by the RAND Corporation: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR564.html
2 To learn more about prison education opportunities near you, please visit the Prison Studies Project directory. For a fascinating look inside San Quentin State Prison, listen to the podcast Ear Hustle, which was co-founded and co-produced by people currently incarcerated there.
José Vergara is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College. His research interests include comparative literature and the Russian novel of the long twentieth century. Having recently completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute, he is looking forward to offering courses in a prison again soon.
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