What I’ve Learned from Teaching in a Prison by Agnieszka Tuszynska

The Education Justice Project brings UI faculty and graduate students together with  inmates at the Danville Correctional Facility, a state prison in Danville, Illinois in for-credit courses in a broad range of the humanities.  In just a few years,  the EJP prison classroom has become known on the UIUC campus as an inspiring and transformative place to teach.  In our latest “Humanities and Crisis”  post, Agnieska Tuszynska  considers her classroom experience there. 

Agnieszka Tuszynska is a Ph.D. Candidate in English. Her dissertation, “Strangers from Within, Strangers from Without: Negotiations And Uses of Space in African American and Immigrant Literatures and Cultures, 1900s-1950s,” presents a comparative study of American prose that poses spatiality as the main tool used by black and immigrant writers to represent the ethnic experience in the United States from the twenties to the fifties.

— Susan Davis

Last spring, I taught a course at the prison in Danville, Illinois,  titled “Race and Place in Twentieth-century American Fiction.”  During our last meeting of the semester, I asked each student to answer the question: “What have you learned from this class?” After giving me their answers, my students proceeded to turn the questioner into the questioned: “What have you learned?” they asked. I should have anticipated that and I should have prepared for it. But I hadn’t. And so I gave them the best answer I could master at the moment. I said: I regained the ability to be excited  about what I do as a teacher and a student. It was hardly an exhaustive response, or an answer that did justice to everything that the class and the students had taught me.  I should have told them that thanks to them I’d remembered that which the stress and pressure of writing a dissertation and looking for a job have caused me partially to forget: that the study of literature and culture matters and that it is thrilling.

This blog entry contains all the things I should have told my students that day—and didn’t.

I have come to see the lessons I took away from my class on the Danville campus,  as the prison is known among the members of Education Justice Project, as falling into two general categories. The first category involves what my students have taught me about the role of the humanities in higher education; the second category refers to the ways my Danville class has transformed my methodology as a teacher and a scholar.

The Role of the Humanities.

In recent years, much has been said and written about the jeopardized status of the humanities within the increasingly profit-oriented system of higher education. Many of us in the humanities departments have found ourselves bracing against budget cuts, an unfavorable academic job market, and other ominous signs of what some have called the death of the humanities. Additionally, and often more painfully, we often find it necessary to defend the relevance of what we do to our friends and family who question the wisdom of our career choices, and to our students who sometimes resent having to take English or philosophy classes that, they feel, have nothing to do with their business or engineering majors. On a few occasions, I have found myself explaining, even justifying, to various people—students and others—the humanities’ reason for being.

My involvement with EJP and especially the class I taught in the spring have given me a new level of assertiveness and self-confidence as a scholar and a teacher in the humanities. Here’s why: I have seen the study of literature, cultural artifacts, and historical documents bring the best intellectual and spiritual qualities out of a group of students in an environment many would consider actively hostile to the human spirit. In a place where daily life has dehumanizing effects,  I have seen rigorous textual study and meticulous critical analysis lead not just to insightful conclusions but to conclusions based on compassion and empathy for the human condition of others. Let me share a couple of illustrative examples.

One of the novels we read for our class is Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning (1942),     a story of urban violence and street life. Featuring a male protagonist and written in what I’ve heard described as “masculine language,” the novel—I thought— was likely to stir my students’ identification with the tough existence that it depicted and that many of them would find all too familiar. For that reason, I considered my decision to teach the book a bit daring.  What I did not expect was that, apart from turning into a heated Foucauldian analysis of the novel’s urban geography, our discussion would focus to a large extent on the struggles of the story’s female character. I did not foresee that within the hyper-masculine culture of the prison, my students would make room for an extensive analysis of the social conditions that women faced during the Great Depression, or for relevant and deeply stirring personal narratives in which they compared the women in their own lives, and in their own neighborhoods, to the struggling female character of Algren’s novel. While I was right to expect my students would identify with the problems the novel highlights, I didn’t imagine I would witness them performing a feminist analysis of the text.

Another example I want to share here remains in my memory one of the highlights of my teaching experience. In preparation for  reading Pietro DiDonato’s  Christ in Concrete (1939)  a novel about immigrant experience in America, the students first read the United States Immigration Act of 1924.  During our discussion of the nativist views and discriminatory language of the act, one of the students—to everybody’s surprise—expressed his agreement with the rhetoric of the document and the exclusions it imposed. In subsequent class meetings, we focused on the ways DiDonato’s experimental writing style rendered the emotional and material impact that discrimination had on the lives of immigrants. At some point in the discussion, that same student spoke to make what he called a “confession.” He told us about the new understanding of the immigrant condition he had gained while reading the novel, dwelling on its language, and participating in class discussion. He spoke to me and his classmates of being alternatively moved to laughter and tears by the novel’s imagery and stream-of-consciousness. Given what some of our Danville students have called “their emotional hang-ups,” that couldn’t have been an easy confession to make. I was deeply moved by it.

This is how I know the humanities matter. The humanities matter because through the critical study of the human condition we discover what we have in common with one another despite our differences. They matter because they can not only make us learn something new about figurative language and the stream-of-consciousness technique, but also invite us to confront our prejudices and make an effort to interrogate them. They matter because a literature class can make prisoners feel—and I quote from one of my students–”that we are human beings, after all.”

New Methodology

My other lesson from the prison has made me rethink not just what it is that I as a teacher and student in the humanities do, but also how I do it.  Within the walls of the prison, I have gained a new understanding of and appreciation for the notion of intellectual freedom. I have learned that disciplinary conventions and formal requirements, while important and often necessary to know, can and should be bent, stretched, and transgressed when they stop being conducive to our passionate learning and  when our freedom to grow as thinkers is at stake.

To be sure, my students performed a number of tasks that one would expect to perform in a  literary fiction course: they wrote formal literary analysis papers, did close readings of the text orally and in writing, learned to identify the elements of fiction and the characteristics of literary realism and naturalism. Following my advice, they un-learned to read fast and instead acquired the habit of dwelling on words and delighting in them. They surprised me with their nuanced use of the figures of speech. For example, after a short lecture on the role of different kinds of spaces in human experience, I asked them to tell me of those spaces that had played a significant role in their lives. Painting one of the most beautiful images we’d encounter that whole semester,  one student contrasted the rough physical space of his “hood” with the safety of his mother’s arms. All this goes to show that the men in my class were very much on top of things when it came to tackling the literary.

But in their approaches to the novels, they also relied on varieties of experience and knowledge  that couldn’t be found in most literature textbooks. In their questions, written assignments, and discussions, they spontaneously and gracefully jumped over disciplinary fences, drawing on what they’d previously learned from courses in such fields as Islamic architecture, history of madness, or radical social and political movements. In listening to the different appointed student  discussion leaders each week, I heard them approach our class readings from a wide range of perspectives, including that of a preacher, an existential philosopher, and a political analyst. Although our class focused on fiction, in their explorations of the novels, my students roamed freely across literary genres. Once, one student greeted us all at the beginning of the class with a two page poem he’d written in response to one of the novels. Another student summarized our whole class in his final paper in the form of a 30-page play based on the semester’s readings and discussions.

My students’ commitment was not so much to the cultivation of the discipline or the field but to the cultivation of the thinker inside them. The enthusiasm with which they fostered their freedom to think and to share their thoughts –enthusiasm that couldn’t be contained within the boundaries of one field—brings to mind the German thinker, Max Weber, who —when once criticized by a fellow academic for writing outside his field, responded: “I’m not a donkey. And I don’t have a field.”

With so few of their liberties left to them, my students on the Danville campus hungrily exercised their intellectual freedom, within and outside the field specified by our course listing. Since the spring, I have made a promise to myself to encourage and carve out more room for such free intellectual exploration in my future classes. After Danville, I’ll never teach literature the same way again.

My Danville students also transformed me as a student. They made me consider the notion that perhaps I’m not a donkey either. The freshness of their perspectives rekindled the passion I had partially lost for my own dissertation research. Since the spring, that research has taken me on journeys I didn’t even fathom before. My methodology has expanded to encompass an exploration of Cook County Illinois Jail’s archives from the 1940s, and field trips to Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods and cemeteries. What I find in those unlikely places uncovers whole new layers of meaning in the works of literature I study. I owe much of the joy and satisfaction it’s given me to my Danville students.

Having read my own words above, I’m surprised to discover what a self-centered narrative it is. “What I’ve learned” has somehow turned into “what I’ve gained/what I’ve taken away/ in what ways I have become a more confident and fulfilled scholar and person.” But perhaps this best illustrates the experience of teaching for EJP. When teaching on the Danville campus, you will give—and give your best—but that part will be expected. It’s what you’ll receive that will surprise you.

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About Susan Davis

I teach in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois.
This entry was posted in Theme: Humanities Respond to Crisis (2011-12), Yearly Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What I’ve Learned from Teaching in a Prison by Agnieszka Tuszynska

  1. D. Fairchild Ruggles says:

    This is a wonderful, moving, and beautifully expressed account of the experience of teaching at Danville prison. Agnieszka speaks for herself, for me, and I believe many of us who teach and volunteer in the Education Justice Program. It transforms all of us, whether “inside” or “outside.”
    Thank you Agnieszka.

  2. Robin Kaler says:

    You make me proud to be a member of the Illinois family. Thank you and your colleagues for ensuring that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shares knowledge and ideas far beyond the boundaries of the physical campus.

  3. Jane Desmond says:

    Terrific, and beautifully and strongly articulated. Thank you. Send it to the chronicle for higher ed—it deserves an even wider print audience!

  4. Ryan Griffis says:

    Inspiring post. It also makes me consider the current dismantling of humanist institutions alongside the ongoing expansion of those of incarceration. There are many ways one could interpret this correlation (as some have already). Seeing how it can be so significant in the lives of those incarcerated and simultaneously so devalued in higher ed is telling. Skills and benefits—not to mention the values—attributed to the humanities can be pushed back (even more) into the privately regulated/hereditable domain of social and cultural capital. That’s one simplified interpretation, at least.

  5. Denny says:

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    • iprh says:

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