For two years before joining the faculty at BMCC, I was required to be frisked and pass through a metal detector each day before I could enter my classroom and had guards armed with collapsible batons monitoring the halls nearby. My students all wore state-issued prison uniforms. I taught college courses in six medium- and maximum-security prisons through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) consortium of Rutgers University-Newark. This was my first sustained exposure to the prison system and to people who are incarcerated. It was also my first experience independently teaching college courses. Despite obvious differences, I learned a great deal about the craft of teaching at the college level and I believe the pedagogical insights I gained are useful in other college environments as well. What follows are six crossover lessons.
- I learned that institutional hierarchies do not always reflect student insight or engagement. My students turned out to be deeply committed to their education and to self-improvement. They came to class having read all the readings (sometimes having gone through them more than once to make sure they “got it all”), eager to participate in class discussions, and desperate to relate their newfound knowledge to better understand their own personal circumstances. It was a commonplace for my students to report, “I was speaking to my cellmate about the Durkheim piece we read in class,” or, “My buddy I work with in the kitchen totally agrees with Michelle Alexander’s take on the criminal justice system.” From speaking to colleagues teaching elsewhere I discovered that this level of engagement with college was not always the norm, even in elite universities.
- I learned the need for professors to be flexible in their teaching styles and to improvise. I had no computer or overhead projector, so showing the class PowerPoints or clips from Youtube or captivating documentaries was out. Aside from an old fashioned chalkboard, with the occasional piece of chalk, I had to rely solely on a physical copy of the text and my students’ wits (and my own!). I learned the power of in-class activities, especially provocative class discussions, to stimulate intense thinking.
- I learned, on a deeper level than I had previously appreciated, the fundamental truth that education is a two-way street. I taught my students the sociology masters, such as Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and contemporary topics like gender and queer theory. They taught me about prison life. They taught me how to make a “stinger” to heat up water by attaching several paper clips to an exposed lamp wire, and how to use a stinger for tattooing. They also taught me that contrary to the myth that all inmates maintained their innocence, many students eagerly acknowledged their crimes and accepted blame. They taught me about the poverty they grew up in and the limited options they faced upon reaching adulthood. They also taught me about the myriad layers of racism that pervaded the criminal justice system. If you establish a culture of mutual trust in the classroom, students will feel more comfortable teaching you about their complex lives and expertise as well.
- Related to this, I learned to think of the classroom as a sort of refuge, a “safe space” for self-expression and the sharing of opinions. As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to make students feel totally safe in a prison, an institution which is enveloped in danger. Students often disclosed very personal details about themselves during class discussions and spoke to classmates that they had seen in the yard for years but never felt comfortable approaching. We also managed to have successful, if at times heated discussions, about polarizing topics, including gay marriage and the 2016 presidential elections. There were several vocal Trump supporters in my classes whose outspoken advocacy and the strong response from the other side severely challenged the decorum of the classroom, but peace was ultimately maintained, and by allowing space for the sharing of all voices, many fruitful conversations were had.
- I learned the power of humor to transcend boundaries and unite across differences. I was a middle class, white, Jewish professor, teaching classes composed largely of poor African American and Latino students. Previously, I hadn’t known a single person who was incarcerated for street crimes, while many of my students had already been in prison for years. So there were plenty of boundaries to overcome. From the start of each semester I tried to inject humor into the classroom to help put the students at ease. Most of my jokes were at my own expense. For example, during one class a student asked me, “What did you know about us before starting to teach in prison?” I responded, “I watched the documentary series The Wire about the Baltimore drug trade. I learned everything I know from there.” All my students started laughing and protesting, “Dr. Z that’s not a documentary! That’s Hollywood BS!”
- Finally, I learned to go with the flow of inevitable complications. Some of my students would be transferred mid-semester to other prisons and I was no longer able to maintain contact with them. Sometimes a “code” would be called that halted all traffic in and out of the prison and I would only get to my classroom twenty minutes before the class was over. Students would miss class because they were required to appear in court or had a scheduled visit with a doctor outside the prison, and on and on and on. After coming to accept all these disruptions over which I had no control, I became less stressed, more relaxed, and a more supportive professor. As we learn often at BMCC, I could only do my very best within the framework of what was possible.
I would recommend that all professors seek out opportunities to teach in prison, even if only to teach a one-time standalone workshop. It is both an important way to assist in the education of a truly marginalized population of students as well as an opportunity to teach in a pedagogically demanding and rewarding environment. In the meantime, I hope that some of the lessons I learned may help those teaching at BMCC.
Well said and there are life lessons here unrelated to education!
Schneur, I am in awe of your opportunity to work with the incarcerated population. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and shedding light on a population that is often invisible and neglected. What an amazing gift you gave each other.
Great contribution! Thank you. Too bad there aren’t more opportunities for all of us to teach this population.