Teaching in the Oddhouse

Stacy A. Bell

A woman incarcerated in Emanuel Women’s Facility in Swainsboro told me she used to think outdoor toilets were called “oddhouses.” Linguists call this an “eggcorn,” a mishearing that is both incorrect and plausible. The American prison is another oddhouse—a space of unusual deprivation of opportunity.

During spring 2010 and 2011, I moved my English 389R memoirs classroom from the Oxford campus into Metro State Prison, a maximum security facility in Atlanta, where I taught twelve Oxford sophomores and twelve incarcerated women. Teaching in this unusual space taught me the patience of Job. A total institution, the prison segregates and regiments. Everyone who participates in this system is utterly controlled by it. 

Because of that dynamic, in prison every moment counts. The space is restricted, and the setting is unpredictable. Before I taught in prison, time was never so salient. The space demands a pedagogy designed to maximize opportunities for participation. Because the two groups have no access to each other outside of our controlled class time, and because engaging each other individually is key to the impact of the experience, group work takes precedence over lecture. For example, I plan consecutive timed small-group activities in which equal numbers of Oxford and incarcerated students explore questions about the texts. The students record their insights then share them in whole-group discussion. A stopwatch is essential. 

Teaching in prison also taught me to appreciate the fluidity and freedom of movement that Oxford teachers and students enjoy in the physical, economic, and intellectual spaces of campus. I confronted the disparities between my two groups of students: they didn’t inhabit the same social, psychic, or physical space. At Oxford, I see fine and sometimes obvious distinctions between our most affluent students and the students of modest means. But those distinctions usually fade in the context of membership in an elite community of learners. In prison I encounter people who live outside the margins, who have no concept of the life most Oxford students live. The demarcation is not etched solely by class or race. Incarcerated women bring true tales of hardship—and complex psychological profiles—unlike any I have ever encountered at Oxford, where a struggling student has access to multiple therapeutic spaces.

I hoped the experience of learning in a classroom with incarcerated women would make my Oxford students reexamine their privilege. I do not yet know the long-term impact of this experience on them. The egalitarian ideal is pervasive in higher education, but it is problematic. At Oxford, students’ understanding of freedom and meritocracy is circumscribed by their narrow socioeconomic horizons. They meet the socioeconomic “other” through service learning, but rarely do they get to engage more meaningfully as academic peers in unrestricted space. Some call the experience transformative while still “othering” their incarcerated classmates. I have observed a tendency to simplify the complexities of social class differences by declaring the incarcerated students “just like us.” A few will describe incarcerated people as “criminals” who have made “bad choices,” which suggests that these students are not able yet to reflect on their own privilege. But I believe such reflection will come in time with experience.

Teaching in prison has made me a more effective, more flexible teacher. I have surrendered the illusion of control over “outcomes” to focus instead on the miracle in the moment. I appreciate the support structure, the relative emotional health and stability of traditional college students, access, opportunities, and plentiful resources. In prison, I don’t know who will show up for class, if there will be a lockdown, or whether the warden has decided, suddenly, to cancel my program. 

I have learned to inhabit my teaching spaces intentionally. The classroom in the oddhouse has taught me that teaching happens in the moment, not in the final exam.