March 25, 2011

Students, inmates share memoir-writing class

Inside a Georgia prison.

Students may sometimes joke about being captive in their classes, but in an innovative course that has been offered at Oxford College for the past two spring semesters, a prison is the actual classroom setting.  The instructor is Stacy Bell '87Ox, lecturer in English.

The 12 students enrolled in "Special Topics in Literature: Memoirs" meet twice a week – once in the Oxford classroom, and a second time, when the students board a van and ride with Bell to the Metro Women's Prison in southwest Atlanta.

There they meet in a classroom with up to 12 inmates, all of whom have been selected and approved for participation by prison officials.

As a part of the course requirements, Oxford students complete the Georgia Department of Corrections' volunteer training, orienting them to the prison environment. They learn that on the one hand they will interact with the inmates much as they do with other students, but on the other, there are differences.

They must not touch inmates. They cannot exchange gifts or information with them. They cannot take notes during the class and must keep in strictest confidentiality anything the inmates share about themselves.

Profoundly effective

All of the class participants read literary and historical memoirs, such as "The Narrative and Life of Frederick Douglass," a collection entitled "Women's Indian Captivity Narratives" and more recent works, including Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face and "The Only Girl in the Car" by Kathy Dobie. 

But the students do not only read and discuss the memoirs of others; they also write about their own lives in the memoir genre and share what they write with the other students.  In some ways, this is like all class discussions. 

But, says Bell, "I remind my students that there is no way for this to be just a literature course. We are in prison, and we must talk about context. The main guiding question this semester is, 'What [in our reading selection] is accurate and what is true?'"

The class has a profound effect on most of the participants. One Oxford student wrote, "We see 'truth'—true human potential, human nature, bare and spare, stripped down, no shields." 

Bell adds, "They meet people who have been forced to reflect deeply because the only thing that they have control over is their personal narrative."

And another Oxford student wrote that the class "helps you think about your life in a different way—you consider the paths you have taken or the trajectory [you] have followed so far and you ask why?"

Bell is connected to an international network of those involved in similar work. Last summer she attended the Reading and Writing in Prison conference at Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and presented a paper entitled, "Reflecting on the Self Where There Is No Self: Reading and Writing Memoirs in Prison," a description of her Oxford course.

Bell had had an interest in teaching the incarcerated long before introducing the class in spring 2010.  She had investigated some of the courses across the country that already were bringing together inmates and students in the same classroom.

In summer 2009, she completed the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program's training program for instructors. Through a family connection, she also met Julio Medina, who is the director of Exodus Transitional Community, a 501c3 organization based in Harlem that offers transitional assistance to men and woman after release from prison.

Medina invited her to accompany him to a New York Theological Seminary class at Sing Sing, the infamous prison in Ossining, New York, where she was able to meet with inmates and get their reaction to her ideas for a class.

Because the class is conducted in a prison setting, there are always many steps to setting up this course, but Bell hopes to continue offering the course for the lessons she can give her students.

"As their teacher, I would say that students can learn in their classes what is accurate—e.g., incarceration rates, recidivism rates, minority over-representation, etc.—about incarceration and the criminal justice system, but they don't really understand what is true about it until they sit in a prison classroom."


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