English Dept Teaching at San Quentin Correctional Facility

In what follows, Annie McClanahan, a sixth-year PhD student in the English Department, gives a brief overview of her teaching at San Quentin Correctional Facility. This is the first of a number of posts about the English Department’s involvement with the program. In the future, both Annie and other members of the department will report specific stories from their classes as well as describing the different facets of the experience in greater detail.

I imagine that most of us are pretty sure we’ll remember where we were on election night this year—I know I will, because I happened to be in prison. Lest you think the academic and financial pressures of graduate school have led the department’s students to a life of crime, let me explain: on election night, I was teaching my class at San Quentin Correctional Facility, through the Prison University Project’s program there. I teach English 101, a “freshman comp”-style course which is one of the main requirements towards the AA degree that students in the San Quentin program can earn. I learned of the election results from one of my students who had a portable radio with him; besides celebrating the news—and as if the scene couldn’t have gotten more surreal—that evening our class was dedicated to watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, a film whose image of the potentially apocalyptic results of political stupidity certainly amplified our shared sense of the stakes of this election!

The teachers in the San Quentin College program are all volunteers, though there is an incredibly dedicated and hard-working three-person staff that manages all the organizational aspects of the program as well as doing fundraising, outreach, and probably a thousand other things behind the scenes. The San Quentin program was started in the mid-90s when legislation was enacted that prohibited the use of federal Pell Grants for inmate higher education. This legislation effectively ended over 350 college programs in prisons across the country, but through the dedication of a number of people, San Quentin’s program persisted. Currently the program offers about a dozen classes each semester, and has graduated almost 70 students with an AA degree (though many more are paroled and continue their education on the outside).

This is not my first time teaching at San Quentin—in fact, I’m now in my sixth year in the Ph.D. program and also teaching my sixth class at San Quentin: I’ve taught a range of courses, covering the main curriculum of the English Department. I TA’ed for my first class during my first year at Berkeley, a class called 99B that is the second (after 99A) of the two “gateway” courses most students take before beginning the college-credit classes in the program. 99A and B are basic college writing courses but also introduce students to study skills, good reading habits, college-level classroom discussion, and a host of other skills that may be new to many of the students, especially those who haven’t been in school for many years. Since then, I’ve taught 101 a number of times and have also taught English 102, Introduction to Literature. This semester, I am teaching with a fantastic team of 3 other graduate students, two from the English Department and one from Philosophy—two of us teach on Tuesday nights and two on Thursday nights, from 6:30-8:45 pm. One of the best things about my work in the program has been this rare opportunity to try out team teaching. Teaching at San Quentin has allowed me to to teach with faculty and graduate students from colleges and universities all over the Bay Area, including both those with many years of teaching experience and those who are newer to teaching; I’ve thus been able to find great mentors and to do some ad-hoc teaching mentorship of my own.

This semester, we have a fantastic group of 7 students (an unusually small class). The reading for our course is designed around a specific topic: the manifesto, a type of text that offers a critical perspectives on the world as it is and a vision of the world as it might be. Manifestos we’re reading include Plato’s Republic; the Declaration of Independence and 19th-century feminist responses to it; essays by Thoreau, Ezra Pound, and Salvador Dali; poems by Aime Cesaire, Sonya Sanchez and Oscar Wilde; hip-hop lyrics; professions of religious faith; and platforms from both mainstream and marginal contemporary political parties. The idea of the course is to connect the reading students are doing to their writing: as I say in the syllabus, writing does not just describe the world, it brings a new world of ideas into being. And nowhere is that creative potential clearer than in the manifesto.

Stay tuned for future posts about teaching at San Quentin that will describe the nature of teaching in the prison, interactions with students and other anecdotes about this amazing pedagogical experience.