Teaching at San Quentin, Installment 3

This week we present a third-installment of graduate student Annie McClanahan’s account of teaching at San Quentin correctional facility with the Prison University Project. Annie has contributed two previous posts on this topic, in which she addresses, first, the nature of the program in general and a short account of the class she most recently taught and, second, the nature of the prison itself as well as that of the students she teaches. In what follows, Annie speaks more pointedly on frequently asked questions about issues of safety and academic achievement specific to prison teaching.

Are you scared?/Is it safe?
The short answer is that no, I’m not, and yes, it is. In one way, it’s often very easy to forget that you are in a prison at all; it’s easy to slip up and say “Why don’t you email me your thesis statement?” forgetting that unlike at Berkeley, the students at San Quentin don’t typically have access even to word processors, let alone the internet. Almost every week a student will say to me as I’m leaving “Drive safe,” and nearly every time I have to bite back the quick-to-the lips commonplace “You too.”

In other ways, of course, it’s hard to forget you’re in an institution, and the guards at San Quentin constantly remind us, explicitly and implicitly, not to forget this important detail: one unique issue I’ve encountered there is the intense, difficult complexity of race and gender in the prison context; on this issue, it can occasionally feel like my students and I are speaking entirely different languages, and it is a continued challenge to walk the razor-thin line between understanding that we have on these questions fundamentally-different experiences and assumptions, and refusing to allow racist, sexist, or homophobic speech of any kind.

How does teaching at San Quentin compare to teaching outside of the prison, at Berkeley, for example?

I will say that my prison teaching has been particularly pedagogically challenging when it comes to the issue of classroom authority—not because the students there require more disciplining than students anywhere else, but because these are students who are in many cases older than I am, and who have a kind of “real world” experience that I obviously don’t. Being in the prison makes me even less inclined to rely on the kind of abstract authority behind “Why? Because I said so,” but once in a while I have to recognized that that’s the most appropriate answer. And the students there are, unfortunately, right to insistently ensure that they are being held to the same standard as students in any other college classroom—as Jody Lewen, the director of the Prison University Project and a former Ph.D. student in the Rhetoric Department puts it in her recent (and highly recommended) article in a special issue of PMLA dedicated to prison education, “many instructors [are] unsure of their students’ intellectual capabilities. Some of this may [be] related to the teachers’ lack of experience teaching adults with poor basic skills, but…it also [has] to do with largely unconscious stereotypes about the intellectual potential of people in prison…Trapped in these stereotypes, teachers fear frustrating or even humiliating students…The ‘look on the bright side’ attitude also seem[s] to reflect…the simple desire to feel positive about the program—to feel effective rather than inadequate” (Jody Lewen, “Academics Belong in Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin,” PMLA May 2008, p. 693-4).

Jody goes on to point out that questions of grade inflation are nearly as likely to emerge in “normal” classrooms—certainly I’ve struggled with this at Berkeley too—but she is right in observing that the main challenge of San Quentin is not that it is frightening or intimidating to teach the students there, but that it is sometimes hard to know when to take their context and life experience into account, and when to hold them to a more universally-acknowledged standard of academic achievement. Lest this seem too intractable a problem, however, I want to note that this has become easier for me as I’ve gotten more accustomed both to teaching in the program and to teaching generally; confronting these questions has, I think, made me a much better teacher in whatever kind of classroom I’m in. And because I recently graded a fantastic bunch of revised critical essays from my students this semester, I can also say that it has not been hard with this particular class to know what standard to apply, since they are almost without exception performing at an impressively high level.