With political divisiveness and gaps in access to higher education intensifying, the imperative for universities to interact meaningfully with local and global communities has perhaps never been greater. In this virtual roundtable, drawing on a live event that took place at Columbia University last fall as part of a teaching workshop titled “Bridging the Gap: Humanities in Action,” four scholars discuss the innovative means by which they’ve brought their research to public spheres outside the ivory tower.
• Nicole Gervasio: An Uncommon Core
• Emily Hainze: Engaged Pedagogy and Prison History
• Joss Greene: A Call to Multiply Our Tactics
• Nicole Callahan: A Hopeful Utopia
An Uncommon Core
In his 1948 essay “What Is Literature?” Sartre cheers on the politically conscious writer as one who “knows that words are action … that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change.” What Sartre calls “engaged literature” not only grasps at an ever-receding “truth” but also provokes social change, bringing an inspired imagination to bear on a desensitized reading public. Sartre was, as my students would say, woke.
Sartre’s convictions about engaged literature have never been more vital for a contemporary education in arts and letters. To begin effecting my own change, I founded a multicultural literacy project as a Public Humanities Fellow.1 By giving underserved New York City students access to literature by women of color, by queer and differently abled people, and by writers from outside the US and Europe, I hoped to affirm the value of their own experiences as first-generation immigrants, women of color, and queer and questioning teens.
I created an online course application that asked prospective students to write an essay answering the question, “What makes you different?” The results left me stunned. Each student chose a pseudonym for publishing work on our blog. “Jamaican Prince” depicted his defiance of social categories as a blessing that let him “dissolve his ego.” “Joan Gein,” self-identified as genderqueer, described their body as “a diary” they would make up and costume with the faces of characters they wanted to know. “Victoria Kim” put words for the first time to her fear of her conservative Hindu family’s reactions to her bisexuality: “Whenever I bring up the topic of identifying somebody through their sexuality, my parents get uncomfortable and forbid me from speaking anymore.” What, I thought, if I brought uncensored, intellectually rigorous, university-level debate to a teen like Victoria, and helped her learn how to broach her perfectly legitimate questions about identity in the spirit of higher learning?
For the students, contemplating sticky topics like race, gender, sexuality, and class signaled a new kind of intellectual freedom.
I could only afford to fund transportation and supplies for 18; they came from four boroughs, 26 schools, and 14 countries outside of the West.
I named the Kaleidoscope Project after a diversity-based magazine I coedited in college. I saw what I was doing as justice work, not service. Of the nearly 150 works on the NYC Department of Education’s high school reading list, only 20 percent are by women, 16 percent by non-white minorities, and two writers—not two percent, but two people—come from outside the West. On my syllabus, 77 percent of works are by women, 93 percent by non-white minorities, and 80 percent by non-Western writers, a corpus I called my “uncommon core.”
At the end of the semester, the students shared one striking sentiment: it is a privilege to think uncensored. Some of our course texts had quite literally been banned in their high schools; for example, one student recalled a teacher smuggling in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home by way of the Xerox machine. But even contemplating sticky topics like race, gender, sexuality, and class signaled a new kind of intellectual freedom; as one student wrote, “the [high school] classroom needs to be less censored and more open to literature … from a diverse cast of authors.”
Postcolonial literature may have little chance of appearing on secondary public school curricula because of its controversial content. But the works on our syllabus spoke to my students precisely because violence is both so pervasive in their lives and so often suppressed as a topic of open discussion. In New York, 85 percent of school-age children are not white and 41 percent are first-generation immigrants from non-Western countries. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of these students will experience bullying on the basis of social difference. LGBTQI teens are three times more likely than other students to feel unsafe at school.2
Of course, minority literatures aren’t only excluded from the canon because of their polemical content but because they are so under-read. In a survey at the end of the 2016 term, I asked my students whether they had ever read texts by African, Caribbean, East/South Asian, Latin American, Asian American, African American, Latinx, or LGBTQI authors in school; all checked at least one category; one admitted never having read “all of the above.” The fact that books reflecting the reality of students’ experiences apparently aren’t taught in their schools automatically excludes them from engaging intellectually with their own experiences. If we are to engage justice through art, we must put the power of representation in the hands of the people who are most vulnerable to being made to feel invisible.
The university, a bastion of privilege but also a virtually sacred space for spirited debate, must have a hand in making universal accessibility to knowledge the future. Engaged scholarship like the Kaleidoscope Project licenses students to speak and be heard regardless of their educational level. By leveraging the power of the university to reach their ears, we ensure that no one leaves high school thinking they wouldn’t survive in college themselves—much less that there’s nothing to learn about themselves and their people if they bothered to go.
Engaged Pedagogy and Prison History
How can teaching and research engaged with the prison system avoid reinforcing the prison’s ongoing violence?
Last summer, prior to teaching a literature course in a New York State women’s prison in Westchester County, I attended an orientation at a similar facility, in the suburbs of New York City. As I walked down the hall, I was struck by a series of familiar-looking photographs on the wall. They depicted the New York State Reformatory for Women, one of the first women’s prisons established in the United States, as it appeared shortly after opening, in 1901. I had encountered similar images in researching my dissertation on the cultural and literary history of the women’s prison in the early 20th-century.
The old reformatory eventually became the site where two current prisons for women were built. Walking through the rest of the prison where I had my orientation, I encountered many buildings that resembled the old photographs—from a schoolhouse to a main hall. A series of barbed-wire fences and caged spaces extended out from these red-brick buildings, new structures of captivity branching out from the old.
The overlap between past and present forms of imprisonment raises questions about how public scholarship and pedagogy might engage with histories of incarceration in the United States. The prison system’s racist and sexist violence has long shaped lives and communities in the United States,3 and reforms have often expanded the carceral state instead of diminishing its harm. The white female reformers who originally established the New York State Reformatory intended to provide improved education for the incarcerated. Despite those idealistic aims, the reformers’ programming excluded black women from the prison’s educational training.4 Today, the prison is a maximum-security facility that continues to participate in the disproportionate imprisonment of women of color in the US.
How might we account for what Avery Gordon calls “haunting,” in which unresolved and “abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life”?5 I see two potential possibilities for facilitating new forms of collaboration and social relationship.
Reforms have often expanded the carceral state instead of diminishing its harm.
The first is within the classroom itself. Highlighting how the university and the prison share and shape the same public landscape, Gillian Harkins and Erica Meiners have recently asked, “How can carceral spaces of teaching and learning—across campuses, communities, prisons, and detention centers—create anticarceral publics whose collective knowledge reorganizes the American academic penalscape?”6
One contribution to this collective knowledge might be to build, or continue to develop, curricula that attend to the entanglements of past and present, exploring how historical actors have resisted and responded to different iterations of state violence.7 In my American literature course in a prison classroom this past year, this meant attending to how writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Joy Harjo confront systemic racism and sexism, reckon with the losses of the past, and illuminate new social possibilities. It also meant creating space for students and teacher to experiment with their own literary strategies for narrating past, present, and future, forming a community in which we shared this imaginative work with each other.
The second possibility mobilizes the prison’s historical archive for teaching and collaborative research. Using a variety of primary sources in the classroom—institutional records, as well as the creative writing, correspondence, and testimonies of those imprisoned—we can investigate how the prison as an institution shaped the everyday lives of incarcerated women and their communities, as well as highlight their methods for resistance.
Incarcerated women in Indiana have written a history that upends the narrative of rescue and redemption foundational to the women’s prison.8 The Prison Public Memory Project used archival documents that describe the lives of early 20th-century teenage girls incarcerated at the New York Training School for Girls in workshops for public high school students in Hudson, NY, where the Training School has since been transformed into the Hudson Correctional Facility.
In the lesson plans I contributed to the latter project, students encountered documents from personal letters to photographs to case records. Common questions included: Why were some young women judged to be “incorrigible”? What were the historical and social forces that led to their sentences in the Training School (immigration, migration, racism, sexism)? How did incarcerated girls communicate with and narrate their experiences to their families and friends outside the prison? How did they form relationships with other young women in the institution?
As students talked and wrote, they also made connections between the girls’ experiences in prison a century ago and the current system in place today. In the process, they began the work of imagining how social forms could take a more just shape.
A Call to Multiply Our Tactics
“Can there be a feminist ethnography?”9 So Judith Stacey asks in an influential 1988 article, before concluding, more or less, “no.” If feminist relationships are characterized by equality, self-reflection, and reciprocity, no relationship between researcher and subject can ever be fully feminist. That relationship is constituted by power difference, and Stacey worries that the intimacy and attachments ethnography fosters only increase the risk of betrayal and exploitation.
What if our best scholarship is an insufficient tool for actualizing our political commitments? If we’re scholars concerned with injustice, how do we act?
As a sociologist who studies transgender people’s experiences with the criminal justice system, I am committed to rigorous scholarship. There are many empirical questions to be answered about the ways the police and prison systems shape transgender people’s lives. As a scholar, I have the privilege of time and resources to devote to answering these questions.
The academy is disciplining me to answer these questions in ways that make my work legible to sociologists. This makes my work less likely than an advocacy document to influence politicians, less likely than a memoir to reach the masses. The media and methods with the greatest scholarly impact sometimes seem the least likely to move the needle on questions of justice.
What if our best scholarship is an insufficient tool for actualizing our political commitments?
I am coming to believe that scholars invested in challenging injustice must work on multiple fronts. Before starting graduate school I volunteered for organizations dedicated to transgender and prisoner advocacy. I still do, and my work for them hasn’t changed much now that I’m a “scholar.” I still fundraise, update database files, offer emotional support, and engage in legal advocacy. This work affords me opportunities for mutuality and reciprocal relationships, and is therefore central to my identity as an engaged scholar, even though I don’t produce scholarship about it and it doesn’t appear on my CV.
Making our research more egalitarian and less exploitative is important, but we should also imagine social engagement extending beyond our academic jobs. Perhaps this is the time to offer unpaid labor to organizations we believe in. Perhaps this is the time to join collective efforts, transcending the researcher/researched dyad. When Stacey argues that there can be no fully feminist ethnographies, I read this as a call to multiply our tactics. She doesn’t mean that there can be no feminist ethnographers, only that ethnography is not adequate to our political ideals. I believe in role switching. Some ways of participating in political work will probably be illegible to our scholarly communities. And that may be the point.
A Hopeful Utopia
On the morning of November 9, 2016, I woke, checked my phone, and immediately thought: “What am I going to tell my students?”
At Columbia, I teach two seminar classes: Contemporary Civilization, a required sophomore-level year-long course in political philosophy, and Humanities Texts, Critical Skills (HTCS), a literature course that includes Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, DuBois, Morrison, and others. About half of the HTCS students are Justice-in-Education Scholars, a group of formerly incarcerated men and women who are among the most engaged and dedicated students I have ever taught.10 I also lead a research team at Columbia in a project called Justice in the Core, building a library of resources to assist students and teachers in reenvisioning existing courses at Columbia to engage more deeply with issues of justice and carceral-system reform.
I work with students across the political and religious spectrums, whose personal experiences profoundly affect their views. The last thing I want to do, on November 9 or on any day, is to alienate someone by turning a class into a partisan forum or a vitriolic debate based on ad hominem attacks. My goal is to help students use the texts in our course to evaluate, criticize, and make sense of the state of our democratic experiment in the United States.
That Wednesday after the election, I got texts and emails from former students seeking my support and advice. So I sent out an email to all my current and former students, inviting them to come to class the next morning to discuss Thomas More’s Utopia and to seek comfort from the fractured political situation in our familiar and civilized exchange of ideas. More, who was Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII through the chaos of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and England’s separation from the Catholic Church, published Utopia in 1516, as a fictional account of the political and social systems of an ideal island nation.
My goal is to help students evaluate, criticize, and make sense of the state of our democratic experiment.
I got up when it was still dark that Thursday, made three-dozen blueberry muffins, and carried them across campus in the chilly morning. Students started to trickle in shortly before eight a.m., students from last year and students from the year before that mixing with my current class. They smiled at the familiar sight of baked goods and pulled their books from their bags. We read about the magical land of Utopia through the words of Raphael Hythlodaeus, the well-traveled narrator of More’s fictionalized account. We debated the text’s assertion, in a reference to Plato, that “a true philosopher [must] resolve and redirect [his] intelligence and [his] energy to public service, even if it did involve some personal sacrifice.” We examined More’s personal conflict between supporting the king and keeping with his own conscience. We ended class with his final words, on the scaffold, as he waited to be beheaded: “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Fueled by mutual respect and muffins, that morning we created a purposeful place for dynamic discovery, for seeking understanding, for building meaning, and for citizens to think and learn. We made an empty room into a site of social and political inclusion, where students could think carefully about how they might participate in the creation of a better, more representative, more free, and more equal society.
In a talk he gave in 1963, James Baldwin asked teachers to help students “ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions … The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”
I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that valued education, that supported my learning in every way possible. I am also the beneficiary of all kinds of privilege that helped me get to Columbia in the first place. Now, with the work I have done and the kinds of power that my position here grants me, I must test all of my teaching and research decisions against these questions: How does what I work on affect the world? What does my work have to do with the world?
- Humanities New York, formerly the New York Council for the Humanities, partners with nine universities in New York State to fund 18 Public Humanities Fellowships each year. These year-long fellowships fund graduate students to transform their research interests into a public-facing project. ↩
- “Bullying in NYC Public Schools: Making the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) Come to Life,” a report by the Office of Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate for the City of New York, compiled by Sophie Carlton, October 2012. ↩
- See Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories, 2003). ↩
- For the early history of the New York State Reformatory for Women, see Cheryl D. Hicks, Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1935 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Ruth M. Alexander, The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900–1930 (Cornell University Press, 1998). ↩
- Avery F. Gordon, “‘Who’s There?’: Some Answers to Questions about Ghostly Matters,” talk presented at UnitedNationsPlaza (Berlin) for Seminar 6: “who’s there?—an interrogation in the dark,” organized by Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Ines Schaber, Anselm Franke, October 22–26, 2007. ↩
- Gillian Harkins and Erica R. Meiners, “Teaching Publics in the American Penalscape,” American Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2 (June 2016). ↩
- For example, the Carceral Studies Network Project at Duke University provides a useful compilation of syllabi that focus on engagement with the carceral state. ↩
- For a more comprehensive account of this research, see Michelle Jones, “Women’s Prison History: The Undiscovered Country,”Perspectives on History (February 2015); Rebecca Onion, “The Pen,” Slate, March 22, 2015. ↩
- Judith Stacey, “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 11, no. 1 (1988). ↩
- The Justice-in-Education Initiative at Columbia is a collaboration between the Heyman Center for the Humanities and the Center for Justice at Columbia, funded in large part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. ↩