Fostering Change, Transforming Learning: Pedagogical Approaches to Carceral Education

Fostering Change, Transforming Learning: Pedagogical Approaches to Carceral Education

Vicki L. Reitenauer (Portland State University, USA), Rhiannon M. Cates (Portland State University, USA) and Benjamin J. Hall (Portland State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 40
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3056-6.ch010


This is a chapter in which a currently incarcerated student/teaching assistant; a university staff member/former student/teaching assistant; and an instructor of women, gender, and sexuality studies collaboratively examine how the curricular approaches and pedagogical strategies utilized in the course “Writing as Activism,” taught inside a correctional facility, embody and enact the liberatory and transformative potential of prison-based teaching and learning. The authors review a selection of individual and collaborative assignments, activities, and writing exercises, as well as the faculty member's philosophy and practice of self-grading as a mechanism to relocate power and foster accountability. This chapter concludes with instructions for activities and accompanying materials used in this course, including the syllabus, for educators to refer to and adapt for their own use in (carceral) spaces of learning.
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“Writing as Activism” is taught inside Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI), a minimum-security carceral facility in Portland, Oregon as an Inside-Out course. The course brings together “inside” students incarcerated in the institution with “outside” students that process into the facility twice weekly from Portland State University, a large urban state university, to form and engage in an inclusive learning community over the course of a term. For both degree-seeking students from the University and the incarcerated students who may choose to take the course for credit, “Writing as Activism” is an elective which can fulfill general education credits or requirements in two majors and minors, depending on the student’s situation. This course was initially proposed as an offering for Oregon’s only correctional facility for women, but lack of space in the women’s facility led the instructor to approach educational programming staff at CRCI, who were eager to include “Writing as Activism” among its course offerings.

Grounded in the liberatory insights and pedagogies advanced by Paulo Freire (2000), Adrienne Rich (1977), bell hooks (1994, 2003, 2009), Derrick Jensen (2005), and others, “Writing as Activism” intentionally seeks to catalyze agency in participants and develop participants’ capacities for self-expression, community-building, and the self-directed practice of accountability. Given the alienating experience many, if not most, learners have had in previous educational settings outside of correctional institutions, students in a course that seeks to critically examine power, build agency, and inculcate accountability among co-learners must confront what Mezirow (2000) identified as “disorienting dilemmas” in their encounters with each other (and with their teachers) and with the material at the center of their inquiry. Individuals face disorienting dilemmas when their experiences do not match their expectations, catalyzing a recalibration of their perspectives in order to make sense of their experiences. In carceral settings, these dilemmas are compounded by the very conditions that call for informed and intentional pedagogical practices to “[transgress] many of the brutalizing norms of behavior that structure prison life” (Pompa, 2011, p. 269). “Writing as Activism” intentionally approaches the carceral classroom as “a place where social and intellectual community might be restored in a way that reestablishes the agency the institution inherently strips away” (Smith, 2017, p. 97).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Writing as Activism: An intention to communicate through writing in ways that change the writer, the reader, and/or the world.

Transformative Learning: An experience of learning in which previously held assumptions about the nature of reality and the situation of the self are challenged and changed.

Learning Community: A context for teaching and learning in which participants experience reciprocity and interdependence.

Disorienting Dilemma: An experience in which one's expectations are disrupted, requiring a reconsideration of the conditions that gave rise to the experience and the self-engaged in the experience.

Self-Grading: A method of assessment that relocates the power to evaluate one's efforts and the meaning of those efforts to the learner.

Critical Reflection: A process through which the meaning of an experience is made through applied curiosity about one's thinking, feeling, and doing.

Critical Pedagogy: Various approaches to teaching and learning that include an interrogation of power relations in the classroom and beyond, challenge oppressive power structures, and redistribute power among co-teachers/co-learners.

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