Further reflections on the fall

Reflecting on the two courses I taught during fall 2015, I've come to realize the importance of another part of my teaching: the book club that I helped to organize and facilitate in a Philadelphia prison. Every Friday I and two of my colleagues along with seven or eight of our students from Bryn Mawr's "Arts of Resistance" 360 Cluster (website) traveled to northeast Philadelphia to a women's prison where we read and discussed books together for ninety minutes. We read Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," the Seamus Heaney translation of Antigone ("The Burial at Thebes"), John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers," and some other short pieces. The books constituted our curriculum: students took turns preparing "lessons," which usually consisted in questions and activities to stimulate discussion; we left a great deal of space for the conversation to emerge and develop in the most organic way possible. ("Organic" insofar as we're still talking about a particular kind of hot house, one surfeited with "artifices" of domination and oppression, inequality and difference.)

I'm still making sense of this learning community but it's cast different light on some of my criticisms of conventional colleges and universities. For one, the degree of freedom -- to study, to discuss, to experiment with one's life -- at American colleges and universities amazes me. For another, the way that ideas circulate in material terms through texts and the special pleasures of these texts, pleasures one does not fully recognize until they're lost or, as in my case, witnessed anew when the incarcerated people took the books we gave them and came to treasure them -- this astounds and impresses me.

Most of all, I'm struck by how the lack of a powerful reality principle -- the narrowing and focusing that the career mentality imposes on all students to varying degree -- changes the tenor of a learning community like the one in the prison. Here we were in a situation of radical unfreedom and yet I and my Haverford and Bryn Mawr students often felt freer than we felt in any classroom. It was a playful and imaginative space devoid of posturing and the dynamics of reputation and shame. I kept (and keep) wondering: Why can't we have something like this without having these horrific institutions of incarceration? And how can we bring together folks from such different places and with such different stories for something like this -- a simple book club, yes, but also a space for genuine reflection and dialogue untethered to any specific politics or collective decision?

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