The English Department prides itself on forging relationships with teachers and learners across and beyond the University of Washington campus. Programs such as the Puget Sound Writing Project and the Phoenix Teachers Project foster regional learning communities. Over the past three years, a number of English faculty and graduate students have been teaching courses through the University Beyond Bars (UBB), a non-profit program providing higher education to students incarcerated in Washington State (http://www.universitybeyondbars.org/). Here a few English Department members and UBB teaching assistants and students reflect on their experience working with this program.
Melanie Hernandez, Ph.D. Candidate: Although a lot of attention is paid to the benefits that universities can bring to outside communities, my partnership with UBB has provided invaluable pedagogical experience that a traditional university setting could not provide. I am better attuned to the challenges of teaching within alternative educational settings and when limited by significantly reduced resources. I am far more confident in my ability to adjust my teaching methods as appropriate to the needs of particular situations— a skill which does not so readily develop when surrounded by adequate institutional resources or when channeled by the prefabricated teacher-student dynamics built into standard university classrooms settings.
Carrie Matthews, Interdisciplinary Writing Program (IWP) Lecturer: I think there’s a synergy between UBB, the public education mission, and teaching strengths of the UW English Department. In an era of budget cuts, rising tuition, and worries about the future of state schools, UBB offers one way for UW English to sustain a commitment to education as a public good. And it provides an opportunity to do that through collaborative teaching and learning among faculty, graduate instructors, UBB TAs, and students. This work leads to “pedagogical epiphanies” that might arrive late or never in the course of teaching solely on a university campus, and it gives all involved a chance to combine practical and aspirational education, including reflecting on what education should be or might become.
Annie Dwyer, Ph.D. Candidate: UBB offers one way to resist the rising tuition costs and diminishing supports that jeopardize wider access to higher education. Many people who participate in education programs in prison lacked access to quality education prior to being incarcerated. In teaching through UBB, I have also become more aware of the potentials of collaborative teaching and learning, both on the inside and in traditional classroom settings, as I’ve learned from the rich incoming knowledges that students bring to bear on course materials.
Gillian Harkins, Associate Professor: Ultimately, it’s a question of education justice. Too many people are denied high-quality public education. There are young people who find themselves in what scholars call a “school to prison pipeline,” in which increasingly harsh disciplinary penalties and limited educational resources create a pipeline out of education into incarceration. We lose generations through this cycle. Higher education in prison is only one part of education justice; we also need to ensure that all people have access to relevant and high-quality education to create a just future.
Devon Adams, UBB student: UBB is saving my life! Being involved in this program has taken me from hopeless to hopeful. Through the volunteers who teach us, the peers that I learn with, and the materials we learn from, I have experienced a transformation. The various classes I’ve taken have expanded my views and enhanced my creativity to better understand the world I live in, and most importantly, these courses have prepared me for life. Thanks to the UBB, I now possess confidence in my abilities and a clear vision of my future.
Arthur Longworth, UBB Facilitator and Advisory Board Member: The greatest force for positive self-transformation/reform/habilitation that can be handed over to a young person in prison is education. One would understand why this is if they were to stand at the gate of any prison in this state and survey where the young people arriving on the chain buses are from. The best-funded schools and school districts produce nearly no prisoners. The worst, nearly all.
Professor Gillian Harkins — was awarded the S. Sterling Munro Public Service Award. This award is presented to a faculty member demonstrating exemplary leadership in service internships and community-partnership projects.