Reflections from Outside:

Teaching Inside in the Time of Corona, part 2

I just want to go back to prison. Every one of us who teaches in the Inmate Scholar’s Program has said this or something like this almost every day since the start of quarantine. It has been about nine months or nine billion years since we were not allowed back in to teach our students. During the spring, we struggled with pivoting to correspondence class. During the summer, I taught a creative writing class, and we had a lot of problems getting material back and forth to the facilities. This fall, we continue to experience similar problems. It is a thorny situation with a lot of challenges to it, but everyone is doing their best to be accomodating and graceful. Of course, with all the stress of working in this environment and trying to homeschool children my children, it has not been easy to extend grace to anyone, least of all ourselves.

My colleagues and I joke that instead of trying to teach in three-dimensions, we are attempting to teach in about half a dimension. We collate weeks worth of material to send to them and then we try to grade it as it comes in. It does not come in every week (which was our goal and has turned out to be impossible), and not every student turns in their work, which is unusual for these classes. We have no idea what is going on inside. Some of our students might be sick or in quarantine for coming into contact with someone who was sick, or maybe they could not be found at the time that their work was collected. It is sort of a blank spot over there. We send work and then we get what we get when we get it. It is frustrating for us and for the students. I provide them with paper to ask me questions about the assignments and mostly they just write that they wish we could do this in person. Me too!

Even with all the challenges, I hope my students enjoyed the creative writing class. I attempted to make as many comments on their work as was possible in a six-week course that was taking place via correspondence. Most of the short stories I received were based in reality and in their own experiences. It was fascinating because they would tell their stories in so much detail until it got to the part that was either emotionally or physically traumatic, and then they would either end the story there or skip over that section, and give us an epilogue about everything that happened to the characters afterward. It was almost like they could not bear to look at it. It was too painful. In good writing, writers have to face their worst feelings and experiences, so I encouraged them to actually dig in there because that is where the conflict was and that was where the drama was. Maybe one of them will publish their work someday, and I will get to read it. The story topics ranged from stories about their families and criminal pasts (real or imagined) to stories about redemption and relationships with the women in their lives. Some of them were fantasies about getting out and one of them was even about the zombie apocalypse. I was responsible for their options and one of the prompts was related to relationships, but most of them were so open-ended that they could have gone anywhere and so their choices were interesting to me. I do not know if what they wrote resembled what they did or were convicted of doing (I never ask and I never look it up. I have a statement in my syllabus about that), but their decision to write about crime, or relationships, or life as it could be, are the same things I write about and the same things students on campus write about. The prison facility gives them a number and calls them by their last names, and just being in there is a dehumanizing experience. At the end of my first semester teaching inside one of the students asked me what I thought of all this. I said I cannot even imagine what they are going through. My statement hung in the air in that room for a few minutes and no one said anything. I hope my students this semester have been able to gain back some of their individuality and expression, and that this class was fun and a good distraction during this pandemic. Again, I cannot even imagine how scary it is to be inside during a global pandemic.

I asked my students not to staple their work because I have to make copies of it to grade or to send to the writing center, and I was struggling to get the staples out. We gave them folders to turn their work in instead. My students sent their papers in like this instead.

This fall has been frustrating, and I just have to remind myself about how lucky I am to be where i am. I taught a literature class, creative writing, and two Shakespeare classes. Ah, my Shakespeare class! I had such plans for you! I do not want to turn this blog into a whining rant, but for me this whole experience has been a lesson in letting go. Nothing has gone the way I want. I had plans for this year with my family. I had plans for this year for my classes. I had plans for this year for so many things. Many of us did, and we are all just stuck: waiting. This time will not last forever. We just have to keep working and connecting with our students in any way that we can. For my incarcerated students, I have been trying to send them letters with their instructional material to encourage them to keep working and to tell them that I understand their frustration and that I feel it too. Many of my students cannot talk to anyone right now and visitation has been cancelled for most of this time, so it has been important to keep communication going as much as possible even with all the challenges involved. I try to write them encouraging letters to send with their homework packets, and I write on their query forms that I wish we could do this in-person too. This will be over some day, and the professors will be let back in to do what they do best. I am never going to complain about not being to get my computer into the facility or having to make handouts again. Those minor inconveniences are nothing to what we have experienced in the past nine months.

Sara Wallace teaches at Bakersfield College with a focus on Inmate education. She has a MA in American and British Literature from Mills College.

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