On Literature and Teaching Writing in the Carceral Context

Over the last year, we’ve had the opportunity to teach in the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program at DC Jail. What we teach, specifically, is Literature and Composition, a combined reading and writing course that is designed to provide students with skills fundamental to their new or resumed college careers. For our students, many of whom have been away from school for some time, literature in particular functions as a fun and familiar inroad to the university environmental overall, a way of experiencing what it looks and feels like and means, personally, to be in college. Reading is a common pastime in times of incarceration; many of our students read for pleasure—also as a form of detachment. The challenge for us, then, is to find a way to dovetail the pleasures of reading specific to the carceral context  with the rhetorical and compositional skills that will equip our students for their next educational and professional steps.

Why literature?

In general, university composition instruction has moved away from using literature in the classroom. And still, we use literature in ours. Here’s the best reason why that we can give: literature has a reparative capacity that we aim to take very seriously in our curriculum design. It matters greatly to our students that the classroom be (as Geoffrey Sirc puts it) a happening, a space that is not only intellectually but also affectively its own. And caring, most of all. To read a poem, together, in turns; to read it twice; to re-read parts as we discuss it—just to converge our attentions on one small and beautiful thing for a while is to carve out, and sustain, community. (The verb write is based in the Old English wrítan, to score or carve.)

But we teach literature not only to offer a new, a different kind of depth to our students’ lives;  we teach literature as a way for them to reflect on their own rhetorical choices. One example of a (we think) successful confluence of literary and rhetorical thinking in our classroom is this, a pretty simple pairing of poems: First, we read Wallace Stevens’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and Craig Santos Perez’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Glacier,” an eco-poetic take on Stevens’s form, side by side; then worked together to deduce the poems’ shared structure: the words and phrases they had in common, their points of divergence. We generated a “13 Ways” template, and used that template to make our own poems.

And then we discussed:

How does it alter meaning / the message to change out one word or phrase for another?

Our “13 Ways” scaffold allowed us to assemble and substitute meanings (by changing out a verb here, and adjective there) pretty quickly. It was paraphrase at hyperspeed: together we discovered how meaning doesn’t merely belong to the words we use; how, rather, meaning emerges as one among many possibilities, in one among many ways of saying the same thing. This is basically Ann Berthoff’s concept of interpretive paraphrase: students learn how to command written discourse, she says, not by mastering rules and then applying them—that method just wouldn’t work, since every writing situation presents a unique set of “rules”—but by learning to ask questions about why one paraphrase and not another works for a particular situation and audience.

Why one poem and not another?

Interpretive paraphrase is also a nice inroad to genre: What kinds of affordances does the “13 Ways” format offer Perez as he writes about climate change? What kinds of restraints? Why doesn’t everyone just write free verse, and say what they want to say? Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss’s concept of rhetorical velocity proves useful on that point; their focus on the interaction between textual form (i.e., delivery) and strategy helps us understand a poem like Perez’s that aims to circulate as both literature and activism.

Why shape your message in any way but your own?

When we talk paraphrase or adaptation or genre or audience, part of what we’re talking about is, in some sense, speaking in a voice that is not quite your own. This is an idea that intersects in some very challenging ways with ideas of social presentation and personal value in the context of incarceration. We are committed to refusing what Asao B. Inoue recently called “the market of white language preferences;” but we also want to honor what a mark of success it is for our students to participate in, and speak the language of, the Georgetown academic community. Literature has an amazing way of grounding these problems, letting us work through them bit by bit: what literature is, after all, is a way of witnessing a voice be, at once, true to itself and understood by others.

That’s our very brief introduction to teaching Lit/Comp at DC Jail. We’d love to sit down with anyone who wants to talk more about it, so please don’t hesitate to reach out.

-Yael Kiken and Daniel Breen