Thursday, May 28, 2015

Teaching Political Philosophy in Prison: Some Initial Reflections

For the past two months I have been (volunteer) teaching a bi-weekly Political Philosophy Discussion Group to inmates at a prison here in Kingston. So far we have covered Plato’s Republic, The Apology, Crito, civil disobedience, and Hobbes’s Leviathan (next up is Marx).

While it is not appropriate for me to comment on anything specific to the inmates or penal institution (which would violate confidentiality guidelines I am bound to), I can share a few pedagogical reflections on my experience to date which I hope might motivate other academics (and non-academics) to consider getting involved with their local prison.

Teaching to inmates is something I have been meaning to do for years. Now that I finally have started doing it I wish I did it years ago. While the class is not yet over (it runs for 4 months) I can say that the experience thus far has been among the most rewarding teaching experiences I have had in my 16-year career as a professor. And I say that as someone who has had the privilege to teach excellent students at 7 different universities in 4 different counties.

What makes it such an engaging teaching experience? Well, for me, the number one determinate of a rewarding teaching experience is this- does it facilitate my own intellectual growth and development? In other words, I think the best teaching moments are those that facilitate my own growth and development as a student (and yes the growth and development of my students matters immensely as well, that is a given! :) ).

I became a professor precisely because it was a career path that permitted to remain a student for life. And I think there is no greater calling, at least personally for me, than the path of perpetual learning (something I also try to pursue outside of my job, whether it be with parenting, companionship, friendship, volunteering, exercising, etc.).

Teaching to inmates facilitates my own growth and development in a variety of novel ways. Firstly, the demographics of the students in the class are very different from that in your typical university class. So the age, socio-economic background, etc. of the prison population is very different from what I am use to. This is not to suggest that the inmates I teach lack in education (formal or informal). On the contrary, some of them have university degrees, or are in the process of working towards a university degree. And they all have valuable life experiences relevant to the questions we ponder. Collectively I find them extremely intelligent and engaged in the topics in the course.

This group does have life experiences different than your typical 19 year-old university student, and as such it is very interesting to hear their reactions and thoughts on the topics I typically teach. For example, when I teach civil disobedience and political obligation to your typical 19 year-old at university this is typically a topic addressed in a purely academic or "arms-length" speculative fashion. Many of these university students haven’t yet even voted in an election, let alone seriously contemplated the conditions under which it may be ethical to violate a law. But when engaging these topics with students who (a) have actually broken the law; (b) who experience, daily, the personal costs of their illegal action and (c) might spend years in (relative) isolation contemplating the very philosophical questions you have posed then you get a wealth of different perspectives on such topics. As inmates open up about their own history and story a rich, nuanced understanding of the topics emerges that I think is difficult to replicate in your typical university seminar.

So to date this experience has been extremely positive for me (and the feedback they provide me suggests they enjoy it as well). I have learned a great deal so far and I look forward to the remaining weeks of the course.