Teaching in Prison (Final Reflections)
Last week I finished volunteer teaching a 5 month Political Philosophy class to 8 inmates here at a prison in Kingston. I have to say it was without a doubt the most significant and rewarding teaching experience of my 16 year teaching career. And I have had many teaching highlight moments having taught in Canada, England, Scotland and the US.
Like most things in life, I find the most rewarding things are those you are not financially compensated for. So why teach in prison? Two reasons.
Firstly, it is extremely rewarding. The intrinsic benefits of engaging with students eager to hear about the canon of political thought, eager to share their personal experiences, eager to contemplate what a more desirable and fair society would entail, is deeply rewarding for someone who has chosen a career in higher education. My students were bright, perceptive, engaging and friendly. They each brought a depth of personal life experience to our debates I seldom witness in a university seminar. Debating the topics of what makes an action morally right or wrong, or when (if ever) one is morally justified in engaging in civil disobedience or why punish wrongdoers with interlocutors who have themselves admittedly committed severe wrongs and have been subjected to state-enforced punishment (e.g. decades of imprisonment) brings a richness and complexity to the discussion which I seldom find teaching in a university setting.
Secondly, there are also instrumental (societal) benefits. These inmates will, eventually, be released back into the general population. Exposure to, and engagement with, political philosophy can, I believe, make their lives richer so they might be better fathers, better husbands, and better citizens when released from prison than they would otherwise be without such intellectual engagement while behind bars.
Granted my course was only a very small exposure to the discipline for most of the men, but I hope to make the teaching of the course over the summer months a regular thing in the future. And I have ambitions to organize workshops, conferences, journal submissions and more courses in the future. Having had a taste of what teaching in prison has to offer, I am eager to make it a regular part of my life for many years to come.