I became interested in prison education after stumbling on Kelsey Kauffman’s spring 2015 essay, "Academia in Prison: The Role of the University in an Era of Mass Incarceration." In the article, which described the post-graduate (Master’s-level) program she had created at Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), Kelsey invited area historians to volunteer. The following semester, I began teaching Introduction to the Professional Study of History at IWP. The course, a first-year graduate theory and methods seminar, gave the students a sense of disciplinary conventions, expose them to various approaches to historical writing, and familiarize them with the institutional configuration of the profession.
The students took my course and several more specialized offerings on carceral history, both on location and via video-conferencing. During the following year, I prodded, questioned, and pushed them in the classroom. Then, I took a step back and watched as they presented papers at regional and national conferences (again via video conferencing), published articles in peer-reviewed journals, and won awards and accolades from professional organizations. Their work deals with the history of IWP, one of the oldest women’s prisons in the US.
In short, the experience proved to be supremely rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to work with a group of exceptionally talented students who were intellectually, politically, and personally invested in their research in unique ways. It pushed me to consider what it means to live in an era of over-incarceration and what I can do to bring attention to this unfortunate reality. Finally, It provided me an opportunity to think deeply about my own teaching and the role of the liberal arts in our society broadly. I address a number of these issues in my essay, “Why All Humanists Should Go to Prison.”