Dan Colson, "Teaching in the Panopticon"

Sunday, April 4, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[Each fall the Unit for Criticism provides travel grants to select graduate student affiliates, inviting awardees to publish a post on Kritik about their paper. Below Dan Colson, a grad student affiliate in English, writes about conference paper he delivered in fall 2009.]

Teaching in the Panopticon

Written by Dan Colson (English)



Last fall I had the opportunity to present a paper on my experiences teaching an upper-division literature course in a medium-high security prison. I used my experiences in this unique teaching environment (defined in part by distinct racial, class, and gender formations) as the starting point for a discussion of my continued efforts to develop an effective pedagogy (for both a prison classroom and a University of Illinois classroom).

I started with some guiding questions that attempted to conceptualize the overlap of the university campus, the prison, and approaches to teaching through the institutional and disciplinary powers that structure both.

What is the role of transgression in teaching or learning? What do the knowledges we teach transgress against? Is it possible to teach transgression as a skill and how might I teach this skill in different settings? While I recognized that such a position might make some uncomfortable, I argued that transgressing discourses of legality is not entirely distinct from transgression against other knowledge regimes. Put differently, the value placed on “critical” thinking in the university, especially in the humanities, is an effort to teach students to transgress against–and hence transcend–other ideological formations. We encourage the ability to consider multiple ideas beyond provincial and static modes of thought, to weigh them against each other, and to choose the most reasonable, humane, and effective option. In many cases, this requires teaching students to transgress against inherited knowledge or, at the very least, to allow for the possibility that new knowledges can transgress against, and eventually replace, received wisdom.

Understanding power not as emanating from a recognizable monolith, but as a series of overlapping discourses and social relations–that is, exploring Michel Foucault’s concepts of discipline and governmentality–suggests that criminality is only one example of transgressive resistance. The discourse-power dyad that Foucault theorized may be inescapable, but counter-discourse and localized transgression of strategic power formations are still possible.

Though I admit that teaching in a prison is much different from teaching in a university, it raises the question of transgression or disruption as a pedagogical goal. The prison-classroom contains transgressive subjects subsequently inscribed as “criminal,” while the university contains potentially transgressive subjects who wish to be inscribed as “educated persons.” What to do with this lesson in these two settings is a persistent challenge.

In the traditional classroom, issues of politics, academic freedom, and the scope of humanities education all complicate the goal of teaching a nebulous “skill” that cannot be reduced to the apolitical professional knowledge that some advocate. Once we admit that learning and the advance of thought are inherently transgressive--or at least potentially so--we must ask: what knowledges do we want our students to transgress?

In prison, the questions are quite different. Is it appropriate to theorize learning as transgression in a setting where the consequences of criminality are all too visible? How do I teach intellectual transgression within an institution where transgression is met with severe reaction? At the conference, I confessed that I don’t have answers to all of these questions, but I do argue that it is worthwhile to explore the possibilities of what I call a pedagogy of criminality, a politicized orientation to institutional education from which I argue that transgression is valuable as such.

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6 comments:

Manuel said...

Dear Don Colson,

I admire what you do, but I confess that I am not convinced by your own theorization of what you do. You write: "While I recognized that such a position might make some uncomfortable, I argued that transgressing discourses of legality is not entirely distinct from transgression against other knowledge regimes," and this position does indeed make me feel uncomfortable, but I suspect that the reasons for my discomfort are different from the ones you imagined when you wrote that sentence. Transgressing knowledge regimes has been part of our notion of modernity since Kant wrote that Enlightenment is sapere audere, daring to know. As Kant suggested, the promise of such act of transgression was supposed to be the freedom of the subject, freedom from self imposed minority. If there is a connection between the prison and the university, where one transgression lands you in prison and the other in the suburbs, however, is that transgressing knowledge regimes does not give you freedom in either cases, but in very different ways. Since the 80s, we have been encouraged to "think different" and to fight against big brother by the very corporations that have replaced the old monoculture of the fordist factory. While the revolts of the 60s and 70s brought down the old forms of social control on campus and in the factory, the "disruption" that we teach does not seem to disrupt a lot. The best proof of this is, after all, that the students of the 60s, as Foucault was fond to say, risked to go to jail; today we try to transform prisoners into students. Perhaps, the difference is in the difference between transgression and revolt. The breaking of rules and the refusal of rules. Since the Enlightenment, transgressing rules has been the engine of what capitalism has defined as progress.Nobody bends rules as well as financial capitalism. The refusal to contribute to the progress of society, instead, might land you in jail. Conflating the two might boost our egos, but let's face it: we are not going to go to jail for it because the new university that produces subjectivities and teach to think different creates better workers for the new immaterial production, not its alternative.

GX said...
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GX said...

The collasping of the distinctions between the university and the prison does inmates violence. Inmates are hardly the principle of their own subjection per Foucault's formulation. Teaching pales in comparison to the specificity of being incarcerated, or living as a criminal, what Foucault once described as a coup d' etat below, and the racial economy that it entails.

Anonymous said...

GX: "The collasping of the distinctions between the university and the prison does inmates violence. " Did the author actually collapse any distinctions? Here's what he wrote: "Though I admit that teaching in a prison is much different from teaching in a university, it raises the question of transgression or disruption as a pedagogical goal. The prison-classroom contains transgressive subjects subsequently inscribed as “criminal,” while the university contains potentially transgressive subjects who wish to be inscribed as “educated persons.” What to do with this lesson in these two settings is a persistent challenge." That doesn't sound like collapsing distinctions, does it?

Bruce Rosenstock said...

I think it would be quite interesting to read with prison inmates some of the texts that I read with students here in one of my big lecture courses. I would value the inmates responses to such texts as Thoreau's defense of John Brown; Bakunin's critique of the state; Max Stirner's critique of bourgeois property law. I am not entirely sure that my aims in teaching these texts would be different, which are basically what Dan describes as teaching transgressively, but I am pretty sure I would get a very different response from inmates (which means, to put it bluntly, I would actually get a response). The inmates might actually see what's at stake in the readings for their authors. My students here, by and large, have too little experience to recognize how writing can be a passionate expression of transgression.

John Randolph said...
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