U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Prison and the Making of Intellectuals: A Small Glimpse Inside

I teach regularly at a prison in Only, Tennessee. I post about it sometimes. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the experience more than usual, probably because for the first time I’m carpooling with a philosopher friend of mine who has started teaching ethics out there. We talk about any number of things, but invariably discuss pedagogy and the men we teach. It helps that I’ve had some of his students in some of my classes in the past, so we compare notes. I’ve also been following and rereading the posts of our own Holly Genovese on prison writing, which has got me thinking more seriously about prisoners as intellectuals. Thank you, Holly, for reminding all of us that we need more intellectual histories of incarcerated women and men.

I don’t want to wade into discussions of just what makes someone an intellectual or offer any formal definition, because that debate is so vexed, complicated, and overloaded that I don’t think much of anybody, and certainly not me, can bring anything new to the table. I can’t imagine reaching a definition that any large number of people would agree with anyway. Suffice it to say I think Holly is right about prisoners being intellectuals, and the other people are wrong. In that spirit, I thought I would describe what I know about the thinking lives of some of the men I teach. These guys are intellectuals in my book.

I only see my students once a week, this time around, at four-hour intervals on Saturday mornings. I’ve gotten to know a handful of the men better than others, since they’ve taken my classes a couple of times. The program I work in is run by some incredibly dedicated women through a non-profit, in association with a local community college. The men apply to be in the program, so as their numbers are relatively small as a percentage of the prison population. This means I see many of the same faces every week when I walk down to the buildings that house the school area of the prison yard. This is after making it through the gauntlet of security checks and various gates. The guys mill around down there, and we generally chat for a few minutes before they head over to their respective classrooms, to the library or the computer lab. (They write papers in the lab, usually typing out stuff from notebooks.)

Because we meet in large blocks of time, we take a break in between. Customarily, this is when I talk to a handful of the men, getting to understand some their interests more deeply, both in and outside of class material. It’s a poor substitute for office hours, but it’s the best we can do given the constraints.

Enough with the logistics. I can say without any reservations whatsoever this: some of the men I’ve taught at the prison are the best students I’ve ever had. This includes around fifteen years of university teaching. A select few of them aren’t really students at all, but just men who happen to be taking classes to stimulate their thinking lives. The high level of thinking in small part has do with the lack of distractions. They work during the day and do watch some television, but they don’t have any real access to the internet and certainly not to smart devices, etc. They know about social media, but in plenty of cases as a weird echo gathered from what they hear on television news.

But that’s too pat and easy than it is revealing. The men are pretty much all “nontraditional” students, older than my “regular” students, a few by a good number of years. There are any number of social factors to account for them. And of course, while it’s hard to know entirely, they’ve certainly had more intense experiences than my “traditional” students, many of them violent or desperate, punctuated by what landed them there in the first place.

But these are sociological or psychological categories too. I wish I could talk about more individual students than space allows (I will, I think, eventually). I’d like to discuss three in particular for now, Frank, Jacob, and Christopher (who goes by the handle “Scarecrow).

Frank was immediately impressive in my U.S. History surveys. He grasped the ideas I was working toward in my classes almost too quickly, nearly torpedoing some teaching days. Most of us have probably had this experience. You’ve got discussion questions ready, meant to build up to some central idea, that pedagogical showmanship, a reach for some “voila” moment down the line.  Frank would get to the central idea and then I’d have to backpedal to catch most everyone else up on things. Shit, Frank.

In a discussion of say, a novel or a reasonably complex piece of writing like formal philosophy or social and political thought, I customarily work for comprehension first before getting to analysis and maybe critique. Frank showed clear comprehension and then offered criticism or expressed serious skepticism. He sometimes surprised me to the point I had to think through it out loud for everyone. Thoreau, to paraphrase Frank, in “Civil Disobedience,” made a good point about the state, and yes, prisons are a kind of mirror for the general impotence of a government to truly control the minds of its citizens, but then again, Thoreau hadn’t spent enough time in prison to think seriously about what imprisonment can do to the mind. Nor could anyone go off the grid anymore, so why think in that way? Isn’t this version of civil disobedience too historically specific? What should we take from it then? This was what he came out swinging with pretty much fresh from the box. He read closely enough to know the pitches.

After a few classes of this, I reached out to him over a break, like I would one of my regular college students, asking essentially, what are your plans after this?  He leveled me. He appreciated the interest, but he couldn’t think like that, because too many years were left on his sentence. Thinking like that would get him too depressed and anxious. There were too many daily humiliations and complexities he needed to work out to live in prison without collapsing into despair. He’s also a practicing Muslim in a Tennessee prison. (In one of my classes with him, he would politely walk out into the common area at the time of prayer.) Frank told me he needed to think about the ideas at hand, in themselves, as problems he could think about and work through, without any notions of what good they might do him somewhere off in some future, when he got out.

I felt pretty chastened to say the least, more than anything because of his equanimity and kindness about it. I just didn’t understand at all. I still don’t. I suspect his faith gives him a contemplative depth that I don’t have the tools to comprehend. This is my problem, not his. I saw him in the yard the other day, and we smiled at one another, said hello, and shook hands. I wish I could have talked to him a bit more, but he had a calculus class to get to.

Jacob was like Frank when I first encountered him. He was a potential class torpedo-man, getting down to it quickly, but also like Frank, patient enough to let me gather myself, absorb things and conjure up something useful for the rest of the class. Jacob began to hang out at breaks much more, talking about the ideas in class, pushing me further in the directions he wanted to know about. I’ve never taught graduate students, but it sometimes felt like compressed graduate seminars for one student in fifteen or twenty minute intervals. It then became practice though, spurred by these conversations, for a handful of other students to listen to him. From there, the class would segue into the next topic out of our discussions once the rest of the guys returned from break.

Jacob was and is probably more hard-minded than Frank, less of a contemplative, in that he told once me very directly he takes classes with the aim of understanding where he is and why this system works how it does. I don’t know exactly what Jacob did to land into prison, but he’s serving a very long sentence. I also don’t think it’s my place to ask him. He’s told me this intellectual work is to make amends for what he’s done. He sees thinking as a moral obligation. He said this not long before launching into one of the most astute analyses I’ve ever heard of precisely how prisons are the logical end of advanced capitalist logic. (I used the word “neoliberal” in response, and he asked me what that meant. He had seen or heard the word a few times, but was curious about a general definition and about where it came from. I did my best. I’m working on compiling a reading list for him so that he can work up a genealogy, so I’ll take any suggestions.)

Before Jacob ended up at this particular prison, he took college classes at another prison, and there some instructor turned him onto Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. He got his hands on it, read it, and it blew his mind. He tried to work out what other thinkers might have contributed to thinking like that. Jacob is an autodidact of the best kind. He lets his intellectual interests lead him down whatever path they take him, given his resources. Right now, he’s reading through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, because he thinks it might help him figure out a proper relationship between irony and sincerity, between absurdity and a rigorous intellectual life. He gave me notes a week or so back for the first three hundred pages.

Then there’s Scarecrow, who is delightful. He’s a hippie by admission, somewhere around seventy years old or so. When I taught the U.S. survey after 1865, once we got to the 50s and 60s, he launched into brilliantly considered anecdotes from personal experience that either encapsulated or nuanced our discussions in amazing ways. The guys began joking about him as the man behind the grassy knoll or a Forrest Gump who read a lot, a kind of Zelig with brains. Scarecrow was a wonder in class, but sometimes got caught up or digressive.

His writing blew me away. It was written with verve, insight, clarity, and a real talent for metaphor. A musician with roots in Nashville circles, he could pinpoint what he figured made a legend like Guy Clark tick, and so on. Stuff like, to paraphrase a conversation, “he knows the big family tragedies in the little things that all of us know about, the mementoes, the holy consciousness as it appears to us. Get it, man?” I’ll never listen to “Randall Knife” again without that apt summation.  I will no doubt rip off parts of his reading of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, too, but not without credit. Scarecrow knows about rapturous ideas of the land.

Scarecrow caught me recently on the way out of class asking for a letter of recommendation. He thinks he might have an angle to attend Vanderbilt once he gets out in 2020. Wait until they get a load of this guy. Having taught there a few semesters a long while ago, I can say that Vanderbilt students need a good dose of Scarecrow.

A request like this really gets to us, to those of us teaching in these places. We’re temporary people it seems. Yet, how can my investment in the lives of Frank, Jacob, or Scarecrow be so temporary? How can I leave them once this work seems too onerous, or I think I need a break? Prison teaching is usually something someone like me does for a little while before moving on. I put the experience under my belt and go forward into the scholarly world, wiser for it, burnished or ruined I guess. Yet parts of these lives hang in the balance of my decisions. Maybe they’ll find other things to think about without me, or maybe they won’t. Maybe I need them too much. I just don’t know.

When I drove out by my lonesome after all the long days of classes in a spring semester, I complained to myself about the traffic. That business left once I hit the classroom in Only. Yet I wonder, why am I still doing this? It wasn’t the plan. I think it’s because I’m an intellectual historian. It stands to reason that I should study intellectuals up close. I remember driving back on those same spring nights, elated, usually speeding home (sorry Tennessee State Police), head swimming with unuttered ideas. Now I drive back, elated in a different way, deeply pleased for the company, chattering away with my philosopher friend. But Scarecrow needs a letter. Goddamn it, he needs a letter. I hope Frank and Jacob will ask me for one too, someday.

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  1. I don’t have anything insightful to add by way of comment, but I want to thank Peter for publishing this here. I’m an adult education guy, but I only ever get to deal with those “on the outside,” as it were.

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