Every Monday night last fall, 10 students from Kenyon met with 10 prison inmates to discuss English literature. It was an experience that they will never forget.
On March 28, students of the course In Transit (ENGL 191.00), taught last fall by Assistant Professor of English Kathleen Fernando, held a panel in Keithley Seminar Room to talk about their experience. This class was not a typical English seminar: Fernando and the Kenyon students traveled to Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, where they discussed and explored a range of literary texts with 10 inmates.
“For some time, I had felt that we at Kenyon should be more connected to our broader community,” Fernando wrote in an email to the Collegian. “When Maya [Street-Sachs ’17] came to me with the idea of teaching a prison-education course, I felt this would be a meaningful way to connect.”
To prepare for the course, Fernando participated in an intensive one-week summer training program with an organization called Inside-Out, which “educates instructors to take students into prison for a course such as ours,” Fernando wrote. An expert in South Asian literature and diasporic writing, Fernando’s main interest is in texts which focus on travel and movement.
But “after I attended my training in Inside-Out,” Fernando wrote, “I realized that our course also needed to relate to the everyday lives of the incarcerated people who would be in our class. It would be awfully cruel … to teach a course on travel when half of the class are prohibited from doing so. [So] I slanted the course to be centered on themes of mobility and immobility, rather than solely on travel, and also built into our course texts that dealt with the experience and theme of incarceration.”
For the first half of each three-hour seminar, the Kenyon students and inmates — referred to as “outside students” and “inside students,” respectively — sat together in one large circle and discussed the assigned text. Then, the class would break into small groups to respond to questions provided by Fernando.
“I thought some of the rawest conversations we had were about this book An American Marriage because it was by far the most explicitly about incarceration,” Maria Brescia-Weiler ’19, a student in the In Transit class, said. The novel, written by Tayari Jones, tells the story of a woman and husband who struggle to keep in touch after he is wrongly accused and incarcerated.
Mary Grace Detmer ’19, another Kenyon student in the course, said that the inside students’ input contributed enlightening perspectives to this text. “A lot of [the inside students] were talking about how they’ve gone through the mourning of relationships when incarcerated,” she said. “And they were like, ‘Every single one of us has history with this’ … That was a good day to listen. I think we did a lot of listening.”
Some of the texts also addressed feminism, a theme that Bryn Rediger ’19, a third student in the class, said produced fascinating discussions. “I think some of the inside guys have said they didn’t think a lot about feminism until this class,” she said. “So it was really cool having those discussions with them and hearing a perspective that we don’t usually hear here at Kenyon.”
Rediger, Detmer and Brescia-Weiler emphasized how the inside students’ perspectives, thoughts, careful analyses and personal connections to the texts made the class into a unique and meaningful experience.
“I think there was a misconception from some of my own friends that the Kenyon students were the ones pulling the weight,” said Rediger. “But I think … they came through so much for us … It was really done by them and we were participating with them, but their heart and soul was in everything. So I would say they carried us in a lot of ways. I learned so much.”
For Detmer, the most significant take-away was “how deep a relationship can become in such a [setting] … We only saw each other once a week for 12 weeks. But the last class, each one of us was so emotional,” she said. “And the [inside students], the stuff that they said, was just the most powerful … We made such life-changing relationships.”
Because inside students and outside students are not allowed to communicate with one another after the course, the last Monday evening seminar was probably the last time that they would ever see each other. But for the outside students, the connection remains.