What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live well?
These are questions college philosophy courses across the country have asked their students for centuries. But for one class of Trinity students, which pairs 15 Tigers with 15 incarcerated scholars, this question is generating some unexpected answers. As of May 2021, 3 cohorts have completed the program.
“The scholars and college students get to discover what it’s like to put their own ideas out there,” says program founder and philosophy faculty member Mel Webb, Ph.D. “These scholars are people who’ve been locked up in the carceral system, and often don’t make it to college campuses. Our college campus learning communities are at a deficit as a result of this.”
Started by Webb in January 2019 through UTSA, the the Philosophy and Literature Circle program connects college students with incarcerated scholars in a 12-week program. Trinity students and these scholars are classmates, exchanging poetry, written reviews of each other’s papers, and discussions over material from authors such as Langston Hughes, Louise Erdrich, Plato, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The humanities grapples with questions about what it means to be human,” says philosophy professor Judith Norman, Ph.D., who has worked with Webb to launch this program at Trinity, linking it to the course GNED 3430 Moral Imagination and US Incarceration. “These questions are often pretty abstract. But we’re having discussions with people that have to confront that question every day—by fighting for their humanity. And the wisdom they bring to the conversation as a result—it’s surprising just how rich that conversation is.”
Student Rebecca Cruz ’21 says the class’ format is typical of many Trinity courses. Conducted collaboratively, the class begins each day with Trinity students voicing their opinions on the weekly reading. The group centers discussion not just on abstract interpretations of the reading, but how the material relates to them on a personal level.
Normally, the group would then use one of its weekdays to visit the Torres Unit, a medium-security men’s prison in Hondo, Texas, to discuss the material with their incarcerated classmates for several hours. But due to safety restrictions during the era of COVID-19, the group now relies on written correspondence to exchange reflection papers, peer reviews, and reading response questions.
For Cruz, a neuroscience major from the Rio Grande Valley, the course is changing some of her preconceptions about both incarcerated people and philosophy. “I always found philosophy to be pretentious or elite,” Cruz says. “But learning with these scholars, you see how the material is personal to them. It opens up our discussions in a whole new way when you see your classmates approaching the material from this raw, authentic perspective.”
And while Cruz wants to respect the privacy of her classmates, she says that working alongside them has been eye-opening. “In media, whether it’s T.V., books, movies—there’s this negative stereotype of [people who are incarcerated] that actually gets challenged every day in this course,” she says. “When I found myself challenging what I believed in, that’s when I realized how grateful I was to have the chance to see that the people learning beside us are three-dimensional.”
If anything, the course has shifted Cruz’s perspective of the scholars from incarcerated individuals to classmates. “I could see any of them attending college, even being my classmates at Trinity, had they not fallen into this system,” she says.
And this evolving relationship is a two-way street, Cruz adds. “The scholars have been super appreciative of the different opinions we have, and how the Trinity students have opened themselves up more as the class has gone on. We see them pouring their emotions onto paper every week, and so it makes you think, ‘Am I doing enough to return this level of communication to them?’”
Trinity philosophy faculty Judith Norman, Ph.D., and Mel Webb, Ph.D., lead the Philosophy and Literature Circle program.
Helping to guide Trinity students through this partnership is a seven-member advisory committee, comprised of a number of formerly incarcerated persons and community-based educators. These range from professors to an accountant, a transitional housing director, and a state health and human services worker.
One of these board members is Susannah Bannon, Ph.D., a Texas State University communication studies professor who took part in an educational program much like the one Trinity students are engaged in now while incarcerated, then worked towards her doctorate after coming home on parole.
“I know firsthand how dehumanizing prison is, and when I was first treated like a scholar, not reduced to my criminal record, that was such a significant moment for me,” Bannon says. “I saw myself as a producer of knowledge and a part of something meaningful”
Bannon has also co-founded the nonprofit Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, which promotes the education and empowerment of formerly incarcerated people through a collective community. She says that Trinity’s program is one example of the many ways universities can truly work towards being more inclusive.
“If a university truly believes in diversity and inclusion, this type of initiative is a good way to attend to their mission statement,” Bannon says. “This is the type of program you need to be funding if you want to expand your learning community.”
Emily Youngerman ’23 originally took the course in Spring 2020, before the in-person restrictions. She believes in the power of the community the philosophy circle is creating, and hopes the group can eventually return to in-person meetings.
“I remember walking in the first day and being very aware of how I was ‘supposed to feel’ about our incarcerated classmates,” says Youngerman, a theatre major from Tucson, Arizona. “Fear, distrust, these are the ways our culture has taught us to feel about them. But you walk in on the first day, and these are just your classmates.”
Youngerman goes as far as to say she felt like a hypocrite, having been raised in an inclusive household, and yet still having initial apprehension about this type of direct inclusion.
“And so many Trinity students grow up the way I did. Now that we’ve ended up at a university like this, one that has the resources to field these types of programs, I think this is a great way to bring people together instead of driving them apart.”
Youngerman has continued to volunteer in an administrative capacity with Webb and Norman, and hopes more students will consider giving the philosophy circle a try. “This is not a dead end to me. I feel I can keep learning from this group of people,” she says. “Learning is about sharing, and who better to share this journey with than people who are different than you?”
Some scholars shared how they were impacted by the program. Here are some comments from those who completed the program in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021:
I really enjoyed the program all the way through. I was very intrigued by all the different philosophies we learned and in a way combined them to create my own. The best part of the program was learning other participants’ philosophies. I liked being able to see what other modern minds are contemplating.
Honestly I feel like knowing that my colleagues are in college has helped me step my game up.
I have learned how not to be afraid to express how I feel about a topic. Thanks a lot for an opportunity to share what I know and what I don’t know.
What has helped my learning is definitely the different perspectives. The communication. I was also able to go to some other students here at the prison and hear other perspectives also. That helped me learn and grow…. I want y’all to know that I have been looking forward to my [Trinity] packages since this all started.
Aside from the challenges of returning to normal in the midst of an international pandemic, the course also faces financial and logistical hurdles.
Webb and Norman say that their class relies on financial support that provides for books, notebooks and pens, postage, a P.O. box, and a mail permit the group uses for its mail-correspondence model of learning. When (and if) the course returns to in-person classes, there will be transportation costs to get to the facilities as well. There are also instructional fees for teaching and a stipend for members of the advisory committee.
Webb and Norman say these needs are a small price to pay for a program that’s making more and more of an impact each day.
If anything, both professors say they continue to be surprised at the unexpected ways that philosophy keeps connecting people in—and out—of the class.
“We’ve talked about the discussions between the scholars and Trinity students, but we’ve also seen that the relationship between the prison officers and scholars changed as a result of the class,” Webb says. “Multiple [corrections] officers have told me at different points, this was the first time they heard any of the people in the class say something personal during their time in prison.”
“The officers came to think of these individuals as pursuing scholarly goals,” Norman adds, “and their relationship shifted for the better.”
So, for a course that raises tough questions, Norman says it’s just as important who gets to do the asking.
“These questions of the meaning of life belong to everybody. They don’t belong to an ivory tower,” she says. “Knowledge is best served by extending our community, and involving those with different perspectives. This does turn upside down a lot of the image of philosophy, very much for the better.”
To support the Philosophy and Literature Circle program at Trinity, visit give.trinity.edu, select "Give to an Area of My Choice," and select "Philosophy & Literature Circle at Torres Unit" from the list of available options.
This program is made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support comes from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.