Nancy McHugh is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Wittenberg University. She teaches traditional undergraduates and incarcerated students as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Students in her Science in Social Context course tackle significant environmental issues in their community.
1. Why did you choose to ask students to do civic engagement projects?
I do several types of engaged philosophy with students. The one that I think is the most significant is the work I do through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which I take 15 students from my university to have class with 15 people who are incarcerated in a men’s level two prison. We meet together as a class for the full semester with the inside students (those who are incarcerated) and the outside students (those who are not incarcerated) working along side of each other as they would in a traditional classroom setting, all doing the same assignments, all being graded in the same way, and all receiving college credit for the course. I teach Inside-Out courses because: 1) I think education is valuable wherever you are located, especially critical thinking and critical writing skills. Many people who are incarcerated are very astute thinkers. Developing these skills even more, in a formal way, can be very significant for them in prison, and upon release from prison these are valuable skills that they can use to navigate the workforce and shape lives that they find valuable. 2) Teaching in prisons is one way that college professors can effect change in the system that perpetuates mass incarceration. 3) It is important to challenge college students’ perceptions of who incarcerated people are and what they are like. Our current college students are going to be those who are going to be establishing public and institutional policies about incarceration in the future. Helping them to see the human face behind incarceration has the potential to effect change in mass incarceration.
2. Which of your courses get students out of the classroom?
All of my Inside-Out courses get students out of the traditional classroom and into a classroom in a prison. Course I have taught in this format are Many Faces of Justice, Knowing Bodies, Global Health Justice, The Art of Living Ethically, and Global Feminism. I also do engaged learning in my Science in Social Context courses, where we have worked on issues related to an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in our community.
3. What project(s) do your students do?
In my Science in Social Context class, in which we do a semester-long project based learning component on an EPA Superfund site, my students meet with a community action group, local scientists, public health officials, and with officials from the EPA. After meeting with these people and studying the issues all semester, the students write a white paper that they share with the various constituents. They also run a rather large end-of-the-semester open house on the issue. They form themselves in to a mock nonprofit to run the event. They have to fundraise, advertise, go meet with local schools and design for the open house. They develop a number of information booths about the issues involved in the Superfund site. Each year we have run this event we have had over two hundred people from local schools, the community, the county government, and our university come to the event.
As for my Inside-Out courses the course itself is the engagement, so there are no additional projects to go along with it besides those directly associated with the course.
4. What do you think students gain from doing this civic engagement?
The Inside-Out courses provide both sets of students with a significant learning experience. Some of my inside students will say that the class gives them a space for them to feel valued as learners and that they learn skills that provide them with options on the outside. Some of the inside students I’ve had for three semester-long courses and two reading and writing groups. They are like my majors, in a way, in that they have a pretty serious philosophical interest and training. The outside students have their perceptions challenged in a lot of ways. For some of them this leads to different career choices than they might have originally planned for themselves. For example, one of my students trained to be a doula for women who are incarcerated. Another student decided to become a social worker in prisons. I also frequently have several students in the course that are majoring in Criminology. This course gives them a valuable way of relating to people who are incarcerated as fellow students and learners instead of the way they may be more likely to see them through a traditional criminology course.
In my Science in Social Context course the students learn to speak and write about a significant environmental issue in a very informed way and have had the opportunity to share this knowledge with the larger public. They come out of this experience more informed and more self-confident about public speaking and about their ability to take a position on an issue. A year later I still have students who email me about issues related to the Superfund site.
5. What does the civic engagement project offer to wider communities?
In the case of my Science and Social Context course schools brought their students to learn about the issues involved as part of their environmental studies education. The community action group that we worked with had an opportunity at which issues related to the superfund site could be heard and the EPA and local health officials also had a forum. This allowed the students to hear different sides off the issues, and it also gave some validation to the different views held by the various stakeholders.
In the case of my Inside-Out courses, these courses prompted some of my students, local community members, and me to set up a training for our community with the International Institute of Restorative Practices. We had 45 community members attend, including teachers, social workers, and people who worked in the justice system. One school turned their disciplinary structure over to a restorative practices model and has had subsequent retrainings for all of their staff by the International Institute of Restorative Practices. Also out of this training we ran a restorative practices/restorative justice program with the county juvenile court for several years that allowed court-involved youth to go through a restorative justice model instead of through a traditional court model.
6. If someone wanted to do these projects at their own institution, what steps or resources would you recommend?
Inside-Out courses require a weeklong training program through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. After that there is a fair amount of groundwork that has to happen with one’s institution and with the prison in which one is teaching. Inside-Out is good at mentoring faculty through this process.
As for my Science in Social Context course the final semester project is really great, but also really stressful because I really turn it over to the students. I guide, but they have to do the planning and all of the work involved. I have done this type of project in two different courses for a total of four times. (The other was a course I co-taught on the history and social ethics of coffee production. The course was called Making Coffee: Putting a Human Face on Your Daily Cup, which was a first year seminar.) In each case the final outcome exceeded my expectations, but each time it is very stressful because you have to put a lot of trust in your students and be willing to give away the normal control you have as a faculty member.
7. What do you like about teaching this way?
The Inside-Out teaching has really changed me in many ways. I think most of us have a sense about the reality of and the injustice in our justice system. Experiencing it through the eyes and lives of people that are your students provides a whole different understanding. When I did my Inside-Out training, I was trained by 17 men who were incarcerated at Ryan Correctional facility in Detroit. Most of these men are lifers; many are juvenile lifers, i.e., people who were incarcerated on life sentences before they were 18 years old. I see these men once or twice a year when I go back for retraining. I think of them as my friends and as highly thoughtful, engaged people. There is a harsh reality knowing that one’s friends are going to grow old and die behind bars. Thus, part of what I like about Inside-Out teaching is that it forces me to think about justice, ethics, and our obligations to others every time I teach and every time I reflect on the experience. In these moments, I feel most like a philosopher and most clearly recognize the power of the discipline.