This blog was originally posted on March 19th, 2015.
On March 9, I had the great good fortune to visit Colorado State University, where my friend and former student Sarah Sloane has been directing the writing program. Her graduate seminar on composition studies was meeting that evening from 4:00 to 7:00, and since they were reading an article of mine, I got to drop in on the class as a “special mystery guest.” Then I got to hear about the work these grad students are doing—on everything from disability studies to multimodal projects to curricular design. They were GREAT. While I was there, Professor Tobi Jacobi said, “I have a present for you,” and handed me a slim volume of writing published by incarcerated men and women. I didn’t have time to do more than thank her—but later that night, on the long flight back to San Francisco, I read every word. I was heartened by the words of these writers, who for the most part had rejected nihilism and negativity in favor of hope and commitment to a better future. But they weren’t sugar-coating anything: their experience in prison had marked them deeply, and these pieces of writing reflected that reality as well.
This was a gift I will treasure, and it reminds me once more how many teachers of writing across the country are doing similar work: going into shelters, half-way houses, prisons, and community centers to engage people in writing about themselves, their lives, their hopes, their dreams. These efforts—almost always done “on top of” a full load of teaching and administrative work and scholarship—are a hallmark of work in rhetoric and writing studies, a sign of how much teachers care and how much they believe in the power of writing and reading (and speaking out!) to change lives for the better.
When I got home, I ordered Jacobi’s book, Women, Writing, and Prison: Activists, Scholars, and Writers Speak Out (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).Edited with Ann Folwell Stanford and with a preface by Sister Helen Prejean, this volume introduces the project and the narratives from prison that follow. Now that I’ve read the pieces printed in We Make Our Future: SpeakOut!,the gift from Tobi, I am looking forward to getting this volume and studying it as well. Check it out for yourself—and let me know other similar efforts you may know of.