Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

The Writing Program and the Call to Service: A Progress Report from a L and Grant University

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

The Writing Program and the Call to Service: A Progress Report from a L and Grant University

Article excerpt

Imagine yourself in a prison-yard at night. A small square of earth, covered over with cracked asphalt, enclosed by a vile institution. The halogen-lights perched on the prison's roof-tops do nothing to keep track of the hundreds of men pacing about in search of some escape; the lights do, however, succeed at obscuring the nocturnal heaven of its most remote twinkle. The world has been known to deprive men of conjugal pleasures. Even isolate him to the point of abandonment of his family. But has any thought been given of a people who can no longer see the stars?

When you brought the professor of astronomy to Auburn, you returned to us the gift of the sky.

The writer of these words, an inmate at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York, sent this letter to the director of the Prison Education Program (PEP), a privately-funded initiative of Cornell University which, in association with a local community college, grants associate's degrees to inmates. The occasion was a lecture by Yervant Terzian, an internationally recognized radio astronomer, who volunteered to present a slide show on the origins of the universe for inmates at Auburn. The writer was a student in a PEP course, 1 of about 15 who were available to hear the presentation. The questions afterwards ranged from the misinformed (one person claimed Christopher Columbus had visited a council of Egyptian elders before his journey to the New World) to the expert (one question concerned an inconsistency within Einstein's unified field theory). I was present as Professor Terzian's escort and as a former tutor at Auburn, now director of Cornell's writing program, the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines.

I begin my essay with a prisoner's letter for its obvious impact but also for the issues in service-learning pedagogy it both describes and raises. Were I to describe these issues in the form of a reflective journal, my responses would probably zig-zag. First, I'd recognize the pathos of this inmate's gratitude, a gratitude that could be all but overwhelming for one who'd helped even the tiniest amount to return the gift of the sky to an incarcerated population; at the same time, I'd resist the flattering self-identification as a missionary of learning; the writer's elevation to nearly magical status of a particular type of knowledge; and the implied identification of the client population as deficient--errors often problematized in the service-learning literature (Flower, 2003). At the same time, the quality of the writing would remind me that in this case at least, writing professionals have little to teach a man with such obvious natural gifts, despite certain local struggles with idiom, except for the conferring of a credential. An analysis of his words purely as literature would, among other things, notice the slow development of one concrete situation (the blinding of the sky by floodlights at night) which, applied to a separate situation in a stunning, single-sentence paragraph, makes of "stars" and "sky" both the literal object of a specific experience and the metaphor for a less tangible experience--the gift of learning in general but also of free inquiry, and the mutual respect accorded to members in a community of learners. The metaphor also suggests volumes about the nature of incarceration as social separation and intellectual isolation: prisoners lack even the common human heritage of the sky (which, in the final sentence, is not "given" but "returned"). The letter (to zig-zag once again) clarifies blindingly the fact that, for prison literacy work, at least, the population does remain in a state of deficit (not a natural but an enforced one), and that in such a condition, exposure to knowledge can feel like a precious gift, or some form of recovery. But what's the status of this knowledge? Is it academic, middleclass, privileged, popular? Well-endowed institutions have the research resources to produce a certain form of knowledge, but that knowledge comes to appear "academic" or class-based only when its access is limited. …

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