Extending their respective scholarly interests in community engagement and critical university studies, English Department professors Bidhan Roy and Andrew Knighton conducted a two-day workshop in Denmark in September. In the course of the workshop, entitled “American Institutions: The Prison, The University, and Critical Pedagogy,” they worked with faculty and students in the program in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, located in Odense. The trip, coordinated and hosted by USD’s Dr. Rune Graulund, sought to introduce the Danes to the recent history of prison and university institutions in California – linking the explosive growth of the prison industry since the 1960s to public education’s simultaneous decline due to stumbling leadership and dwindling public funding. While those twinned trajectories are surely distressing, Drs. Roy and Knighton argue that their intersection opens up new possibilities for educational practices that link the two institutions in novel ways.
The workshop grew out of Dr. Roy’s recent work at the California State Prison facility in Lancaster, and in particular “Words Uncaged,” a writing initiative he conducts there with life-without-parole inmates as part of the “Paws For Life” project, founded by Karma Rescue and Captain Crystal Wood of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Building on a letter-exchange pilot program that put a small group of USD undergraduates into dialogue with CSULA English M.A. student Luis Martinez last spring, this event involved over 70 students in writing exercises in which Roy and Knighton helped them to read and respond to the poetry of Etheridge Knight (who spent much of the 1960s in prison, and produced a lauded body of work exploring incarceration, race, and the defense of humanity). The writings produced by the Odense students represent the first stage of an ongoing exchange with the Lancaster prisoners about Knight’s work. The workshop’s literary endeavors were contextualized by discussions of a range of related issues, including the representation of prisons in mass media, discriminatory policing and sentencing, the Black Arts Movement, privatization of the prison and education systems, and the ongoing American struggle for prison abolition and reform, such as Columbia University’s recent decision to divest from the private prison industry. Faculty and students expressed keen interest in expanding their engagement with CSULA and with California prisoners, and further initiatives bridging between Odense and Lancaster are in the works.
For more on Dr. Bidhan Roy’s “Words Uncaged” program, visit the following: https://www.facebook.com/wordsuncaged
Dr. Andrew Knighton lectures at University of Southern Denmark, Odense, September 2015