Laura Hardin Marshall, Saint Louis University
Alexander Ocasio, Saint Louis University
The Saint Louis University (SLU) Prison Program has made higher education accessible for incarcerated residents and prison staff. However, due to geographical and technological limitations, the incarcerated students are excluded from much-needed academic support. This situation led SLU’s writing center administrators to develop a partnership with the SLU Prison Program to better serve incarcerated students by providing access to asynchronous writing center services. In this article, we share the logistics of how we developed our partnership with the SLU Prison Program and our initial approaches for training our consultants. Using prison classroom pedagogy as a foundation and taking into consideration the nature and limitations of traditional consultation strategies, we developed a consulting approach specifically designed to meet the unique needs of this student population. We then discuss how the partnership worked in three different classes. We end by discussing some of the obstacles we faced when putting the partnership and our practices in action as well as possibilities for the future, both for SLU and for other writing centers who may hope to create similar partnerships of their own. In doing so, we hope that readers will join us in striving to redefine the academic commonplace for incarcerated students and in exploring ways that we can promote justice and accessibility in writing center work.
Keywords: consultant training, prison education, prison pedagogy, writing centers, writing center pedagogy
A Center Inside: Expanding Prison Education Through Writing Center Partnership
Like most writing centers, University Writing Services (UWS) of Saint Louis University (SLU) strives to support writers of all educational and skill levels at any and all stages of their projects and composing needs. Though we do not have a formal mission statement that mentions social justice in those exact words, Laura (as Assistant Coordinator) and Alex (as Coordinator) believe social justice manifests in our daily practices and interactions throughout the writing center. As Grimm (1999) describes, students often visit us (in person or digitally) as a site “of knowledge about the ways that discourse regulates who we are and who we can be” as determined by the academy (p. xvi), but we also attend carefully to the ways that our center can be something different (and hopefully more). Grimm proposes that centers can instead become sites of difference, not just bastions of institutional knowledge and assimilation:
Writing centers are uniquely situated to begin offering more complicated representations of students; representations that change the way we talk about students—not as incomplete and undeveloped individuals ‘who need our help,’ but as complicated people with history, class, and culture. […] Rather than helping the Other become more like us, the work of the writing center might instead include developing the ability to see ourselves as the Other, to recognize the limits of our worldviews and our cultural assumptions and to regard our discursive practices from the perspectives of those outside the mainstream discourse. (pp. 13-14)
Writing centers like UWS conceived as sites of social justice acknowledge not just how students can learn academic discourse but also how academic discourse can be influenced and diversified by students as Others (as Grimm names them) with complicated histories outside of academia.
This attention to the Other is steeped in the history and mission of SLU, a Jesuit institution known for its dedication to service, community, and social justice. One of SLU’s core tenets is service to others as it “[w]elcomes students, faculty and staff from all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds and beliefs and creates a sense of community that facilitates their development as men and women [people] for others” (Saint Louis University, n.d.; emphasis added). UWS therefore offers an opportunity for our consultants and students to experience the concept of service (becoming people for others) in addition to contextualizing writing consulting as one means of fulfilling that mission.
Social justice and service are therefore concepts with which most SLU community members are familiar, and outside the writing center, we regularly see classes, extracurricular events, and extensive programmatic offerings dedicated to both social and restorative justice. With this sort of dedication at heart, the SLU Prison Program (SPP) was developed in 2008 to offer higher education to residents of the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) in Bonne Terre, Missouri, a male-only medium/maximum security facility (Saint Louis University Prison Program, n.d.). Since then, the SPP has expanded its program offerings and sites
(see Supplemental Materials A for audio note transcripts) and has made education accessible to prison staff (including guards).
Through this program, prison residents and staff in the greater St. Louis area have the opportunity to enter the academic commonplace through three different paths: the College Preparatory Program (a pre-college track), the Associate of Arts Program (a credit-bearing track), and the Prison Arts and Education Program (a general events track). The SPP is driven to provide opportunities for the SLU community (those located in the prison sites and elsewhere) to participate in restorative justice and to accept non-traditional students as scholars and members of the community, academic or otherwise.
While both the SPP and UWS actively pursue pedagogical enrichment, SLU’s mission, and social justice, prior to 2018 the two were not working in tandem. To encourage SLU campus-wide involvement in these programs, the SPP periodically holds informational sessions targeted toward faculty, staff, and students who are interested in social and restorative justice and the SPP mission. Laura—at the time a first-year PhD student in rhetoric and composition—attended one such meeting in March 2018, primarily to learn about the program before deciding whether to volunteer as a writing instructor or consultant, roles she held as part of her graduate assistantship. In an unplanned but serendipitous move, Alex—the coach of SLU’s acrobatic salsa team (Sazón), then a fifth-year PhD student in rhetoric and composition and the Assistant Coordinator of UWS—also attended the meeting but with another goal in mind. He was familiar with the Prison Arts and Education Program and was interested in the possibility of holding an event to bring music and movement to prison residents. During the meeting, we both learned about the range of SPP tracks offered, and the SPP organizers welcomed the diverse and interdisciplinary members of the SLU community to participate according to our individual interests and fields to offer new ideas and ways to serve the program and its students. Most importantly, though, we learned about students’ technological limitations within the facilities that result in a lack of access to services and resources commonly available to SLU students. This limitation presented a major opportunity for the SPP to improve their efforts toward social and restorative justice.
As the general information session wound down and the SPP staff became available for one-on-one questions and discussions, Laura made inquiries about the possibility for students to access UWS’s online asynchronous services, offered via Qualtrics Survey Software, which requires both a computer and Internet access. Unfortunately, as is the case in most prison facilities, access to those resources is restricted due to cost (and the perception that such resources are a luxury, not a necessity). Because they are confined to limited on-site resources, resident participants of the SPP, although they are nominally included in the SLU student body, are cut off from vital academic services and are thereby excluded from one of the central commonplaces of academic support.
Discovering this issue led Laura to bring Alex into the conversation to troubleshoot how UWS could begin to serve our incarcerated students and provide access to writing center services. At the end of the meeting, we arranged to continue our discussion with the SPP administrators to solidify a partnership between UWS and the SPP; this partnership sought to address a pressing matter of reform, to expand the definitions and borders of prison pedagogy, and to add another facet of social and restorative justice to the program’s current efforts. The way we sought to complete that objective was to offer non-web-based consultations to this remote, at-risk, and marginalized student population. Because partnerships such as this are rare, in this article we will share our experiences with the SPP and the ERDCC, the development of the UWS-SPP partnership, and approaches to prison pedagogy and writing consulting, addressed through practical, theoretical, and pedagogical approaches in the hopes that others might do similar work in their own institutions and communities.
The first matter of business for the UWS-SPP partnership was to determine the logistics of how to provide writing assistance given the technological limitations of the prison residents. Should we try to hold consultations on site or asynchronously? Who would do the actual consulting? How would they be trained and in what, given that this particular consulting partnership has little published scholarship or established pedagogy? Would UWS administrators even approve of this idea in the first place? We spent that initial meeting and subsequently exchanged e-mails with the SPP administration to work through these and other questions to find the process that would work best for our consultants and the students we sought to serve.
Before we could address any of the logistical questions, though, we had to consider whether UWS and other relevant administrators would entertain the possibility of extending the writing center’s reach beyond traditional SLU students and even whether UWS administrators and consultants could handle the additional workload that would be required to create and maintain the partnership. The idea was brought to the UWS administrator at that time who approved the project with the stipulation that it would require little to no financial resources or additional staffing. This approval process and working through the logistics of the partnership (including staffing) was expedited in subsequent months when Alex assumed the role of Coordinator of Academic Support for UWS. Alex was personally invested in growing the partnership and able to devote additional administrative support by networking with both the SPP and the Department of English (whose graduate students would conduct the bulk of the consultations), collaborating with Laura to develop trainings, and allocating time (and a limited budget) for consultants to work on prison consultations. With the administrative aspect of the partnership addressed, we could then begin considering how to overcome the students’ technological limitations.
While some writing centers have partnered with facilities for on-site consulting, our situation set up clear limitations almost immediately: we would have to operate asynchronously. ERDCC is over an hour away from SLU’s campus, a commute most of our consultants would find prohibitive to conducting on-site synchronous sessions. Additionally, due to the location of the educational buildings in each facility, potential consultants would be required to complete Missouri’s training to become a Volunteer in Corrections (VIC). In Laura’s experience, that process entails an application and letters of recommendation, two tuberculosis tests and subsequent test readings (requiring four separate clinic visits), an on-site visit with a facility staff member for drug screening and an interview, a second on-site six-hour training for educational and safety procedures, and a third on-site visit for identification and paperwork processing—again, a process most would find prohibitive, even with a shorter commute. To further complicate the matter, the VIC process entails a burden for the facility: additional expense, paperwork, and yearly renewals, so the facility actively discourages new VIC applicants, which means we would not even be allowed to train enough willing consultants. Therefore, we deemed that on-site consulting was not the best option, at least in the initial development stages of the partnership.
Instead, we needed options for asynchronous consulting that would not require a computer or Internet connection. With the help of the SPP administrators (at the time, Mary Gould and Devin Johnston), we explored strategies for transferring physical papers. Using the United States Postal Service was not deemed viable due to costs for postage, length of time for delivery, and confidentiality issues (as well as delays) that are part of the mail screening process for correctional facilities.
What soon became clear as the most promising approach was to have the program instructors and volunteers (all VICs) collect, transfer, and disseminate student work. While VICs go through basic safety screenings to enter the facility, the papers and other materials brought into and taken out of the facility are under the VIC’s purview as educational documents and therefore are not required to go through content screening in the same way as mail sent through the United States Postal Service.
Additionally, VICs make on-site visits to the facility nearly every week (sometimes more often, depending on class schedules), meaning that papers could be collected and returned to students within a week, comparable to the promised turnaround time (five business days) of our online asynchronous consultations accessible to other SLU students.
With VIC hand-transfer as the method of delivery, we then had to successfully navigate the organizational red tape to make the partnership come to fruition, hindered by obstacles such as changes in the SPP directors, the need to attend to writing center daily operations (particularly in preparation for the fall semester, always our most demanding administrative time), and general bureaucratic delays. Over the summer of 2018, we drafted a proposal for the partnership briefly outlining our objectives and intended procedures, which was sent in September to be reviewed and approved first by the SPP director and then the ERDCC warden (see Supplemental Materials B). The proposal was accepted in October, at which point we were informed that the questionnaire we proposed to use would also need to be reviewed and approved by the warden. This questionnaire was intended to collect information from the students about their projects and their goals to enable our consultants to provide more specific and individualized advice to each student. In our traditional online consultations, this information is acquired through a form via the Qualtrics Survey Software, so we developed its analog as a one-page questionnaire (see Supplemental Materials C) and awaited approval from the warden, which we received in December. We were then cleared to begin soliciting submissions.
Consulting Approaches and Training
With approvals in place, our next step was to consider precisely how we should go about consulting with this population of students once submissions began arriving. While many of the consulting practices we used on a daily basis at UWS would still be applicable, especially the practices we used for our digital asynchronous consultations, there were a number of considerations (both in terms of restorative justice and material issues) we felt necessary to take into account in order to adapt these practices for this unique student population. These considerations were important not just to address the emotional, psychological, and academic needs for our incarcerated students but also to address the physical logistics of asynchronous consulting on paper documents. We therefore conceptualized prison consultations from four key pedagogical and social/restorative justice lenses: material considerations, limiting the amount of recommendations, using affirmation and praise, and maximizing student identity and autonomy.
In our partnership discussions with the SPP administration, we had been informed that student work would be primarily handwritten and only occasionally typewritten. Additionally, without access to copiers or the luxury of supplies and time to make their own copies, most students would also be sending us the only existing copy of their work. Therefore, before consultants even received submissions, UWS administrators needed to make copies to preserve the students’ original documents (which we returned to students unmarked alongside their consultant-marked copies). Because consultants would be working with copies (and the only copy, if a digital file of the work was not saved during copying), consultants had to be mindful that they were working on the only available copy of the work. Consultants’ penned mistakes (such as spelling errors or strikethroughs for reconsidered suggestions) could quickly make the document or comment unreadable, and the ephemerality of pencil posed another problem with smudging, fading, and illegibility. We therefore urged consultants to read through the document in its entirety before making any marks on the paper, and the materiality of the documents was nearly always a prime consideration in each consultation.
These material factors required some creativity and modification in not just how consultants should read and comment on the work but also what they could say and where. We therefore chose to limit the number of recommendations consultants should make to the students. Historically, UWS consultants are trained to offer no more than three higher-order concerns (HOCs) and three lower-order concerns (LOCs) based on recommendations like Sommers’s (2013) to avoid over-commenting when responding to student work. In this case, we asked consultants to give no more than one HOC and one LOC per consultation, for several reasons. In The Psychology of Writing, Kellogg (1994) observes that writers prior to word processing often chose to revise less to minimize drafts (p. 137). More revision recommendations would require students to work through more drafts, for which our students have neither the time nor materials. Additionally, because paper is a commodity for our students, they often choose to not double-space or maintain standardized margins, giving consultants minimal room for margin comments—they are unable to physically fit in a larger number of recommendations within the confines of these documents. Lastly, we presumed that most of our students would be novice or inexperienced writers, so we would better serve them in their writing development by providing fewer but more focused concerns to address.
We strove to meet our other considerations—using affirmation and praise as well as maximizing student identity and autonomy—by adapting prison classroom and writing center pedagogies, focused on meeting the writing needs of the students solely through asynchronous feedback. We began with our own appreciative consulting model used at UWS (based on Bloom et al.’s 2008 appreciative advising), and Laura sought out recent scholarship on prison education such as Berry’s Doing Time, Writing Lives (2018) and Lockard and Rankins-Robertson’s Prison Pedagogies (2018). According to this literature, factors that need to be considered when tackling prison education are erasure of identity (Berry, 2018) and the mental and emotional (not just physical) confinement incarcerated students face and attempt to cope with on a daily basis (Lockard and Rankins-Robertson, 2018). Additionally, in Education in Prison, Hughes (2012) discusses how incarcerated students have unique needs, particularly when it comes to autonomy and individuality, since their ability to make their own decisions and control their environments has been stripped from them. Applying these factors to writing center pedagogy, we stressed to consultants that their feedback should focus on praising and affirming the writing moves students were making successfully while also using facilitative (non-directive) feedback to create opportunities for them to be in control of their words and the direction of their work. Comments should encourage them to engage in reflection and discovery, options and choices, questions and problem-solving. Most important to us was laying all those opportunities at the students’ proverbial feet to allow them first and foremost to make their own choices about their writing and how they might revise, which would also have the benefit of building their identity and confidence as writers.
With those factors in mind, consultants would read through the submissions, provide limited margin comments, and draft letters to the students describing their focused, prioritized recommendations and encouragement for the students as they continued to develop their assignment and/or move on to other projects. We had interested consultants attend a one-hour training session to discuss these approaches for our new student population, and we developed (and have continued to improve and modify) the SPP Consultation Guide (see Supplemental Materials D) to serve as a reminder and reference point for consultants while they review these submissions.
Prison Consultations in Action
Once all approvals were received and our consulting approaches developed, we were ready to begin consulting. We developed a flyer to disseminate to instructors and students in Spring 2019, letting them know the procedures and the benefits of our services. Because we were unsure of how many students would be interested in using our services, though, we planned on a small pilot group: ERDCC students enrolled in for-credit or college preparatory courses, with the intent to later widen outreach to other ERDCC residents, staff, and the other partner facility, if possible. Unfortunately, at the start of the spring semester, no courses were being offered yet at the ERDCC that were appropriate for piloting our services.
Therefore, it was not until March 2019, a year after the initial SPP meeting, that we finally saw a possibility for actualizing this partnership, in a credit-bearing literature class offered by Joya Uraizee, an associate professor with SLU’s English Department.
Uraizee graciously responded to our outreach and was open to providing her students the opportunity to submit their work to UWS. Her students were given the flier and questionnaires, but unfortunately none took up our offer. Correspondence with Uraizee about her students and their reactions to using UWS revealed that they were not inclined to submit their work to UWS largely due to time constraints. In a traditional, on-campus course, students are able to plan their writing center visits around their assignment deadlines, coming to see us in the days leading up to the assignment. In the case of the SPP students, however, they had a strict timeline to work under: in order to receive feedback before an assignment was due, they would have to complete a draft, send it to UWS, wait a week, receive feedback, and then use additional time to revise before finalizing and submitting the assignment. For writing assignments due on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, time is a commodity our students in most classes do not have to spare, which prevented Uraizee’s students from being able to use our services even if they had been interested in doing so.
While this initial launch was disheartening, in late Spring 2019 we had an opportunity to try again, with a literature course for the College Preparatory Program offered by Paul Lynch, also an associate professor with SLU’s English Department (and now director of the SPP). Like Uraizee, Lynch provided his students with the flier and questionnaires, and we ultimately had fifteen submissions (from nine students) during the course that spring. In our opinion, this success lies primarily in the lack of grades and greater flexibility in the college prep courses;
students are asked to complete work, but the course is participation driven. This factor allowed Lynch to be lenient with deadlines, and he encouraged students to submit work any time. Such flexibility is considerably easier in non-credit-bearing courses. Additionally, Lynch did not have students use UWS prior to the assignment deadline. On a due date, he collected assignments and offered questionnaires to students who also wanted feedback from UWS, and those specific assignments were copied and sent to UWS consultants for review.
With this approach, the feedback would not be available to students on that particular assignment unless they voluntarily chose to revise and resubmit after they had already met the course requirement, but they would be able to use the feedback—received alongside their instructor’s—for future work.
A third class also participated in this partnership; Laura was invited to teach a Fall 2019 course on academic writing for the College Preparatory Program, which resulted in a total of fifty-five submissions (from fifteen students). The academic writing course is the first students take in this track of the SPP, so the students Laura worked with were new to the program and many had not taken classes in quite some time. In our opinion, these factors (and, again, the course being non-credit bearing and therefore more flexible) were key in the success of the partnership this semester. Many of the students were decidedly—and simultaneously—both eager and greatly worried about the course and their academic skills, particularly writing. Additionally, Laura’s role in UWS (at the time, Assistant Coordinator) allowed her to provide explicit instruction on the process as well as updates on submission status, which helped reassure students about sending their work off site. Unlike both Drs. Uraizee and Lynch, Laura also obviously knew about the possibility (and the obstacles) of UWS submission prior to creating her syllabus, allowing her to intentionally design the course and assignment deadlines to provide sufficient time for UWS submission, which we also feel was vital to the semester’s success. Ideally, this success will continue in future, hopefully assisted by Laura’s students, who were introduced to UWS from the very start of their cohort’s educational path and will presumably continue to use the services and/or share their experiences with other students.
At this point in the UWS-SPP partnership, two courses had substantively participated in receiving UWS feedback. Therefore, we decided to conduct a brief programmatic review to assess how the program was working from the students’ perspectives. At the end of the Fall 2019 semester, Laura asked her students to answer a three-question survey:
- Was the UWS consultant’s advice helpful?
- Was the UWS consultant’s advice not helpful in any ways (and how could it be improved)?
- Do you have any other recommendations or comments?
Of the fourteen students remaining active in the course at the end of the semester, ten students responded.
Through this survey, Laura’s students revealed the importance of our efforts in expanding prison pedagogy and improving the reach of social and restorative justice in the SPP. The ten responding students resoundingly felt that the advice they received was helpful, and many commented on how encouraging and/or motivating the advice was. Notably, one student responded that the service was “a beautiful asset to have,” while another said, “it made [them] feel a part of SLU.” Critiques of UWS and recommendations for improvement were varied (a request for more information about consultants, the wish for online services, etc.), though two expressed the desire for more critical feedback, and a third commented that the feedback was sometimes too nice (a drawback we acknowledge and accept when using an appreciative consulting approach).
Additional comments generally reiterated the helpfulness of the service and/or consultants. Three students offered their thanks and one specifically called attention to their consultant (Alex, who was the only consultant mentioned by name in the survey responses), praising his “very helpful” review, which “showed real thought and effort.” These responses indicate that this partnership (and potentially others like it) can help students see themselves not just as prisoners, not just as students, but as writers open to and accepted by new (and considerably larger) communities like SLU. We hope to continue this support and will likely engage in yearly programmatic assessment to seek students’ input about the partnership and how it meets their educational and social needs.
Obstacles and Possibilities
As evident by Uraizee’s, Lynch’s, and Laura’s classes, one of the most pressing obstacles for students using our services is time and course design. For the College Preparatory classes, deadlines were considerably looser, and students were being neither graded nor penalized for their work, allowing more freedom for turning in work late. However, the most successful instance of the partnership to date is in Laura’s class, where the syllabus and deadlines were built intentionally around the timeline needed for students to submit to UWS (given her dual roles as UWS administrator and instructor, Laura was also probably particularly persuasive about the value in using our services, which likely also played a role in our success that semester). For those interested in a partnership of this type and for the longevity of our own partnership, we strongly encourage writing center administrators and educators to collaborate with one another in terms of deadlines and turnaround times and to approach prospective instructors as early as possible (before syllabi have been developed). A partnership requiring an extended turnaround time is significantly more successful when writing center use is built into the course timeline instead of worked in after the fact. For credit-bearing classes in particular, one way the partnership could work quite effectively without causing issues with deadlines is through portfolios. During the course, students would have time to have their work reviewed by writing consultants (as well as the instructor or classmates, if desired) and have the remainder of the course to revise and develop their writing, with the final products submitted to the instructor for grading only once the course has reached its conclusion. Whatever the potential solutions, though, partnerships of this nature require additional outreach, communication, and planning, if not close collaboration.
In addition to working more closely with instructors, UWS is looking forward to serving the SPP students in expanded and new ways, namely through increasing our student outreach and offering alternative consultation opportunities. We hope to extend our services more consistently across all facilities and programs as well as invite the next prison staff cohort to utilize UWS’s digital online services. Other possibilities for expansion—and to circumvent some of the material issues of sending work off site—is to petition the facility and sound out consultant interest to increase VICs, which would allow for on-site tutoring, bringing a stronger SLU presence to our students (whose connection to SLU is often only nominal, primarily through the instructor). Many of the UWS consultants who worked with our students over the past year have expressed interest in becoming more involved, despite the time, training, and travel commitments required. What may be most promising in our future, though, is training some of our on-site students in writing consulting. With HiSet (high school equivalency assessment) tutoring and SPP-assigned teaching assistants in each cohort, the program already has a strong foundation of peer tutoring culture, and empowering students as writers and educators offers them ways to help their peers and communities as well as themselves. A role as UWS consultant would also grant those consultants and the students they work with stronger ties—and more personal ones—to the SLU academic community. With such training, they would ideally see themselves and their peers even more clearly as members of SLU and not just served by SLU. However, as the UWS-SPP partnership moves forward, we will continue to explore the possibilities and various paths of prison and writing center education, wherever they may lead us.
Ultimately, in sharing our experiences in developing, implementing, and growing our prison education partnership, we hope that we have provided insight not only into how to create similar partnerships and increase access in other communities but also in how writing center pedagogy can be shaped and adapted by social and restorative justice to effectively serve diverse students with particular needs and unique learning and writing contexts. The most essential aspect of this partnership in our opinion, is in keeping the rhetorical, pedagogical, physical, and psychological situations of our students at the forefront of our consulting approaches, training, and implementation. We (including our consultants) were ever mindful of precisely who we were providing feedback to, and we tailored what we said—and how we said it—in ways that attempted to always accept and meet the students’ needs in that moment. It takes research—exploring the scholarship of prison pedagogy, in this case. It takes time—consultants often spent two full hours completing one consultation for a handwritten document of just a few short pages. It takes dedication—devoting considerable effort just to form the partnership and to then keep it running. In doing so, though, we have striven to redefine the academic commonplace for incarcerated students and question the ways that incarcerated (or any marginalized) students can be given access to more academic resources. We’ve invited others to recognize these and similar exclusions existing all around us, even (or perhaps especially) those that have been created by commonplaces like on-site prison education programs and students who have been (for whatever reasons) cut off from the support and services vital for their success in the academic community. In identifying this opportunity at SLU, we hope to encourage others to start thinking about similar exclusions happening in their own communities (academic or otherwise). Ideally, this partnership can inspire us and others to continue looking for such exclusions and seek out opportunities to find and redefine our communities as well as writing studies and writing center pedagogy.
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