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“Subversive Play” in Prison

4707_jessica_headshot_2Jessica Blatt teaches political science at Marymount Manhattan College, where she also coordinates the Politics and Human Rights program. Her current book project, The Best in Their Blood: Race and the American Science of Politics, is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Since the theme of Mark Carnes’s essay was skepticism, I’ll address another qualm that instructors may have about “Reacting to the Past.” It goes like this: “RTTP may be fine for Barnard students, but it will be another story with students at my commuter school/community college/underfunded public institution,” etc. They won’t have the preparation. They won’t be able to handle The Republic or Locke’s Second Treatise after just one or two class sessions. Their jobs, kids, long or unaffordable bus commutes, and other obligations will mean some key player drops out at a pivotal moment, students miss key classes, or everyone falls fall behind the fast pace of the games. (No all-nighters at the library for mom.)

I won’t bother to argue this point. These hazards are real. I can almost guarantee it will be another story. I will submit, though, that RTTP can still be a good story, and in many ways even a more powerful one, with no ivy (or close relatives of sitting presidents!) as far as the eye can see.

Most of the time, I teach at a private, four-year college in New York City. I use RTTP there, and it’s much as Carnes describes (except that I devote several more class sessions to “setup”). However, this past semester, for the first time, I taught a Reacting-based class at a maximum-security prison.

That setting posed all the problems above, in one version or another. I was teaching two games, one set in Athens in 403 BC, another in New York on the eve of the Revolutionary War. My students were clearly bright (some brilliant), but their preparation was uneven, and we were jumping straight into Plato. A few students had graduated from conventional high school or attended some college before prison. Others had done GED’s while incarcerated. They could be confined to their cells for small infractions, or worse. They worked full time. Computer facilities were limited; internet research, an impossibility. (The tireless college program staff worked hard to maintain a useful library, and students could access some scholarly articles via a closed database in the college program’s library). What’s more, being in prison, much like being poor on “the outside,” turns out to be time-consuming. For example, inmates are allowed to circulate only at specific times. This means that no errand is ever quick—once you get where you are going, you have to wait there until you are allowed to move again. So a trip to the library during your limited free time may mean having to wait a day or more to accomplish some other task.

And indeed, students dropped out. (I lost one, heartbreakingly, to months in solitary confinement.) Everyone missed at least one class, and some missed several. A few struggled with the material. (Others, it must be noted, excelled.) These things caused all sorts of logistical problems: the careful balance of the “factions” would be thrown off when a student disappeared; a crucial issue might be fumbled when the student meant to introduce hadn’t finished a paper; I was always on tenterhooks at the beginning of class, wondering if some crucial player would arrive. With all the uncertainties, I couldn’t rely too heavily on the careful construction of the games.

Thankfully, the students were with me. They wanted the games to succeed, too. So when we had to improvise, they went along, imagining solutions, picking up extra duties, or propping up faction mates as needed. Sometimes I assumed a role and interjected a key point. More often, I’d pass out scraps of paper, feeding lines or prompts to make sure things found their way back to some plausible trajectory. It wasn’t always a well-oiled machine, but it got us where we needed to go.

My students worked hard to write clear, convincing essays in order to persuade possible allies or show up their opponents. Obstacles aside, they did the research, not wanting to let down their faction-mates. Strong students mentored weaker ones. All debated issues of politics, power, order, the place of violence in social life, the obligations of citizens to one another and to outsiders. They formed new perspectives on historical events they thought they knew, and some they’d never heard of. In short, they did all the things one hopes students will do in college: engage seriously with big ideas and major texts, and improve their research, writing, and public speaking skills.

They remarked on these accomplishments during our “post-morterm” discussion. I thought, too, they might have liked being listened to, or feeling part of something important, even if it was only make-believe. That may well have been the case. But what they wanted to talk about was the pleasure they had taken in working together–in “making friends.” Students at more privileged institutions get those opportunities in fraternities and sororities, clubs, extracurricular activities, dorm life, late-night study sessions, and the countless other features of college life that many of us remember far more vividly than our actual classes. However for these incarcerated students, much as for the overburdened, under-resourced students at so many institutions, chances to play together were few and far between. I suspect that’s why my students worked so hard and were so willing to help me when things threatened to go south. It’s certainly why I think RTTP has something important to offer outside the elite setting in which it was conceived.