I agree wholeheartedly with Jeff Dolven’s observation that “much intelligence and talent and imagination is locked up in prisons” (On the Campus, June issue). Like my classmate Clint Van Dusen (Inbox, September issue), I was involved during my undergrad years with the Student Volunteer Council’s program with Joe Tumolo at Yardville Correctional Center (though, unlike Clint, only tutoring and not teaching courses). Over the last eight years I’ve been heavily involved here at Notre Dame in our A.A. and B.A. degree programs at Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility. We draw applicants from four men’s prisons to our Westville program, and we’re in the process of launching a statewide network that will make degrees available at Indiana Women’s Prison.
At Westville I’ve taught Shakespeare, Milton, and Lyric Poetry courses. This term I’m teaching a Shakespeare course in tandem with a Notre Dame colleague teaching a course in Acting Shakespeare. In my courses I’ve found students as intelligent, creative, and hardworking as any I’ve taught in 43 years of teaching university students. One of my best, a first-year student at that, after finishing his term paper on Milton, worked on his own after the term and for no credit expanded the paper into an original, 35-page research paper that was published in Notre Dame’s Journal of Undergraduate Research. Many of the Westville students head my list of the most eager students I’ve ever taught. I’ve hosted the recent and new Notre Dame provosts to the prison to attend classes, and both told me that they weren’t prepared for the intellectual electricity and rigor of the discussions, which took place in acoustically challenging seminar rooms with their peeling paint and barred windows. As a member of the Faculty Steering Committee for our program, I regularly invite colleagues from across the university to teach at the prison, and without exception, those who teach once are hooked and become regulars. As I approach retirement, I plan to continue to teach in our prison program. My traditional Notre Dame students, high achievers from privileged backgrounds, were prepared for and headed to good colleges from their earliest years, and they would have succeeded whatever college they entered. Part of the joy of teaching in the prison program is working with students who would not otherwise ever find themselves in a seminar room, where they find their intellectual legs and gain justified self-confidence in their talents. I not only teach them, I learn with and from them.