By Edward Shore
Reading World Literature is an educational initiative established in 2014 by the Graduate Comparative Literature Students’ Organization (GRACL) at the University of Texas at Austin that offers literature courses to incarcerated students at the Travis County Correctional Complex. Kaitlin Shirley (Ph.D. Candidate, Comparative Literature) launched the Reading World Literature program after she was inspired by an article that appeared in the Washington Post about graduate students at the University of Virginia who taught Russian literature at a juvenile detention facility. GRACL offered its first course on Balzac’s Father Goirot in August 2014. Graduate teachers and undergraduate TA’s have since taught ten courses at a pre-trial facility in Travis County. Each course lasts four to six weeks and focuses on a single text. Students have engaged in vibrant discussions about the text and how it applies to contemporary society. According to Shirley, students at the pre-trial facility consistently provide fresh perspectives on classic texts. In the process, students have influenced the way Shirley and her fellow graduate teachers approach about their own work. Thinking in Public caught up with Kaitlin Shirley to learn more about this remarkable initiative.
What is Reading World Literature and what was the inspiration for this project?
Reading World Literature is an educational initiative that I began after reading an article in the Washington Post about a program at the University of Virginia that teaches Russian Literature in a juvenile detention facility. One student told an anecdote about how one time another young man had hassled him and instead of his usual response he then handed him a copy of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and said “Come back to me after you’ve read this, and then we’ll talk.” This is the effect I have always felt, seen, read about, and experienced in my work with literature. As we say in our mission statement, the goal is to use our training to put the human back in humanities and to expand our work beyond the university into our community.
Why did you choose Russian literature as a focus?
So far there has been a big focus on Russian literature with some French in the mix because this is what I and my fellow teachers work on, and we want to really know our texts.. The instructors choose their texts in conjunction with their students. As an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, we would interview our teachers and they would interview us to see if their class would be a good fit. This gives students and teachers alike an opportunity to get the most out of our participation.
What does a typical class session look like?
Discussion. We often use the model of summarizing what happens, followed by what stood out, and then we work on analyses and interpretations of the text based on that. We have serious discussions as well as more light-hearted, depending on the day. We’ll break into small groups sometimes because there is more engagement from the students who are on the quiet side when the whole class discusses together. As in our UT classes, the small groups give the students a low-stakes context to put forward an interpretation.
What can you tell me about the students who are enrolled in the program? What do you think they gain from their participation in the course?
On the first day of any course I ask everyone to say their name, favorite book/author/genre/etc., and why they signed up. My answers are Wuthering Heights and because they are great students. Their responses to the last question are all something along the lines of “I wanted to see what this course was about, broaden my horizons, learn about new literature and history, etc.” They are enthusiastic students. I had to warn against spoiler alerts because some of them would finish the book between the first and second class.
I think there is a moment when they begin to see some things in a new light and, although I could never say when exactly that is, the feedback I have received has been very positive. One of the education coordinators at the jail told me that the student participants reflect on the choices they can make and the agency that they acquire with that change in perspective is visible and tangible. They can receive a certificate of completion for their participation but so far, we haven’t been able offer UT course credit due to the nature of the facility as pre-trial. That is something we hope to be able to do in the future at a longer-term facility.
You have said that students share unique perspectives that have “opened your eyes to new ways of reading beloved texts.” Can you elaborate?
We talk a lot in class about how to apply the concepts and themes of the text to contemporary life. I recall the second class of my first course, my co-teacher was not there that day so it was just me. We were talking about Balzac’s Père Goriot and social codes. I asked if anyone could give me an example of someone making a faux pas because they did not know the code of the world they were in at that moment. A student answered, “well, you didn’t know the code when you came in here. You told us the rules yesterday like we didn’t know them.” This was a perfect moment as a teacher because I had just been told about myself, my privilege checked, the material had been digested and the question was answered on the nose.
What has surprised you the most about your experience teaching at a pre-trial facility?
How little surprises me. Once you go through the facility once, it’s the same as anywhere else. The classes are in a different location than UT, they have a different structure and approach, but every single course has been rewarding in terms of my learning and teaching experience.
Why do you think this work is important and how does it benefit your own research and teaching?
I work on Dostoevsky. He did hard time in Siberia after facing a mock execution in front of the firing squad, hood over his head and tied to the post. After he got out he wrote a book called Notes from the House of the Dead about the hardships, both physical and mental, and how much he learned living amongst those whom he once thought to simply be criminals. Imprisonment became a major theme in his work; he once said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” and I agree. The benefit to my research is that it widens the breadth of my personal understanding of the topic and it has brought me into contact with people from worlds that I have limited experience interacting with. This work has put the division of disciplines, communities, and society into a new light and I have become a more compassionate person. My fellow teachers have expressed the same things.