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Undergrads learn about humanity first-hand by studying philosophy with incarcerated individuals

Undergrads learn about humanity first-hand by studying philosophy with incarcerated individuals

UTSA's Philosophy and Literature Circle is an experiential learning program that allows students to participate in philosophical discussion with incarcerated individuals. This photo is from a May 11 celebration of the program that included participants, their loved ones, staff at the jail, and UTSA student and faculty volunteers.

(June 17, 2019) -- Reading Homer, Plato and other ancient classics happens on college campuses, but a new experiential learning opportunity at UTSA allows students to experience the transformative possibilities of a humanities and liberal arts education with incarcerated participants at a state jail in San Antonio.

The Philosophy and Literature Circle, an experiential learning pilot program, was created by Mel Webb, a lecturer in the UTSA Department of Philosophy and Classics and Honors College.

Throughout the spring semester, Webb along with their 15 students, several of whom are in the Honors College, traveled to the Fabian Dale Dominquez State Jail located on the southwest side of San Antonio for academic engagement with 13 incarcerated participants.

Some incarcerated participants completed their GED at the jail just a few months prior, while several others have not been in an educational setting for years or, in some cases, decades.

This course gave the incarcerated participants a sense of pride by creating an opportunity to accomplish something out of the ordinary.

As a post-secondary educational opportunity, the Philosophy and Literature Circle is designed for incarcerated participants who have earned their high school diploma or GED to hone their skills in critical thinking, ethical reasoning, interpersonal communication, and self-expression — all while exploring their own place within the history of humanity and discovering how they might uniquely contribute to the flourishing of their communities.

According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, postsecondary education opportunities in prisons correlate with a 46% reduction in recidivism. Yet, the transformative effects of education are immediately apparent as program participants take their readings and reflections back to the dorm and initiate intellectual conversations with their cellmates and others, shifting the culture at the jail.

A typical session at the jail included Webb and a small group of UTSA student volunteers meeting with the participants in a classroom.

The session would often begin with the reading of a poem or a writing prompt. Texts like Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, short stories by Langston Hughes, and Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness,” to name a few, were read during the course.

The students and participants would break into small groups to discuss the texts and share their insights with one another.

“Working with the incarcerated participants was the most interesting and enriching educational experience I have had at UTSA. They were some of the most intelligent, kind and real people I have interacted with,” explained Kaylee De Tender, a junior in the UTSA Honors College who is majoring in criminal justice and psychology with a minor in politics and law.

UTSA students also learned about the history of incarceration in America, how the prison system works and the importance of being civically engaged and recognizing the grand societal challenges that exist in the city, state, country and world.

“The task of learning is never complete, and we all need continued opportunities to grow in our understanding of ourselves, one another, and our shared world,” explained Webb. “UTSA undergraduates are truly gaining a deeper understanding of the human experience and the incarcerated participants feel a sense of accomplishment and resilience for finishing a rigorous program of study.”

“I learned that we can't always judge a book by its cover and that there is always more to the story than what we are told,” replied Michelle Kisz, a UTSA student who completed the course in the Spring of 2019 and who is studying politics and law. “I could tell that we truly changed the minds and outlook for some of the participants by just being there, and giving them a chance, to learn with them, not only helped them but helped me too.”

The participants shared how they benefitted from the course. Here are a few short reflections from those who earned a Certificate of Completion at the end of the program:

The knowledge and wisdom you have bestowed upon us I will forever have with me and I want to thank you for taking the time out of your life to give us a chance when not a lot of other people would.

I feel like this program has helped me become a better communicator and writer through the written reflections and peer reviews. Some of the poetry and readings were very interesting and educational as well.

The UTSA student volunteers were great and gave us a chance, and they came into the class with an open mind which was nice. I didn’t personally think the classmates would have so much in common but I was surprised…and I got to dig deep down on my own beliefs that I never really thought about.

Webb says the response to the program has been so positive that there is a wait list to get more incarcerated participants involved this summer and fall. With the successful completion of the pilot program, the Honors College and the Department of Philosophy and Classics have reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the experiential learning program continues to run at Dominguez State Jail.

“Prison can be a mentally starving place. We are sharing literature that says something substantial about what it’s like to be human and provides insight as we each seek wisdom and strength for the many journeys we’re taking through this life. That’s what philosophy is about — the love, the pursuit of wisdom," explained Webb.

Kara Soria

Learn more about the UTSA Honors College.

Learn more about the UTSA Department of Philosophy and Classics.

Learn more about the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts.

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