Audrey Harris

The readings we have done for this course provide several ways to think about ‘publics’ and how academics can engage them as part of our work. The closest description I came across in our readings to my project appears in the description of one of the types of projects offered by the NEH’s Humanities in the Public Square program: “public programs that use creative formats, such as book or film discussion programs, local history projects, scholarly talks or courses for lifelong learners, to engage the public or specific audiences in sustained conversations on a literary theme.” My project will include a book discussion program combined with time for creative writing, is designed for adult or life-long learners, and its first audience (or public) will be comprised of female inmates of the CERESO de Mérida.

Another type of program approved as public scholarship by the NEH involves “the creation and dissemination of educational resources that will extend the reach of the content developed for the public forum and public programs through digital resources or curricular materials for use by teachers, students, and lifelong learners.” This statement has encouraged me to think first, about my second audience, which is the public readership for my blog, as in part comprised of other people engaged in public scholarship and seeking models for their own work. Secondly, it made me think about how my blog could provide a template for other teachers of creative writing, in prison settings and elsewhere, to employ stories by Sandra Cisneros and Jorge Luis Borges as conversation pieces and models to spark students’ own writings. I imagine structuring the blog by first including the story (or an excerpt) used in the day’s class, then the questions that arose from it or the stylistic limit it imposes, and then some samples of students’ own writings from that day’s class. Such a blog would combine a showcase of student work with a pedagogical creative writing model for public scholars and writing teachers.

In “Seven Rules for Public Humanities,” Steven Lubar replaces the word ‘public’ with ‘community,’ suggesting that public scholars enter and aid in the aims of existing ‘community organizations’ and that they enter into these communities by asking “What are you doing already, and how can we participate? How can we be useful?” It’s not about you (the public scholar), and it’s not about telling facts, “it’s about a dialogue, a sharing of authority, knowledge, expertise.” These points lead me to another idea: that my blog not record my experience and impressions in the prison, but rather dedicate itself to recording the experiences of the inmates. What does the prison look like through the eyes of the people who live there, is really a much more interesting question than what it looks like through the eyes of a visitor. My role is to be the facilitator, they are the artists. Lubar suggests, (and here he articulates my own goals) that by collaborating with artists, the public scholar “becomes part of the community culture, supports it, and helps a larger public appreciate it.”

As I think about a third potential public for this project, it is people in the US who are interested in prison culture and in introducing arts into prison systems, who might benefit from learning about the extensive already existing creative writing programs for inmates in Mexican prisons, which include series of books of stories by inmates published by the Secretaria de Educación Pública (SEP). This program, to which I will contribute, is already getting at the aims of public scholarship (entering into a dialogue, sharing authority) and of public art (not just for the public, but something that comes from the public) in ways that US prison writing programs have not to my knowledge achieved.

Lubar describes the job of public scholar as being a translator. As an English/Spanish blogger, I have the opportunity to share these existing Mexican programs and how they work with a US audience that may be looking for new alternative prison education models to follow. Along similar lines, Walter Lippmann has written “vertically the actual binding of society…is accomplished by those who move in and out” of society, and that through personal contacts these people cause standards to circulate among different groups. Position and contact largely are what determine “what can be seen, heard, read and experienced, as well as what is permissible to see, hear, read and know.” Within this context, it is our job to “liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious and open-hearted.” Because as he says “a great deal of confusion arises when people decline to classify themselves as we have classified them.” In this case, real space, real time, real connections are more valuable than stereotypes, or how we might seek to define others, their stories or their needs and wants from the outside. I view my work this summer as a Mellon Public Scholar as an opportunity to move in and out–of the criminal justice system, of the United States and Mexico–in order to circulate new perceptions of prison life and of the women who live it, as well as options for improving conditions now and imagining alternative futures, across the boundaries of prison walls and the US-Mexico border.

Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. (1922)

Lubar, Steven. “Seven Rules for Public Humanists.” (2014)