Author Archive for Audrey Harris

Yucatán Bound

During the course of this seminar, the work that we have done together visualizing and mapping out our projects through project frameworks and these blog posts, writing MOU’s and dialoging about them with our community partners, and considering the feasibility of the project has been very helpful to me. Beginning the project months in advance now seems to me the best way to lay the foundation for a successful project. Writing contracts, schedules, and reflections has prompted me to engage in broader dialogues with friends and mentors with experience in various aspects of this project; for example, I have already met with one experimental documentary filmmaker in my department, Greg Cohen, who has shared permissions forms in Spanish with me, and today after teaching my last class I will meet with a friend from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Brynach Day, to discuss what to expect as I prepare to film.

Likewise, having done all this preparation work I was able to speak in detail with helpful contacts this past weekend at the wedding of Lily Segal and Ben Stokes, who is now Assistant Professor of civic media at American University. His advice: to begin the social media process from the beginning as a kind of conversation, not just at the end when I have what might be considered a finished ‘product,’ to engage the workshop participants and others near to the project in getting the word out, to make it clear what they will be receiving as well as contributing to the project, and to have them interview each other. Lots of great advice that directly addresses my current questions, and I’m not sure if I would have even been in a position to solicit it if I hadn’t already done so much thinking with this group and on my own.

As I go into the field, my one concern at this point is that it coincides with my preparation to enter the job market this fall. I know that in order to position myself to find the widest array of job options, I need to maintain as equally focused on all the leg work for that process as I am on this wonderful summer project. So that I don’t miss the forest for the trees, and so that I can continue to work in the field and be in a position to do this kind of work. Which I love. In other words, I need to approach the job market, and all my projects, with the same kind of systematic approach that has been modeled for me during this seminar.

In terms of staying in touch over the summer, I would love to be able to participate in some kind of forum where we can: a) all link our blogs and websites to be able to read about each other’s progress as they unfold; b) share questions about technology concerns, other issues concerning our community partners as they arise, etc. It would be nice to know that I will have people from this group, professors as well as other students, to consult as things unfold.

All said, I’m grateful to the Mellon Foundation and the U.C. Humanities Institute for having had the opportunity to participate in this group. ¡Les deseo mucha suerte a todos!

 

Stones for Mérida

Because of low accountability, grant funds in academia are sometimes given and projects begun only to sink silently like stones in a still pond. Because this will be my last funded graduate student project, and because I know more now than I knew when I began this long process of obtaining my PhD, I want my work this summer to get out into the world, to be read and seen and heard about and allowed to matter. The responsibility for creating the conditions and the materials for that to happen, first by carrying the project to fruition and then by sending it out into the world through various avenues, rests on my shoulders, and it is one that I willingly accept, particularly knowing all the resources for support that I have. That said, this is what I think I can reasonably accomplish, between now and September:

  1. Prepare the syllabus for the course
  2. Decide on materials that will be read in the class and compile readings
  3. Lead the workshop (2 months, one two-hour session per week) from July-August, 2016
  4. Blog weekly with updates about readings and student work
  5. Produce a book with the SEP (Mexican Secretaria de Educación Publica) composed of the best writings from each student. I will need to begin that process early, consulting with the editors before beginning the workshop in order to think about the best way to solicit and collect the materials I need from the students as we go along.

These are ambitious aims but, with a doctoral dissertation (to be filed in 10 days!) almost completed and a number of syllabi written and courses taught, I feel confident that I can accomplish them. What I have going for me is that I am not trying to reinvent the wheel; rather I am joining an already existing prison writing program. What makes it new is that I can communicate about the experience with a North American audience unfamiliar with that system and hopefully bring new insights to educators and policy-makers in the US as we think about creative writing in prison contexts (English and Spanish speaking) north of the border.

All of this said, watch out pond, prepare for a splash.

Three Intended Publics for this Project

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)

http://www.neh.gov/news/press-release/2015-12-15

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

 

 

 

Why am I Here

This summer I plan to facilitate a women’s creative writing workshop at the CERESO (Centro de Reinserción Social) de Mérida, in the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula. My project is entitled, “Stories from a Mexican Women’s Prison.”

I write, and teach writing, because a story is a place where we can write our truths, and where no one can say that our experience does not count. It is a place where the writer’s version of events, and his or her vision of the world, prevails. Sharing stories, reading our own stories and listening to others, can produce a sense of community with people who know sides of ourselves through our writing that we would never reveal in our daily lives.

As Sandra Cisneros writes in her recent essay collection A House of My Own, writing can also transform suffering into light. For Cisneros, stories are medicine that soothe the soul. While writing my dissertation about Cisneros’s work, I have been inspired by her writing and her ideals but also by her active public engagement. Her work in Chicago’s public schools as a counselor, along with her mentoring of younger writers through the MacArturo writer’s program, in turn informs her writing, particularly in the pieces of The House on Mango Street.

I believe that the short prose-poetry style of The House on Mango Street lends itself to a creative writing workshop setting, as do the short pieces of DreamTigers (El hacedor) by her one of her great literary influences Jorge Luis Borges. I look forward to reading and writing with the women of the CERESO de Mérida, and am excited to have this opportunity to share what I know, to inspire and in turn be inspired by the stories that emerge.

I am also here because I want my academic work to serve others besides myself or even just my institution. I believe the humanities exist to serve a positive and productive purpose in society, and I am interested to learn some of the possibilities for making that happen in a meaningful and responsible way. I am interested in thinking in horizontal rather than top-down terms about this project and would also like to think of ways to facilitate a creative and collaborative environment in the workshop, so that it is a safe space for free and empowered expression.