Learning Together Unwired

by Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow

30 Jul 2015

Tomorrow we will go into a maximum security prison in Philadelphia without wires in our bras. This is a security measure; a security measure that will cause us significant insecurity! We are going into the prison with a group of like-minded academics interested in running courses whereby students from university and prison learn together. The deregulation of our mammary members is in stark contrast to the overregulation of life in prison. Troubling us are questions around how, as educators, we create ethical spaces for learning that happens through relational connection between university and prisoner students within a penal context. Here are some of our current thoughts and conundrums:

In a prison, how do we create a space of learning where each voice is welcomed in its entirety within parameters that are respectful of all other voices and perspectives while always holding student wellbeing as our guiding ethical concern? What benefits might flow from establishing any necessary parameters through group consensus? An ethical educational space is one, we think, that acknowledges who holds power. Power is dialogically negotiated and legitimacy is cultivated relationally when power is shaped in response to its subjects’ voices. How do we create learning spaces that promote and protect agency and welcome dissent, however uncomfortable? It seems to us that learning environments need to take seriously ‘peripheral’ voices. How can we welcome and explore difference in centralising and supporting rather than marginalising and alienating ways?  Clear learning objectives that provide the framework for dialogue may be key to achieving this. Agreed learning objectives contextualise students’ individualities and communicate the parameters of mutual expectations that provide a basis for recognising and supporting individual needs in ways that are potentiating rather than delimiting. A central challenge is finding ways to foster inclusive communities of learning so that what emerges together is more than what any of us brings individually.

What happens when learning becomes ‘wireless’? What happens when, in order to offer a learning experience to separated populations, together, we have to remove some of the contours that we usually rely on to hold things together? As educators we are struggling with the parameters within which some academics are forced to operate by the institutions in which they work so that they can offer courses where people in prison and people at university study together.

What aspects of our individual personhood should be welcomed in spaces of combined university and prisoner student learning? Perhaps it is important to allow all aspects of who students are and what has formed them, including criminal convictions, to be brought to the learning. What values are communicated when we require students not to use their whole name? At what point must learning together stop, and who should be able to decide this? We think there may be good ethical reasons (including safety: first do no harm) not to obstruct communities of learning from continuing beyond the confines of the classroom and to allow everyone to be present in their full selves. From intergroup contact theory we know that prejudices and stigmas reduce when people come together to work collaboratively. We also know that when stigma and perceptions of stigma reduce, people are more likely to succeed in life after prison. It might be important for the potential of the learning experience that people who study together can meet each other as they are within parameters that are not corrupted by stigmatising risk thinking policies.

How, as educators, do we ensure student wellbeing remains paramount without being paternalistic, infantilising, controlling and overregulating in ways that undermine the potential for good to flow from learning together? There may be circumstances in which risk thinking can exacerbate the very risks we are trying to avoid. Key to ensuring safety is that accountability measures provide a platform upon which all involved can be open and honest about concerns, ethical dilemmas and even failures. How do we permit honesty amongst the academia, in staff and students, about the everyday ethical edgework that is inherent in working with excluded populations? In our work in prisons we have encountered many criminal justice professionals and people living under their supervision who have showed us the value of ethical courage in inviting the best out of each other. We are keen to play our parts in forging a dialogue about the values, ethics and risks of communities of learning and what respecting them can bring to prisons, universities and broader society.

Going wireless doesn’t feel liberating; it feels constrained in ways that are not adequately supportive. Perhaps, all things considered, sometimes overregulation can remove some necessary support. Perhaps it is time we got rewired.

Ruth Armstrong is a British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Criminology. Together with Dr Amy Ludlow she is the co-founder and director of ‘Learning Together’, a course where students from the University of Cambridge study alongside students currently serving time in prison.

Read more by Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow:

What happens when students from universities and prisons learn together?

Learning Together and Improbable Friendship

Sign up to our email newsletters