#2: Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement

Sanna Sharp
Feb 18 · 4 min read

Instructed by Dr. Hilary Binda at Tufts University

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College students sometimes say that school can feel like a prison — particularly during midterm season. But students enrolled in Dr. Hilary Binda’s Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement course at Tufts University know the difference.

That’s because the course operates using an “inside-out” model, with Tufts students taking the literature class alongside incarcerated individuals at a medium-security prison in Concord, Massachusetts. The class examines writings which reflect on the nature of confinement, while fostering a sense of community unrestricted by some participants’ prison sentences.

Binda serves as Founder and Director of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College, which aims to alleviate the problem of mass incarceration within the United States.

#2: Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement

School: Tufts University

Course: Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement

Instructor: Dr. Hilary Binda

Course Description:

The Literature of Confinement will be run as an Inside-Out™ class composed of Tufts (“outside”) students and incarcerated (“inside”) students in equal numbers and taught at the prison in Shirley, MA. Together we will ask: How have writers from different historical periods, regions, cultures, and genders (for example, Frederick Douglass, Henrik Ibsen, James Joyce, Lorraine Hansberry, Suzan-Lori Parks) understood experiences of confinement and freedom? What are some of the effects on human beings of different kinds of confinement — economic, educational, legal, physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and social? How do these texts also help us understand various forms of resistance?

A weekly focus on engaged interactive learning across cultural, social, and literal barriers in addition to the regular practice of self-reflection through journal writing and creative writing assignments will enable students to develop a qualitative knowledge about power and possibilities in the face of social injustice and structural inequalities. This course aims to facilitate expanded literacy, widely defined, as well as learning about deep differences while also enabling the creation of bonds between people through shared acts of interpretation and imagination.

Ask the Instructor: Dr. Hilary Binda

Dr. Hilary Binda, courtesy of Tufts University

Why did you elect to offer this course at Tufts?

I have run this class for the past 4 years in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Correction as what is called an “Inside-Out” class. I have established a separate admissions process for this class in order to admit 10 Tufts students and 10 people incarcerated at the prison where the class meets weekly.

The class is designed to foster co-learning between incarcerated and non-incarcerated students in relation to literary studies and the many issues raised by the texts I have included as “literature of confinement.” These include work by Frederick Douglass, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Lorraine Hansberry, Suzan-Lori Parks and chapters from Nancy Heitzeg’s School to Prison Pipeline.

All students receive credit from Tufts and no one is serving in a tutorial role.

Is Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement offered within the department in which you usually teach?

It has been run through Visual and Critical Studies, my current department, and also runs or cross-lists through American Studies and Civic Studies and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. I generally teach classes across these departments.

What do you ultimately hope that your students take away from participating in Mass Incarceration?

This course works powerfully to break down stereotypes in both groups, the incarcerated and non-incarcerated. The course facilitates relationship-building through small group work and shared writing and thus enables each group to see the other beyond the images they receive through the media of uppity rich college students, predominantly white, and “criminals,” predominantly people of color. The college students do readings in advance to educate themselves about the prison industrial complex and the structural racism that supports it.

It is my hope that all students have their futures impacted as well as, particularly in the case of Tufts students, their sense of responsibility to working for social justice specifically with respect to the prison system.

It is also my hope that people serving time end up feeling more in community with people on the outside and that all students’ sense of their own ability to make a difference in the world by making a difference in peoples’ lives increases. That’s all.

If you could teach a course on any topic at all, what would it be?

This is the most significant course for me that I have taught in 30 years of teaching. I am in the process of designing another course in order to make it possible for students to take it again reading different literary texts.

NEXT: #1: Cell Phone Cinema

We’re highlighting seventeen of the most innovative university courses offered this academic year. For the full list of courses, click here.


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Sanna Sharp

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