Tattooing Scar Tissue: Making Meaning in the Prison Classroom

Dr. Anna Plemons
Department of English Colloquium Series
Washington State University
March 27th, 2015

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. For my part of this panel, I want to say a word about salvation narratives and tell two stories that help illustrate why we ought to look for something other than individual narratives of transformation when we look at prison writing classrooms. I am talking about prison classrooms because that is our topic today, but I hope you will be able to see how the conversation here might inform something in your own experience even if you do not imagine yourself ever teaching in a prison.

For me, one thing that is instructive about the film At Night I Fly, which some of you were able to see last night, is that there is no particular progress for the inmates who participated in the Arts and Corrections program. We see negotiations, important moments of individual humanity, and human connection, but without any closure or trajectory. The subtitle, Images from New Folsom, reminds us that the film doesn’t promise a story. In that way, it stands in stark contrast to the glut of salvation narratives written by both incarcerated students and prison teachers.

Part of the scholarly critique of prison programming, particularly writing-based programming is that it often keeps the focus on the individual and not the systemic issues of incarceration. This attention to the individual is maintained in large part by explicit and implicit encouragement of salvation narratives. In Right to Be Hostile, Erica Mieners (2007) offers an example from the genre:

“I was born; I had problems; I made the wrong choices; I was apprehended by the police; I was incarcerated; I found God [or writing] and He [it] helped me. And…my life is now on a better track” (139).

A salvation narrative is a tale of linear progress from the negative past to the positive future. I would like to suggest that, for writing teachers, there are two related (and particularly troubling) factors that contribute to the writing and circulations of such texts:

1. Our theories of writing carry a western ideology of progress
2. The tools we use to evaluate writing do the same

Composition scholar Raul Sánchez (2006) says that we have yet to develop a theory of writing. I say at least we haven’t found one that is truly decolonial, by which I mean one that works against the colonial impulse to enter a community for the express purpose of changing something there (and probably taking things as well). And I don’t think we can until we come to terms with the ways our existing theories and tools of measurement demand narratives of progress (and here, of course we are not only talking about prison classrooms).

In past attempts to have this talk, this is usually the point where people start gnashing their teeth—and for good reason. The idea of the teacher as pastoral guide or at least post-modern facilitator or conduit of transformation is a closely held disciplinary value and part of the explicit history of our education system (Hunter). To borrow Sharon Crowley’s words, here is the point when folks usually ask, “Then what is [writing] good for?” What’s the point? Or, if we are talking about the prison, people say, “But prison is so terrible, how can you not want to help?”

But therein lies the problem—the teacherly impulse to help, for most of us, developed inside the Western cultural logic of progress. We have been taught that things are supposed to get better. Or at least go somewhere. In the preface to The Idea of Progress, J.B. Bury, writing in 1920, said it this way,

We may believe in the doctrine of Progress or we may not, but in either case it is a matter of interest to examine the origins and trace the history of what is now, even should it ultimately prove to be no more than an idolum saeculi, the animating and controlling idea of western civilization.

To understand the injurious western obsession with progress we can turn to scholars such as Vine Deloria, V. F. Cordova, and Walter Mignolo. A host of other scholars have written on decolonial options in academic design (Maracle 1990; Hampton 1995; Atkinson 2001; Weber-Pillwax 1999, Mihesuah and Wilson 2004, Wilson 2008, Tuhiwai Smith 2012; Haas 2007, 2012). We can even look to our own colleagues. You may remember that Dr. Arola gave a colloquium talk earlier this year on Slow Composition as a methodology for helping students deal more mindfully with texts.

An active unmasking of the colonial obsession with progress should be at the center of our reflections on what and how we teach. Particularly in the prison, when writing teachers set the timetable for growth and work to measure it (think pre- and post- surveys) they ask incarcerated writers to tell narratives of progress that might hinder or even stymie deeper, slower, more personally meaningful work. Here I think it is worth noting that many of the incarcerated writers I have met at New Folsom understand narratives of transformation as a currency of sorts for granting agencies, donors, and the like. They are happy to play the game that keeps teachers coming inside. They are happy to transforms on schedule if it helps with the funding. But I do not believe that student complicity absolve a teacher.

I want to tell you a story about Jack to illustrate why condensed timelines for measurable individual transformation set by teachers cant work in the way we want them to. If you saw the film you will recognize Jack as the white guy in the Men’s Group scene. The heated conversation that ensues is in response to a comment by Jack where he indicates that, although the classroom camaraderie and mutual respect is important to him, he is as yet unwilling to acknowledge his cross-racial friendships on the yard with its rigid, and often bloody, racialized codes. That scene was likely filmed in 2003.

I met Jack in an intensive journaling class seven years later in 2010. In my class he wrote about an event where inmates ate with visiting community members. Real food was served—sandwiches with lunchmeat, mayo, fresh lettuce and tomato. Jack wrote about a moment in which he takes the last sandwich only to have a black inmate ask him to split it. He draws the reader into his very real and serious dilemma. In the piece Jack ponders the consequences and trajectory of this one act. In the end he splits the sandwich.

When he finished reading the piece, another writer in the group, Eugene, admitted that he was the man which whom Jack shared the sandwich. Eugene told Jack how important that moment was for him and marked it as significant in his own process of building cross-racial trust. They stood to hug.

As I witnessed the event I did not understand that Jack had been weighing the choice to publicly out himself as a wavering white supremacist for the better part of a decade. And when I realized how long it took Jack to make the choice to share the sandwich and then eventually write about it, I knew that the expedited, individual transformational processes we foist upon incarcerated writers are at best a sham and at worst a violence.

Even in this story we may be tempted to focus on Jack’s alleged individual transformation. Instead I would like us to focus on how, over the course of ten years, Jack used his classroom opportunities to join a community in deeper and deeper ways. I don’t know that Jack was transformed; he was transferred shortly after the sandwich incident. But I do know that while Jack was at New Folsom grappled in very real ways with issues of relationality and relational accountability and did end up building relationships of consequence.

So, what can we do?

I think we can look for theories that eschew deeply sedimented western ideologies of progress and methodologies and measurements of value that are much less concerned with individual writers and individual texts. I suggest we start with scholars like those mentioned earlier and look for the ways such scholars can help us pay more attention to relationships and communities. I do think we can develop ethical ways to measure and evaluate what we see without the colonial hyperfocus on the individual.

You will remember that the title of my talk is “Tattooing Scar Tissue.” I think the metaphor works when we think about the type of work many incarcerated writers are trying to do.

A few tips for tattooing scar issue:

1. Generally speaking, scar tissue takes ink better if you wait—sometimes for years. There is no hurrying it to readiness.
2. Ink tends to bleed more in scar tissue, so its best to make design choices that require less detail. For example, a wizard beard will work better than a face.
3. Strategic tattooing is a bona fide strategy some folks use for covering up scars.

I think each of these helpful hints—taking it slow, making design choices that work with the material reality of the landscape, and understanding that some tattoos are meant to hide older skin stories—help us see why rhetorics of progress profoundly limit the types of actions we can value or talk about in the classroom. Using the metaphor of tattooing scar tissue we see that a rhetoric of progress cannot make sense of many nuanced, complicated, relational contexts for writing or acknowledge the furrows, folds, and taut patches which co-author meaning. So we need a different theory—one more closely focused on how the writer, and the place, and the other writers, and the life stories are related. Indigenous scholars speak of an “always already relationality” to things. Vine Deloria and V. F. Cordova help us see that the goal is not so much for us to build better relationships, but rather to recognize that people and things are already related. And the relatedness of things, and the affordances of paying attention to writing-in-relationship, is worth studying. An obsession with linear progress works against our paying attention in this way.

A starting point, then, for dispensing with rhetorics of progress might be a rejection of the metaphor of linearity. In Research as Ceremony, Indigenous scholar Shawn Wilson suggests circular instead of linear paradigms for thinking about movement. Wilson calls for research methodologies “whose purpose is the strengthening of relationships and/or the bridging of distance” (11). Wilson’s metaphor asks us to develop methodologies that closely attend to the community and respect the relationships that exist therein. Such methodologies purposefully look for ways to respect and support community members. There is no trajectory towards something beyond or outside.

Let’s see how we might use Wilson’s theory to understand one last story about a writer named Adam. On the first day I met Adam, I started the class by asking the writers in the group what they wanted to do. Because I am only a guest teacher, I felt strongly that my main job was to help writers build for themselves a writing space that would support their own goals. Adam blurted out, “God, you must be the worst teacher ever! What grade do you teach?” I laughed at his good-natured grouchy act and reported that I teach at a university. “Okay good,” he said. “Because I was just picturing you in a room with a bunch of little kids totally running around going crazy, yelling and shit.” I appreciated Adam’s push-back and as I got to know him better I learned that, despite his performance of feigned annoyance, Adam was a talented writer and a natural leader in the group. He ended up choosing the writing topic for the night and when he read his piece the next day he made everyone—including himself—cry.

Using Wilson, we can interpret this snapshot of Adam writing, not as a linear transformation but rather as a circling back, a going deeper, a movement towards an Adam that Adam already was. I don’t think he was changed in a fundamental sense. But I do think that that particular set of events helped Adam become more of himself and allowed him to identify himself more strongly in the writing community. So, the writing had meaning. And I, as the teacher, had a place in the action. But I don’t get credit for making things better. And I don’t presume Adam was moved in a linear way through his experiences as a writer in my class.

The paradigmatic distinction between the circle and the line matters. If the types of writing we ask incarcerated writers to do and the way we measure what they are doing does indeed make use of colonial theories of progress and equally colonial structures of measurement, then teacherly practice is at odds with teacherly intention. If those things are true, and if we want to do decolonial work we will need to see the sedimented coloniality in our practice and listen to those scholars who have been pointing out where our ways of knowing and way of doing are at odds with our very best intentions and the social justice projects closest to our hearts. Thank you.