Vignette: The Field & The Force: Notes from Prison Teaching

Cory Holding

“Our freedoms and privileges are so fragile.”

—Phillip Foxx


The Field

In Spring 2018, I taught “Writing for Change” at a prison. The course comprised half incarcerated students and half traditional undergraduates. The prison administration required us to meet in the visiting room in the front building. The night of our first class, the guest speaker, Pitt students, and I waited 45 minutes as the inside students trickled in, one by one. We then held our first discussion on “writing for change.” An inside student joked that if he didn’t believe in that premise, he wouldn’t subject himself to “processing into” the visiting room—which I learned that night would entail a strip search in advance of every class.

Many times in my short career I have referenced “our field.” I tend to imagine the field as a “who”—scholars handling similar questions, responding to like exigencies—not a “where.” But the above situation now suggests to me at least three qualities of the field’s physicality and our work. One, the field is a place, as characterized by boundary as by area encompassed. Two, as etymology suggests, the field is a battleground. On it, a sustained fight—“a tenacious struggle to achieve or resist something” (OED). Three, the field is itself a force. In physics, “field” is described as “the region in which a particular condition prevails, especially one in which a force or influence is effective regardless of the presence or absence of a material medium” (OED). 

The students wrote onto the field. The class project became trying to get out of the visiting room. Students co-authored a letter to the prison administration that argued for moving the class. That appeal did eventually succeed. These student writers’ presence, words, and work are some of many imperatives to writing activism—justice work through shared writing endeavors. I believe “our field” is uniquely positioned to answer that call.


The Force

Michael Dillon writes of the drive, fundamental to our present governmental systems, to “secure security” itself, as a story to be protected above and against the human being. This creates a set of paradoxical security systems that “incarcerate rather than liberate; radically engender fear rather than liberate; and engender fear rather than create assurance” (15). As a prison abolitionist, I aim to work against the systems from (somewhat) within them. As a writing researcher, I aim to collaborate with incarcerated scholars to do this. From student writers in carceral spaces, I have learned that it is crucial, when possible, to extend “writing activism” to scholarship—for writing research in prisons to be deeply and at all stages collaborative, conducted not only by writing researchers, but also, and especially, by incarcerated scholars walking alongside. This means not only quoting from students’ work, or even co-writing, but working together to form the research question, to think through research methods, to process critical feedback, and to imagine interventions, implications, and next steps. The potential is captured by incarcerated scholar Henry Townes, who says, “To share work is to share power.”

Works Cited

Dillon, Michael. Politics of Security: Towards a Political Philosophy of Continental Thought. Routledge UP, 2002.

Oxford English Dictionary. “field, n.” and “battle, n.” OED Online. Oxford UP. December 2019.