2016 Winner: Matthew Whitt
Land of the Free: Liberty, Justice, and Imprisonment in the U.S.
My Writing 101 course, “Land of the Free,” introduces students to academic writing and reflective civic engagement by asking them to examine the values that infuse public discourse (such as liberty, equality, and human dignity) in relation to the punitive practices of the U.S. criminal justice system. The intellectual question driving the course is: How can a nation that celebrates “liberty and justice for all” imprison more people than any other country in the world, in ways that echo entrenched forms of race, class, and gender inequality? To grapple with this question, students examine philosophical theories of freedom and justice in comparison to widely accepted criminal justice practices. This friction between ideals and reality prompts students to articulate their own ethical and political positions regarding some of today’s most controversial issues.
In addition to the writing pedagogy goals that inform all Writing 101 classes, “Land of the Free” was designed to achieve three specific aims. First, I wanted to introduce students to philosophical argumentation and make a case for philosophy’s relevance to everyday life. Second, I wanted student writers to be accountable not only to the instructor, but also to their own high standards, their peers, and audiences beyond the classroom. This meant removing myself somewhat from the center of feedback and evaluation, as well as introducing students to visiting speakers—academic experts and individuals directly affected by mass incarceration—who could teach them what I cannot. Third, I wanted the final writing project to accommodate students’ own wide-ranging intellectual interests, while nonetheless ensuring that they produced rigorous and reflective scholarship.
Three major assignments made up the backbone of the course. First, in a 4-6-page analytical essay, students critically examined philosophical theories of freedom and punishment in connection to concrete practices like solitary confinement and mandatory minimum sentencing. Across three distinct drafts, they collaborated with their peers, embedded writing consultants, and me. This multiplicity of reviewers required students to make reflective choices about which feedback they would integrate in their final revisions. Although my comments were still important, most students did not automatically defer to my suggestions. In their revision memos, they assessed their collaboration and reflected on their own writing habits. We concluded the project by discussing best practices that students could use beyond our class.
For the second major assignment, students published four reading responses on our class blog, and responded to their peers’ posts. I was apprehensive about the difficulties of administering a blog, but it transformed the typical circulation of informal writing (from the student to me, then back again with comments) into an open-ended exchange spanning several sections of the course. In posts and especially in comments, students situated their views in relation to their peers’, shared resources, and connected class discussions to work in other courses. Best of all, I could review the blog while preparing for class, so that the day’s discussion would acknowledge student writing and respond to the conversation already happening online.
The last six weeks of the course were devoted to the third major assignment, an independent research paper through which students could pursue their own intellectual interests, so long as they related to some aspect of the course. For instance, one student explored the role of educational inequality in the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. Another student argued that the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act eroded meaningful oversight of the U.S. prison system. A third student elaborated the concept of “tactical food” to describe how prisons use a disgusting food composite—Nutraloaf—to turn prisoners’ own bodily needs into a form of punishment. As in previous semesters, this extended project was supported with scaffolding assignments, including a project statement, an annotated bibliography, and a small-group peer review workshop. For 2015-2016, however, I experimented with new ways to guide students through the early stages of the writing process.
Thanks to funding from Duke’s Humanities Writ Large initiative, the 2015-2016 iterations of the course linked to a public lecture series on mass incarceration, which I organized with Jessica Namakkal from International Comparative Studies. Additionally, “Land of the Free” students participated in close-knit workshops with the visiting speakers. In Fall 2015, students discussed the ethics of solitary confinement with Lisa Guenther, a philosopher whose work they had previously studied. In Spring 2016, they met with Vesla Weaver, an expert on policing and democratic citizenship. During these workshops, students pitched their own research projects to the visiting speakers, and it was exciting to see them position themselves as scholars in conversation with experts. Moreover, a first-year writing seminar is often a student’s first introduction to rigorous intellectual inquiry. For this reason, it was important that the course featured a plurality of intellectuals to demystify academic life and make it compelling to a diverse body of students.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the course was an informal workshop with LaMonte Armstrong, a local teacher who served more than 16 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder, until he was granted a pardon of innocence in 2013. More than any other visiting speaker– and certainly more than any academic text– Mr. Armstrong made real the ethics of incarceration and struggles for freedom. As with all aspects of the course, there was no ‘right’ conclusion for students to draw from Mr. Armstrong’s experiences, so long as they approached the tough questions with intellectual integrity, open curiosity, respectful collegiality, and rigorous thinking.
At the end of my writing courses, I ask students to add an “Acknowledgements” section to their final papers. This encourages them to review their work across the whole semester and name the collaborators, interlocutors, and audiences who have enriched their thinking. This assignment also reminds students that writing is a process, not a product, and we never do it alone. In the 2015-2016 iterations of “Land of the Free,” the Acknowledgments assignment was especially meaningful, because students had many different collaborators—including peer reviewers, UWTs, online commenters, Writing Studio consultants, and visiting speakers—to thank.