The grounded curriculum



The first time that Andrew Kaufman taught in a Virginia prison, a fight broke out while he was being escorted to his classroom. The guard and the chaplain who were accompanying him quickly shuffled him into a room and locked the door, and the three of them spent 30 minutes waiting out the melee.

After calm had been restored and he continued his walk down the corridor, Kaufman could see prisoners standing or sitting in the cells he passed. He was struck by the small size of the rooms, which he guessed were no more than 150 feet square, and crowded with beds, metal sinks, and latrines. \”I grew claustrophobic just looking into them,\” said Kaufman, a lecturer in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Virginia.

He finally made it to the prison classroom, where he had agreed to give a talk on Russian literature to a small group of inmates as part of a celebration of reading sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Nervously clutching his notes for an introductory lecture on The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he found himself facing 15 men in orange jumpsuits and wondering whether they would care about a word he said.

Like every good teacher does from time to time, he assessed the situation and decided to abandon his lesson plan. He put down his notes and asked the men a simple question: \”So, what did reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich mean to you?\”

Much to his surprise, Kaufman found that Leo Tolstoy\’s novella of the unexplained and unexpected death of a Russian judge living in the 1880s spoke meaningfully to those inmates. After a brief period of uncomfortable silence—the kind to which we are all accustomed, and have to learn to sit through if we want our students to participate—the inmates began to speak about what they had learned from Ivan Ilyich.

\”How you treat people,\” one of the inmates ventured, \”you know, how he treated people as judge—that\’s how he was gonna get treated as a patient.\” Another pointed out that while it was too late for Ivan Ilyich to change his life, it was not too late for the inmates. They had to learn to take better advantage of the time they had left.

Ninety minutes later, Kaufman realized that his time in that prison classroom had allowed him to experience the power of Russian literature to transform a life—his own. Whatever valuable lessons the inmates might have learned from the discussion, Kaufman was most struck by the way in which the experience of teaching Tolstoy\’s work in an unfamiliar environment, to atypical learners, had deepened his understanding and appreciation of the text.

\”By moving outside of my comfort zone,\” Kaufman wrote in an e-mail he sent to me about the encounter, \”by experiencing the work in a radically unfamiliar context, I was able to rediscover its power and relevance for myself. Russian formalists introduced the concept of ostranenie—making the familiar appear strange—as the means by which a work of art gains force to affect thought and emotions. What I experienced on that day was a classic case of ostranenie. It felt as if I were encountering Tolstoy\’s great novella for the very first time.\”

Of course, Kaufman was not encountering either the novella or Tolstoy\’s work for the first time. He is the author of Understanding Tolstoy, published last year by the Ohio State University Press. His next book, a crossover appreciation of Tolstoy titled \”Give \”War and Peace\” a Chance, will be published by Free Press in 2013.

The kind of technical or formal literary analysis that you might find in Kaufman\’s academic books and articles aren\’t likely to have been reflected in the words of the prisoners in his classroom, but Kaufman told me that his experience there helped draw together for him two seemingly disparate ways of thinking about literature. He had behind him all of the modes of literary analysis that you learn in graduate seminars and practice expressing in scholarly publications, but he had in front of him real human beings who connected with the book in concrete emotional ways. First and foremost, he said, \”my academic training had given me solid knowledge of the material, mastery of the text. This was crucial. In order to accomplish my task, I had to know the text inside and out.\”

But that training took him only so far. In the prison classroom, he said, \”I was forced to have authentic conversations with inmates about things that matter to all of us as human beings and not merely things that matter to me as a professional academic. I realized the importance of connecting on a more personal emotional level to the material and to these men.\”

From my own dozen years of teaching literature, I know that threading together those two ways of experiencing literature can sometimes seem an impossible task. I want to provide my students with the technical tools they need to analyze a literary work, but I also want to instill in them a love of language and literature. I want them to experience some of the powerful emotions and insights into life that literature provided for me as an undergraduate.

Kaufman wanted that, too. After months of reflection, he realized that he could provide his undergraduates with a similar revelatory experience by putting them into the very same situation that drew the two different threads of literature together for him.

And thus was born \”Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership,\” a course at the University of Virginia in which students study selected short classics of Russian literature and then teach them to the youth housed at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center near the Virginia campus. Kaufman has been teaching the course since the spring of 2010, and it has become a mind- and life-changing experience for him, for the students who sign up each semester, and for the juvenile offenders. I was fortunate enough to hear Kaufman speak about his course at Ken Bain\’s Best Teachers Summer Institute in June, and to talk with Kaufman about the course in more detail afterward.

In last month\’s column, I wrote about the prospect of traditional or residential college campuses capitalizing on one of our distinctive features—our physical presence within a city or region. I argued that more faculty members should ask students to engage in learning experiences in what one of the commenters on that column called the \”living lab\” of the campus and local town. The benefits include not only potentially better relationships between the campus and the town, but the opportunity to show students the relevance of course content to the world around them.

In Kaufman\’s case, he has taken works of literature that might seem, to his students, to be remote in time and place and grounded them in the lives of young people who have made serious mistakes, and who are now engaged in a search for meaning and direction in their lives. The correctional-center residents grasp willingly at the insights and themes in the literature, with the help of Kaufman\’s students. \”It\’s funny,\” one of the residents said in a radio show about the course on a regional NPR affiliate, \”how you can read … literature from years and years and years ago and still apply it to life today.\”

On the radio show, students in Kaufman\’s course echoed the same lesson as they talked about their experiences teaching literature to the juvenile offenders. The students were newly able to see the writings of Russian authors as capable of speaking across place and time, rather than as mere objects for critical analysis. They were able to make the works of Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Gogol come alive in the present-day lives of troubled teenagers who had, after all, perhaps experienced more deeply the kinds of isolating and alienating experiences featured in some of those poems and stories.

In the interviews that I listened to with Andy\’s students and the correctional-center residents—recorded both for the NPR program and for research he is conducting on the course—I also heard about the value of the face-to-face interaction between the students and the teen offenders. The students came into the experience expecting cynicism and anger from jaded, hard-core criminals; the residents expected condescension from rich white kids from the suburbs.

Once those misconceptions had been put aside, both groups were able to find common ground in their shared readings of Russian literature, and common ground as members of the same local community. Each week, a small piece of the University of Virginia came into the correctional center, and many small pieces of that center came back to campus.

When I advocate a \”grounded curriculum\”—a radical reimagining of the campus and the town as a laboratory for more and more experiments in teaching and learning—I don\’t intend that as a criticism of online teaching and learning, which I think is an important and valuable feature of higher education today. But I do think we have to think a little harder, as a profession, about why we are still asking students to come to our physical campuses, join our communities, and sit with us in actual classrooms. The \”grounded curriculum,\” as I see it evidenced in courses such as Andy Kaufman\’s, seems to represent one of the most powerful answers we can give to that question.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and the author of \”On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching\” (Harvard University Press, 2008).