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Who Owns a Name? Funding Publics in Prison and in the Humanities

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Ray Hsu reflects on his experience teaching incarcerated writers in a Wisconsin prison and on how his work foregrounds the politics of funding in education. As a poet and student, he explores how authorship amounts to a form of privilege in some publics and not others, divisions produced and exacerbated by funding bodies.

Needwood house
Nico Hogg, Needwood house, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Writing in Prison

This year I facilitated a creative writing workshop at a Wisconsin prison, where eight to twelve men came to write every Monday. Marianne Erhardt and I started the group at the beginning of the academic year. Marianne is an MFA student in poetry, while I am a doctoral candidate in English literature. That is all our writers really knew about us. Even though we all brought in our own writing to share every week, institutional wisdom has it that we do not share personal details. We knew little about our fellow writers, even though we all wrote together.

Every Monday, we brought in a piece of reading to spur our writing. I once brought in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” which was provocative because some of our writers were Vietnam War veterans. We then free-wrote from a prompt. But the bulk of our meeting we devoted to sharing and critiquing our work, including the writing of Marianne and I. As our writers pointed out, we were also part of this group.

A colleague, Andrew Hirshman, hosted a literary radio show on WSUM 91.7. He was excited by the idea of featuring our writers reading and performing their work. The eighty-minute show took place on a special episode and included interviews with Marianne and I. The entire approval process took seven months, from October to May, which was far longer than we had anticipated. The day before the radio show was to air, the prison supervisor for my project emailed and called me to tell me to cancel the broadcast. If we aired the show, Department of Corrections administrators would pull the plug on the entire project. The reason was that mentioning full names in a public forum risked victims hearing the names of their offenders. The show would need to be approved by the Office of Victims’ Services downtown, which could take weeks. The supervisor said that omitting the writers’ names entirely would be the only safe bet.

We did not want to lose the show. Neither did the writers nor the prison administrators. We discussed with the writers the loss of their names on the broadcast. One writer felt that they had no choice, another felt as if their names were a necessary sacrifice for their work to be broadcast (1). We struck a compromise: we would use initials instead of full names.

Our writers were not allowed to have their full names on their creative work. I never thought that my ability to include my name on my writing amounted to a privilege, one that others could take away under certain conditions. Full names amount to ownership: this is why artists sign their work but factory workers do not sign the products they create. The creative work of the incarcerated writers threatened to turn into every other kind of prison labor: by losing their names, they would lose ownership over their creative products. In addition, certain parties would profit from this loss, whether the prison system that gets good publicity from this project or volunteers like me who receive well-meaning kudos for the “important work” that we do. As others profit, the writers lose.

Names, ownership, profit, and loss: whose property is this writing? In economic or funding terms, who owns the broadcast? Although we hinted at these questions in the broadcast, we could not elaborate on the air because doing so would jeopardize the broadcast itself. So where do we voice these critiques?

Exposing the Humanities

Humanities graduate students are normally only trained to be engaged with academic communities. The Humanities Exposed (HEX) Program, however, offered me the institutional support I needed to work in a prison. Why are the public spheres in which academics find themselves so separate from those of The (so-called) Community?

This is how the Program describes itself:

“HEX is based on the cultivation of mutually beneficial relationships in which graduate students create projects directly related to their research, and which also provide a tangible benefit to a community partner… HEX projects identify community needs and form sustainable, ongoing relationships to address those needs.(2)”

What has HEX enabled and disabled? The Program enables a number of points of access to “community” and university stakeholders and also offers the opportunity to ask this question: how can we co-create something within this particular space?

A primary limitation of the HEX model involves funding and conceptions of ownership: it requires one to make her or his own project rather than contribute to existing ones. In other words, I could not help out with community groups, I had to produce something new that could be called “my own project.” This approach has limitations, especially since many community groups have good structures but lack the labor to do it. So, HEX was uncomfortable with my simply “helping out”. I felt pressure to develop a “project.” One can see why this would be important to HEX at the level of funding: it does not look particularly exciting to potential funders that those one funds simply help out with daily operations rather than produce something “tangible” and “of benefit” as the rhetoric of the HEX definition has it. This requirement also explains why HEX scholars are encouraged to produce concrete products to cap off their projects: these products can be showcased when asking for further funding.

Who Counts?

Wisconsin spends 7.4 times as much on each prison inmate as it does on each college student. Census Bureau and Justice Department data reveals that in fiscal years 2000-2004, the Wisconsin state government spent $48,773 annually per inmate, adjusted for inflation. By comparison, it spends only $6,627 annually per college student. The cost of Wisconsin prisons is 40% above the national average. If Wisconsin had spent the same as the national average, the state would have saved $301 million annually, while the spending on higher education was 12% below the national average (3). The prison population is about one million in the United States plus another million in county jails. The public and private benefits of these numbers are significant: prisons benefit the private sector and cost the public sector unequally.
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program based out of Temple University offers one of the most promising venues to intervene; there, I learned how to develop a course in which there were an equal number of incarcerated “inside” students and campus “outside” students.

But in a meeting with department instructional coordinators, I learned that service-learning exists within an economy that defines campus students as primary recipients of knowledge and prisoners as secondary, a form produced by funding. By way of explanation, teaching assistants at the UW-Madison typically have nineteen students. The instructional coordinator said that if I planned to have equal numbers of inside and outside students—say, ten campus students and ten prison learners—then I would have to seek other sources of funding in order to make up for the tuition shortfall of nine campus students. An unviable alternative that would have kept equal classroom numbers would have been to teach a thirty-eight student classroom with nineteen campus students (to receive full funding) and nineteen prison learners, violating my teaching assistants’ union contract. Although the nineteen-student cap is intended to keep teaching assistants from having excessive workloads, this cap also highlights who gets to count as those nineteen deserving of my paid labor and who qualifies only for my unpaid “volunteer” labor.

The problem of who gets to count as a legitimate subject of knowledge in this classroom is a matter of funding and always of equity to teachers and students. The educational coordinator at the correctional institution where I volunteer agrees that an integrated classroom produces more “red tape” than the service-learning model, citing funding problems as a primary concern for why incarcerated learners would not be able to enroll in the course.

If correctional institutions and college campuses share the common goal of producing citizens, then how does state funding discipline different citizen-subjects? Race and class disparities between incarcerated subjects and university subjects carry over into the job prospects of graduates from both institutions: state money produces and differentiates the labor force through these institutions. Correctional institutions produce people who have lower value in labor markets than those university campuses produce, although incarcerated people may also be college graduates. State funding produces and limits the forms of civic engagement to which subjects have access.

The reason why the discourse of service does not quite fit is because it does not offer much room for any critical stances one might have to the system of service itself. As critical anthropologists point out, the critical distance we once thought necessary to write objective accounts may be illusory. So how can we judge systems in which we participate? How can we critique systems in which we are agents?

Educational Freedom

There are different genres to which we have access depending on where we are situated within systems. For example, as a doctoral graduate student writing my dissertation, I have special access to the genre of the dissertation. In the dissertation, I can voice critiques I cannot voice elsewhere. But I cannot voice this critique on the air waves, where audiences that have power over my project may be listening and can shut down my project if they hear it in this forum.

Does their “freedom to speak” depend upon mine? When Marianne and I were told that we could not include the full names of our writers — that, indeed, we would have to omit names entirely or find some other compromise — we wanted to “ask” our writers what they thought, knowing full well that they had little choice in the matter and that asking them really amounted to Marianne and I pretending that the writers had more choice than they did. The writers concluded that they trusted Marianne and I to “do whatever we had to do”: they trusted us to act in their interests with whatever access we had to prison administrators. But Marianne and I were skeptical: despite our many commitments to our writers, we were not threatened directly by the loss of our names. How much were we really going to fight for these writers’ interests?

Tactically speaking, we intervened where we could, first by addressing the loss of full names as a kind of productive critique about name loss within this system, then by losing the full names of those we were supposed to thank. One might say that freedom of speech is highly situated and context-dependent: in certain forums we have the ability to critique specific blind-spots of other forums, but each forum has blind-spots of its own, so interventions remain specific and targeted rather than universally “free.”

Because my research investigates funding as a precondition for research, I took a key position in negotiating funding between the university and the state legislature. I lead the standing committee that lobbies on behalf of a coalition of university stakeholders called the Coalition for Affordable Public Education that includes individual faculty, academic staff, graduate students, undergraduate students and concerned citizens. We focus on how to approach the state government in order to secure full and adequate funding for our university system. The UW-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association, another organization of which I am a member, forwarded a survey asking members how their work “benefited” the state: as the HEX Program statement demonstrates, the discourse of benefits and service is key to the ways in which universities sell their operations to the state.

If Humanities work is done within an organization, then it sells its operations based on the commitments and needs of that organization. If that organization is a public university, then the Humanities, like other disciplinary groupings, sells its operations to the state and increasingly to other interests as states cut back on their share.

We do no justice to the concept of “educational freedom” by merely comparing public universities to private universities, a reductive gesture to which public universities often resort. Public universities have different interests, but interests nonetheless. The ideal of a “free public voice” is contradictory: a voice is structured by its public. This is not to say that a voice is merely a mouthpiece that parrots its public, but that the most radical move a voice can make is to challenge the structure of the public itself. This move is a kind of sabotage, since doing so threatens (and produces new conditions for) the very public that offers “the voice” its voice. The public is historical — that is, it has its time and place. The voice takes its time and place and looks forward to a new one, one that it helped create.


(1) I remain conflicted by my need to omit their names even in this article. I wonder why I said “even.” Isn’t this just another forum, with its own restrictions and possibilities?
(2) <http://www.humanities.wisc.edu/programs/hex/>, accessed 5 June 2007.
(3) Phillip Trostel, “State Fiscal Priorities Disturbing,” Wisconsin State Journal, Thursday November 16, 2006.

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