Courant article: way problematic?

Wes theater prof Ron Jenkins wrote an article headlined “Shakespeare’s Words Resonate With ‘Thugs’” in the Hartford Courant about Wesleyan students working with incarcerated teenagers at the Walter G. Cady School at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. The article is currently being featured on Wesleyan’s homepage.

However, the article is controversial, possibly trivializing the experiences of the CJTS teenagers and Wesleyan students alike, as though this were a mere social experiment or charity event, and ignoring the underlying problems implied by a system where students clearly just as intelligent and capable of analyzing Shakespeare are instead incarcerated and prevented from reaching that potential. Jenkins writes:

The Wesleyan students had learned to see much more of Sam than the narrow sliver the rest of the world might call a “thug.”

To them he was a scholar. They brought him a stack of books as a going-away present. I gave him a copy of “The Tempest” to remind him of the insights he had gleaned in our class.

However, Joss Lake ’08 has another perspective, which provides an important counterpoint to the view represented in the Courant article:

I was shocked and deeply embarrassed by the headline on the Wesleyan homepage that read “Jenkins: Wesleyan Students Share Bard with ‘Thugs’.” Although the term “thug” was taken straight from a teacher’s statement about her students at the Cady School (part of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School), Prof. Jenkins in no way qualified the statement – in fact, his article seemed bemused that “we would be learning as much about Shakespeare from the Cady School students as we would be teaching them.”

The use of the word “thug” and Prof. Jenkins’ framing of the program seems to ignore the systemic racism and classism that underlies the prison system and appears entirely insensitive to the unequal power dynamics between privileged Wesleyan students and students who attend a juvenile training school. His tone within the article expressed a prejudiced surprise that the Cady School students could engage with such an icon of “high” literary culture, Shakespeare. Rather than calling into question elitist assumptions about intelligence, readership or perspective – assumptions that the program should have dealt with before it ever became a Wesleyan-sanctioned course – Prof. Jenkins’ comments seemed to reinforce them. I admire the potential the program might have had as a way of de-centering the university classroom as the site of legitimate knowledge, but as far as I understood the program based on the article, I don’t think the program questioned notions of power and privilege within academia.

The end of the article goes so far as to say that “the Wesleyan students had learned to see much more of Sam than the narrow sliver the rest of the world might call a ‘thug.’ To them he was a scholar.” Yet even this statement expresses sentimental surprise at the apparent incongruity between an incarcerated young adult and a Shakespearean scholar. I think the headline should be removed, of course, and that the foundations of the program itself should be questioned.

Thoughts are welcome.

24 thoughts on “Courant article: way problematic?

  1. Anonymous

    @4:59 PM: What pretentious language? The only semi-pretentious word in there is “power-dynamics”. Perhaps you ought to develop your vocabulary.

  2. Anonymous

    @4:59 PM:
    What pretentious language? The only semi-pretentious word in there is “power-dynamics”. Perhaps you ought to develop your vocabulary.

  3. Anonymous

    Although without context it seems weird for the professor to call the guy a thug, overall i agree with the commenter who said ‘It seems a little out-of-touch to think that there ISN’T incongruity between an incarcerated young adult and Shakespeare scholarship.’ I just can’t imagine Joss has met a lot of people in the prison system if she (he? i guess this is an androg name. and im not using ‘ze.’ cmon.) thinks there isn’t at least some incongruity here. People don’t usually just stumble into understanding stuff like Shakespeare, it’s fairly complicated writing that requires a pretty rigorous education to understand, I think. It’d be condescending to say prisoners would be unlikely to understand or enjoy a Shakespeare play, but I don’t think it’d be crazy to imagine they wouldn’t have quite the ability to analyze the plays as your average Wesleyan student would, and I certainly don’t think it’s crazy if they Do have that ability to notice that this is just a little bit surprising. My other disagreement with Joss is the problem with Prof Jenkins’ statement that “we would be learning as much about Shakespeare from the Cady School students as we would be teaching them.” Even if we imagine the Cady School students are perfectly adept at understanding Shakespeare, its perfectly intuitive to imagine that a college professor would have more to teach about Shakespeare than some young people who have never studied his plays in depth. Indeed it turned out their life experiences provided insight into the Bard’s ideas, etc etc, but thats not like some obvious thing that always happens. Why would you just expect some random students to teach other students more about the subject matter than the teacher would? I really don’t think it’s elitist or condescending to be surprised that the students are providing as much insight into a class’s texts as the teacher does.whew!

  4. Anonymous

    Although without context it seems weird for the professor to call the guy a thug, overall i agree with the commenter who said ‘It seems a little out-of-touch to think that there ISN’T incongruity between an incarcerated young adult and Shakespeare scholarship.’ I just can’t imagine Joss has met a lot of people in the prison system if she (he? i guess this is an androg name. and im not using ‘ze.’ cmon.) thinks there isn’t at least some incongruity here. People don’t usually just stumble into understanding stuff like Shakespeare, it’s fairly complicated writing that requires a pretty rigorous education to understand, I think. It’d be condescending to say prisoners would be unlikely to understand or enjoy a Shakespeare play, but I don’t think it’d be crazy to imagine they wouldn’t have quite the ability to analyze the plays as your average Wesleyan student would, and I certainly don’t think it’s crazy if they Do have that ability to notice that this is just a little bit surprising.

    My other disagreement with Joss is the problem with Prof Jenkins’ statement that “we would be learning as much about Shakespeare from the Cady School students as we would be teaching them.” Even if we imagine the Cady School students are perfectly adept at understanding Shakespeare, its perfectly intuitive to imagine that a college professor would have more to teach about Shakespeare than some young people who have never studied his plays in depth. Indeed it turned out their life experiences provided insight into the Bard’s ideas, etc etc, but thats not like some obvious thing that always happens. Why would you just expect some random students to teach other students more about the subject matter than the teacher would? I really don’t think it’s elitist or condescending to be surprised that the students are providing as much insight into a class’s texts as the teacher does.

    whew!

  5. Anonymous

    These comments are great.One more thing: I stopped taking Joss seriously when she used incredibly pretentious language to argue against being elitist. It sounded like she was writing a soc paper – the easiest way to not be elitist is to not sound elitist.

  6. Anonymous

    These comments are great.

    One more thing: I stopped taking Joss seriously when she used incredibly pretentious language to argue against being elitist. It sounded like she was writing a soc paper – the easiest way to not be elitist is to not sound elitist.

  7. Anonymous

    I think we should also keep in mind, coming from a student who’s had him, that “Professor” Ronald Jenkins is one of the most unenlightened people I’ve ever met, and it might just end there.

  8. Anonymous

    I think we should also keep in mind, coming from a student who’s had him, that “Professor” Ronald Jenkins is one of the most unenlightened people I’ve ever met, and it might just end there.

  9. Drew

    Yeah I mean, seriously. People who are in prison at 16 normally do not perform as well in school. That is not a knock on their intelligence, but only a recognition of their disadvantages. It is absurd to deny that in the name of avoiding elitism. Who are these students to teach these “thugs” if the “thugs” are already as well versed as they are? This sort of attitude, that people ought to have the same expectations appled to them regardless of their personal backgrounds, is problematic.

  10. Drew

    Yeah I mean, seriously. People who are in prison at 16 normally do not perform as well in school. That is not a knock on their intelligence, but only a recognition of their disadvantages. It is absurd to deny that in the name of avoiding elitism. Who are these students to teach these “thugs” if the “thugs” are already as well versed as they are? This sort of attitude, that people ought to have the same expectations appled to them regardless of their personal backgrounds, is problematic.

  11. Anonymous

    also, in response to 12:18 and the quote from the post “the program doesn’t highlight the systemic racism of the prison system and privilege in academia”. the point of the class was to bring shakespeare to incarcerated young adults. you think these people don’t already know that a disproportionate percentage of incarcerated americans are black?that a disproportionate percent of college students are white? tell them something they don’t know. like shakespeare.they don’t need elite white college students to tell them the system is unfair.

  12. Anonymous

    also, in response to 12:18 and the quote from the post “the program doesn’t highlight the systemic racism of the prison system and privilege in academia”. the point of the class was to bring shakespeare to incarcerated young adults.
    you think these people don’t already know that a disproportionate percentage of incarcerated americans are black?
    that a disproportionate percent of college students are white?
    tell them something they don’t know. like shakespeare.
    they don’t need elite white college students to tell them the system is unfair.

  13. Anonymous

    the implication that high-school aged inmates as a group are “clearly just as intelligent and capable of analyzing Shakespeare” as Wesleyan theater students is (in your own overused words) “problematic”. Come on. These are kids who at a young age gotten mixed up in drugs, alcohol, violence, etc (whether their fault or the combination of all the negative familial/societal/etc influences around them). Obviously they are street smart (though apparently not enough so) but I don’t think it’s elitist to say that a kid in prison at age 16 may not be as adept at Shakespeare as a young theater scholar.

  14. Anonymous

    the implication that high-school aged inmates as a group are “clearly just as intelligent and capable of analyzing Shakespeare” as Wesleyan theater students is (in your own overused words) “problematic”. Come on. These are kids who at a young age gotten mixed up in drugs, alcohol, violence, etc (whether their fault or the combination of all the negative familial/societal/etc influences around them). Obviously they are street smart (though apparently not enough so) but I don’t think it’s elitist to say that a kid in prison at age 16 may not be as adept at Shakespeare as a young theater scholar.

  15. Anonymous

    honestly, the response to this article is bizarre. the author doesn’t qualify the use of the term ‘thug’? did you read and comprehend the article? the whole point of the article was to question the notion that you couldn’t learn from the students. are you suggesting that the author should have simply ignored the obvious subtext?your complaint seems to come down to ‘the program doesnt highlight the systemic racism of the prison system and privilege in academia’. it seems entirely possible that the program did do these things. it is certainly likely that it did them moreso than the average wesleyan class.what exactly are you complaining about here?

  16. Anonymous

    honestly, the response to this article is bizarre. the author doesn’t qualify the use of the term ‘thug’? did you read and comprehend the article?

    the whole point of the article was to question the notion that you couldn’t learn from the students. are you suggesting that the author should have simply ignored the obvious subtext?

    your complaint seems to come down to ‘the program doesnt highlight the systemic racism of the prison system and privilege in academia’. it seems entirely possible that the program did do these things. it is certainly likely that it did them moreso than the average wesleyan class.

    what exactly are you complaining about here?

  17. Anonymous

    i’m sorry but there’s pc and then there’s racist, classist, elitist, etc. why promote stereotypes, is that necessary? ?

  18. Anonymous

    i’m sorry but there’s pc and then there’s racist, classist, elitist, etc. why promote stereotypes, is that necessary? ?

  19. Anonymous

    It seems a little out-of-touch to think that there ISN’T incongruity between an incarcerated young adult and Shakespeare scholarship…

  20. Anonymous

    It seems a little out-of-touch to think that there ISN’T incongruity between an incarcerated young adult and Shakespeare scholarship…

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