Tag Archives: ron jenkins

Another Courant article: "Wesleyan Students, Youthful Offenders Collaborate"

Some may remember the controversy about a previous article about Wes students and individuals at the CT Juvenile Training School working to put on plays. The article was considered problematic in some ways.

A more recent Courant article from today features a slightly different angle, and makes for an interesting read, talking about the performances of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’:

“It’s been an interesting academic experience, but also a personal one,” said Jordyn Lexton, a senior from Manhattan majoring in English. “You walk in here the first day and they have an impression of you and you have an impression of them based on preconceived and very superficial notions of what the other is going to be like.”

By working toward a shared goal, walls began to erode as a sense of trust grew, said Lexton, who is 22 and not sure whether she’ll work as a teacher after graduation or take a job in the sports division of HBO.

Most of the juvenile offenders who participated in the program have never acted before.

“At first, I was like, ‘This is going to be boring. I’m not sure I want to be here,'” said a 16-year-old convicted robber from Hartford. Initially, he only stuck with it because it was a way to avoid a class, he said. (The state Department of Children and Families, which runs the juvenile training school, insisted on anonymity for the incarcerated youths.)

Soon, however, the 16-year-old hit his stride. “I got more into it and I wanted to stay,” he said. He especially liked improvising, “making something out of nothing.” He is due to be released in September and plans to attend public school, with the goal of joining the Marines one day, he said.

Read more

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.