A View on the Times

Jenni Baker is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She is the editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds and participates in the New Bedford/Fall River chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature.

 

new york times pieceThis past autumn, Changing Lives Through Literature welcomed Harvard English professor Leah Price to the first meeting of the Fall 2008 New Bedford/Fall River group.

 

We are both grateful and excited to see the account of her visit, “Read a Book, Get Out of Jail,” published in this week’s edition of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Exposure in front of the Times’ vast readership will undoubtedly do much to spark increased interest in our program around the country.

 

In every Changing Lives Through Literature session, however, we welcome multiple perspectives on the same story.  Following in this vein, I share with you my experience as a participant in the same session Price detailed in her article. These two pieces, taken as a whole, offer more of a complex look at Changing Lives Through Literature than any single assessment.

 

*

From my balcony office, I watch the new participants slowly file into the building, their eyes widened like explorers tentatively surveying a new territory. For many, today marks their first step inside a university.

 

As class time approaches, the probationers shuffle into the Dean’s Conference Room. From 9 to 5 it is the meeting place of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, important campus officials, and university professors. For the next two hours, however, the room is theirs.  

 

Professor Robert Waxler begins the session by talking about the program, its goals, and the successes of past participants. The offenders are only half listening and glancing nervously at the probation officers and judges across the table. They look with curiosity at me and at the woman—Price—sitting at the far end of the table, scribbling comments onto a notepad.

 

homepagesnewbedfordBefore launching into the reading and discussion, the probation officers and judges make it clear that CLTL isn’t a book club where participants come and participate at their convenience. As with standard probation, there are stipulations for successful completion of the program. Attendance is mandatory—probationers may only miss one session during the next three months. The men and women must read the assigned texts and participate in the discussions. Failure to comply with any of these rules means a return to traditional probation or—worse—a trip to jail.

 

Many probationers’ faces cloud with uncertainty at this reminder of their sentence. This session will be the first time that the majority of them have read literature since high school. The prospect of reading five novels in three months is, no doubt, a daunting endeavor.

 

To ease participants into the pattern of reading and discussion, Waxler starts every CLTL session with T.C. Boyle’s short story, “Greasy Lake.”  The text is brief, easy to read, and recounts a tale not dissimilar to offenders’ own histories. Participants read silently for half an hour and, after a short break, Waxler launches the discussion.

 

The first session sets the stage for the types of conversations that will dominate the next five meetings. In this particular session, participants converse about the cars in the text and the legality (or not) of the drinking that takes place in the text. While these factual details reveal little about the characters and plot, this easy exchange between probationers, law enforcement officials, and facilitator breaks the tension of the first meeting and puts everyone on an equal playing field. This is a necessary step for all CLTL groups and one that paves the way for honest dialogue between participants in future sessions.

 

Participants quickly relate the similarities between story elements and their own troubled pasts, with some venturing away from the text to recount personal anecdotes.  When this happens, Waxler encourages them to apply their experiences to the characters in question. Changing Lives Through Literature, after all, is not a counseling session or a trip to rehab. Its purpose is not to motivate offenders to confess their own troubled pasts aloud to a group. Instead, the program aims to create a psychologically safe place where participants can discuss their experiences through the characters and thereby realize things about themselves.

 

After clearing these hurdles, the participants dig into the marrow of the story. Are the characters in the book really bad? How do the quest for excitement and need for power contribute to the night’s events? At what point do the characters realize they’ve gone too far?

 

By the end of the session, the probationers’ initial nervousness has all but dissipated. Successfully reading and discussing T.C. Boyle’s story lights a spark of confidence and excitement in the offenders—one that invigorates them as they mentally prepare to read The Old Man and the Sea for the following meeting.    

 

The first session is the beginning of an arc towards awareness and life change over the three months to follow. By the final session, the transformation is undeniable. Participants speak with more confidence and self-knowledge and report they enjoy reading the assigned texts and look forward to discussing them with their peers. Many cite plans to continue reading and a few make plans to complete GEDs and enroll in community college. 

 

Regardless of their future plans, it is clear by the end of the program that participants value their time spent reading and conversing about literature.  It is a positive experience for all involved—a ball and chain for no one. 

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14 Comments on “A View on the Times”

  1. bob w says:

    Thanks for your perspective here, Jenni. Leah Price’s essay in the NYT comes from her long history thinking about literature and literacy. I appreciate her insights and her work. Her essay helps place CLTL in an important tradition of reading, and I am grateful for it. Your own perspective here, Jenni, I believe, further contributes to the understanding of CLTL and enhances the meaningful work of everyone who participates in the program. It captures much of the experience around the table that night. Literature can make a difference, it can build community, and it can offer genuine pleasure. I thank you and Leah for your dedication and thoughtful reporting on the program and on the importance of literature.

  2. tam says:

    Thank you Jenni for giving us a somewhat diffferent view of the class that Leah Price visited. Your account goes more to the heart of the program, distinguishing it from “therapy” but telling us how closely it is connected to the lives of the student/probationers. I think Leah Price missed the experiential aspect of CLTL — and you have captured this and set the record a little straighter.

  3. jennib says:

    One issue I have with both Price’s article and my own account is that the probationers are silent–they have no voice of their own in the pieces. They do not talk: they are talked about.

    While we can make our own observations about the program, the discussion, and the participants, I’d be really interested in getting the probationer viewpoint of the experience. Most of the participants would likely be daunted at the prospect of writing a 500-750 word account of their experience–still, I wonder if, in one of the more writing-focused CLTL classes, the facilitators could encourage one or multiple of the more eager probationers to develop their own written account of the experience.

    I think their perspective would be a valuable contribution to the views both Price and I offer.

  4. Nicole Hunter says:

    If the word count seems daunting to student/probationers, perhaps several of them could write shorter accounts of their experiences — and you could combine into one post offering a few viewpoints?

  5. Bob says:

    Jenni and Nicole–that’s a wonderful idea–let’s try to get the voice of the probationers into the conversation on the blog. Is it possible?

  6. Carl S. says:

    Jenni and everyone: I appreciate your perspective and perhaps your need to be polite and politic. I think Price mostly missed the point. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to the Times.

    One wonders what Leah Price was thinking when she wrote “Read a Book, Get Out of Jail.” She equates a nationally proven and recognized alternative reading program, Changing Lives Through Literature, with a 12-step
    program, Oprah’s Book Club, and Sunday school, as if that would be so bad anyway. But Changing Lives Through Literature affects its participants in different ways than these other admirable programs. Price perceives the goal of CTLT “to convert,” but how does she make such a leap? Only Price knows for sure. Nobody else associated with the program believes its purpose will necessarily rectify a life gone wrong. And no one is shoving books down the participants’ throats. Books ain’t “literary ankle bracelets” here.

    The felons choose to join CLTL. Would Dr Price prefer an incarcerated felon left to her own devices with nothing to do in a jail cell, at 30k a year, or an individual who voluntarily commits twice a week to a classroom with the potential to grow by reading books? Does Dr. Price really take Auden’s dictum literally–, “Poetry makes nothing happen”? Or that Wilde really meant, “Art is useless”? If she really believes this, she’s probably in the wrong profession, or might benefit from some time in a CLTL class. Does she abjure utilitarian purposes of books? Most surprisingly, how can she separate a book’s contents from the act of reading it to conclude, “the medium becomes the message”? She must not have spent much time examining what goes on in CLTL classrooms; she seems to miss the point of the class: The literature carries the message, even though sometimes that message is not immediately apparent to the participants, or anyone else.

    CLTL is not a utopian scheme or utilitarian ideal. It’s a classroom filled with felons reading and examining books deeply, sometimes for the first time in their lives, uncovering something about the text, and its mix of language and story. If what they read taps into their own psychic harmonies, changes their ways of seeing and thinking, then so much the better. Ultimately, if the felons learn anything, they experience a realization–about their lives and the world around them, and perhaps books and literature– not a conversion.

    One wonders, then, what Dr. Price teaches her rosy-cheeked, privileged students at Harvard, if not similar lessons. Or does she hold literature to some standard that makes it less accessible to “common” readers. In fact, after reading her essay, one wonders what she thinks are the purposes of literature, or how she would run a reading program for felons, if she would deign to do so at all. Ironically, after reading her essay, our late, disgraced Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s accusation, that academics are “nattering nabobs of negativism,” seems to fit Dr. Price here.

  7. Maureen says:

    Nice response, Carl. Even though– “all publicity is good publicity”–Price does create a piece with a palpable disparaging tone and uses suggestions/ implications that CLTL is “less than”…

  8. tam says:

    Ditto, fine response Carl. You articulated her tone perfectly — indifference bordering on cynicism, is how I desbribe it. Is there any chance they will print your letter? — I hope so. Though all publicity is good publicity, I would like to have the record set straight in print.

  9. Nicole Hunter says:

    Carl’s letter to the NYT editor gives all of us excellent talking points and food for thought. I think Dr. Price’s attitudes reflect those of many people outside the CLTL community. As a newcomer to CLTL, I see her article as an opportunity to articulate/affirm my own POVs on Changing Lives and have them ready to share. Price missed the points of CLTL; how can I represent those points more clearly when talking to Cleveland judges whom I hope to interest in trying the program? I think her perspectives can benefit us, no matter what her intentions were.

  10. Bert Stern says:

    Carl’s letter to the notorious Dr. Price made me prouder than ever to be part of program that has such magnificent warriors. I wonder if he plans to send it to Dr. Price, since there’s no predicting whether the Times will print it.

  11. jennib says:

    While we may not agree with Price, we should be careful not to fault her for her conflicting opinion. To insist that her opinion isn’t valid because we don’t agree with it undermines the philosophy we put forth in the program.

    Certainly, she misrepresented the program–intentionally or not–through her characterizations and choice of details. It is this cartoonish representation of the program that disturbed me more than her failure to jump on the CLTL bandwagon as enthusiastic as we have. In my account, I tried to set some of those details straight by depicting the same session as I saw it.

    It is clear that NYT article is driving increased traffic to our blog–including Price herself–and we can only hope that outside parties take these two accounts in tandem instead of believing Price’s piece to be 100% accurate.

  12. Wayne St. says:

    I won’t fault Dr. Price for having a conflicting opinion but will point out that most of the magic I have observed over years of attending classes doesn’t happen on the first night. That starts to happen in week two or three when the group comes together and trust is established.

  13. Lee Hope Betcher says:

    I am displeased with the seemingly condescending tone of Leah Price’s NYTBR article entitled “Read a Book, Get out of Jail.” Price apparently attended only one class not an entire CLTL course, so she was unable to see the progression in the attitudes of the students.
    Price’s line, “An alternative sentencing program that allow felons and other offenders to choose between going to a jail or joining a book club” is inaccurate. In the class that I taught, not all women had been in prison. Some were on probation.
    Price stated, “The narratives belong to fictional characters, not to participants themselves.” Our course was aimed at a specific audience of women on probation, and their discussion took us beyond our syllabus into their own stories and beyond the parameters of a book club.
    Price also disparaged Oprah’s Book Club when Oprah has helped many fine writers find a larger audience for the books. Oprah has helped to bring literary fiction out of the academy to the general public.
    Price used the phrase “a literary ankle bracelet” for a course that is a literary brain enhancer, a literary cure.
    For those academics who believe literature should be preserved for the ivory tower, perhaps some of her insights made sense. For those professors and teachers and judges and probation officers who believe that literature can be relevant to almost all of us and can, therefore, alter perceptions and change lives, she missed the point.

  14. Terri Hasseler says:

    I have enjoyed Carl’s blog response and others. As one of the persons briefly quoted in the article, I wanted to respond to the list.

    Although I have liked Leah’s writing, I am less happy with the approach of this piece–not because I was searching for a CLTL PR blurb, but because I felt, as others have already noted, that the piece did not capture the nuances of the program, and I felt my words were misrepresented. I did write to her, and I share an extract of that exchange with you:

    “I am sympathetic to your ambivalence about the one session of CLTL that you attended. Indeed, I have entered each class I have taught with great ambivalence about my role as instructor. We spoke of this at length when we talked a few months ago.’

    ‘I have some problems with your approach, however. Stating that reading a book gets one out of jail both misrepresents the facts (at least of the program I work in) and plays into conservative horror at a liberal permissiveness that would allow education and learning to take the place of incarceration. On the other hand, the liberal elitist disdain for Oprahesque book clubs implies that the purpose of CLTL is strictly navel-gazing.’

    ‘In any case, it is a shame that we need to apologize for the relevance of books. I guess I had hoped that in an age when we have a president who actually reads books, we could get beyond the punch line of having a president who “read a book.” ‘

    ‘I also believe that you misrepresented my intention in the one quote you drew from our (late evening) conversation. At the start, I indicated to you that I was 8 months into a rather difficult and exhausting pregnancy and that words were not coming to me easily, something you and I joked about. In the article, to say I was searching for a “euphemism” was a misrepresentation of what was the nature of our conversation. Exhaustion aside, I was trying to find a word that would encapsulate the reality of a range of different programs. For some students, reading is a condition of their parole, others (who are in jail) of their incarceration, others of their sentence. In my case, students enter the program pre-trial, so it is a part of their pre-trial requirements.’


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