Jill Carroll is Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She is the Executive Director of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, an organization that promotes conditions conducive to sustainable peace among persons of different religions.
(The following is an excerpt from Dr. Carroll’s account of the women’s Changing Lives Through Literature program in Brazoria, Texas. To read her full essay, click here.)
The choice of an academic class location is very important to the overall goal of Changing Lives Through Literature for several reasons.
First of all, many of the participants had never stepped foot on a college campus. This fact alone raises the importance of having CLTL classes offered on a college campus if for no other reason than to give probationers the experience of being on a college campus and of sitting in the classroom where college students sit and learn and earn degrees. Students sitting in a CLTL class for six sessions have the opportunity to create another mental picture of themselves and their future, a picture that has them achieving something for themselves in an environment that most of them thought was off limits to them because of their background, lack of training or skill, socioeconomic status, or other factors.
I made the most of this in my classrooms with my participants. I reminded them several times over the course of the series that I was a college professor and that I had experience with college-level students, that they were reading and discussing texts that I routinely taught in my own college classes, and that many of their insights were as good and strong as those made by my students in the university.
I used the physical fact of our classroom environment as a tool to create with them an alternative vision of their future, a vision that had them sitting in those same chairs at those same desks taking courses for credit and earning degrees. In short, I used it to expose them to a world and way of living different than most of them had experienced directly, a world that could be theirs as well as anybody’s.
Second, the college campus environment encourages a specific kind of interpersonal engagement that is instructive for everyone, particularly the CLTL students.
The academic world has certain rules and protocols for inquiry and discussion, rules that involve specific ways in which one, for example, disagrees with someone’s assertions or conclusions about something. We in academia are skilled in arguing our points, disagreeing with others, criticizing others’ positions, and receiving criticism of our own positions in a civil, respectful, yet passionate manner. This is a skill of immeasurable practical value in life at large.
Many CLTL students were amazed to learn that they could disagree with each other over an interpretation of a text or scene, could argue their own reading of it passionately, take each other to task over issues and ideas, and still walk out during the break and have coffee or a smoke together as friends. The “rules of engagement” in a college setting are rules that can make life and relationships as a whole much more workable and enjoyable.
I had no idea of the impact of this particular feature of the program until I began asking for feedback from the participants. Almost every class mentioned this as part of what they experienced in their dealings with me and with each other. They appreciated the way in which I respected and even encouraged their differing interpretations and viewpoints on issues raised in the class, all the while knowing that I myself had passionate views about the matters at hand. I modeled for them a skill that has become second nature to me in my profession and life as a whole.
Until working in the CLTL program, I had not realized how remarkable and empowering that skill is for a happy and successful life. Nor had I realized how much I take this for granted as a skill that everyone has. Life and relationships, in general, are workable to the degree that people can tolerate difference in each other and still be themselves. Successful relationships on both the micro and the macro levels depend on our respective abilities to hear each other out, disagree strongly with each other, listen to each other’s critiques, and still walk out with respect and general good will for each other.
In its own small way, the CLTL program conducted in a college classroom according to the academic rules of engagement contributes to and develops this disposition in all its participants, including the instructors.