Voices from the Table: Ken

photo of a conference room table by fattytuna on Flickr


Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com. 


This essay is the first in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.


Built in Boston’s densely populated inner city, the Dorchester men’s CLTL program is by far the largest, graduating a cohort of 37 men last year and requiring a staff of eight, including two English professors (Taylor Stoehr and Bert Stern), three to four probation officers, a judge, and two former program participants. The class meets for ten weekly sessions of ninety minutes each and uses Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave as a primary text.


Ken is a graduate from that large cohort who promptly arrived to meet me at the Dorchester District Courthouse to cover for a last minute interview cancellation.


When asked about his experience in CLTL, Ken particularly appreciated the feedback he received on written assignments:


[CLTL] opened up my way of thinking a whole lot differently. I found myself writing about stuff that I wasn’t even thinking about. And the more I wrote, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. . . Taylor, when he used to give us comments, he said I got a knack for [writing]. Now I want to write my own autobiography one day . . . [Taylor] gave me a lot of input and he gave me some places where I can go if I want to go to school, you know? Like, who to contact for loans or whatever . . . after you graduate you get this booklet, when they read it, they was like, wow man you got some talent . . . [Taylor and Bert] knew I had a real talent in writing, and Taylor he really made me feel good, his comments . . . I felt real good about myself after that.


When asked whether or not CLTL changed his opinions of other people, Ken recalled being struck by a story the presiding judge told during a group session:


We had a judge there, and he made a movie, a documentary about his father. About how him and his father didn’t really get along, and his father was a just a provider and this and that, but there was no connection. And we talked about how a male child needs is his father; even though a girl needs her father too. So, we touched a lot of subjects like that. Which was good because like I said it opened up different avenues of my mind. You know what I’m saying? My brain. Where before I wouldn’t even think of something like that. I started writing you know and I enjoy it . . .


Aside from the interaction between the instructors and students, that he and his classmates mainly agreed to take CLTL to get six months taken off of their probation:


Some dudes told stories about how what his father did to him to make him do what he’s doing and how he was sleeping in abandoned buildings, and his alcoholism and things like that . . . A lot of people had a lot of different stories. And I think they felt the same way that I felt: that they didn’t realize that they was going to be talking about this stuff. You know what I’m saying? You know, like you going in and you’re like, I’m just going to read some books. But a lot of people opened up.


Ken’s statements reveal that, along with literature, writing, and the facilitators, interactions between class participants are another important part of CLTL. Ken’s indication that “they felt the same way that I felt” indicates sentiments of empathy amongst the group.


4 thoughts on “Voices from the Table: Ken

  1. Hi Allan,

    I’m one of those who often says that the students learn as much from each other as they do from the material we read.

    You have a knack for interviewing —


  2. Thanks to Prof Keith Oatley for the recommended interview protocol. I found “Ken,” who is unemployed, very easy to get along with–obviously a pseudonym. In discussing his writing, Ken told me he was hoping to one day aquire a computer with which to type his memoirs. But he would need to find a job first. In an age when most job hunting is done online, I was surprised that Ken did not have access to a computer. It made me realize how much I take technology for granted. Though, I must admit, computer resources are available for non-owners in most communities, so it could be that Ken is not taking advantage of these types of resources.

  3. I’m surprised that you’re surprised by the “digital divide.” Computers are so woven into our lives, it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t true for everyone. It’s true, there are computers in libraries and elsewhere for public use, but for the single mothers that I teach, getting the time to go there, without kids, so they could learn how to use the computer, is mostly impossible.

    Those who have computer skills and those who don’t — I think this is really a dividing line. When I start my class in a month I’m going to feel them out on computers — if/where they have access, how they learned — if they’ve had a chance to learn?

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