January 27, 2020

Undergraduate and Incarcerated Students to Take Class Together

The exterior of Harper Memorial Library.

The exterior of Harper Memorial Library.

Courtesy of Regenstein Special Collections

For the first time in its history, the University of Chicago will enroll undergraduate students in the College and incarcerated students from Stateville Correctional Center in the same class, Narrating Social Change, this spring.

Political science professor Cathy Cohen and human rights professor Alice Kim will teach the class, which will take place at Stateville Correctional Center, a state prison about an hour southwest of Hyde Park. The University plans to arrange transport to and from the Center for students.

The incarcerated students are a part of Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls program, which confers bachelor’s degrees to people in Illinois state prisons. Last May, the program graduated its first cohort of students, who became the first students in decades to earn a degree while incarcerated in an Illinois state prison. According to Cohen, incarcerated students will fill out the same application as UChicago undergraduate students in order to enroll in this course.

“It is too easy for too many of us who aren’t in prison to not think about those who are incarcerated,” she said. “U of C has an obligation to people who are incarcerated to provide [them with] an education. A goal of this course is to insist on that.”

Both Cohen and Kim said that they were initially opposed to the idea of a mixed-enrollment course, but their incarcerated students changed their minds. “Students inside convinced me,” said Kim. “They wanted to have outside students.”

The syllabus is still being designed, but Cohen said the course will draw from many disciplines and use different kinds of texts to examine social change.

The application for the course closed January 27, and applicants can expect a decision within a week. The eight students chosen to participate in the course will undergo a clearance process so that they can be approved to enter the prison facility by spring quarter.

Although the course is scheduled to take place from 10:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. every Friday, undergraduate students’ time commitment will be greater than that. Transport between campus and Stateville will be arranged, but students will have to meet on campus early in the morning—once they arrive at the prison facility, they will each have to present ID and pass through security checkpoints before they can enter.

During the information session, Kim said that the class is a pilot course and that she hopes to offer the course again in the future.