Photo of urban street scene, with brightly painted front of an auto muffler shop.

A neighborhood in the Bronx, New York City. Part of this course focuses on the changing concept of “community” and the effects of neighborhood characteristics on individuals. (Courtesy of Axel Drainville on Flickr. CC BY-NC.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Teaching at the college level is often exciting and rewarding, but it is rarely easy, especially in discussion-based classes, where learning depends on student participation. Getting shy students to share their opinions in a classroom, and preventing the extroverts from dominating the conversation—these are perennial challenges for instructors. Students can have very different backgrounds, with different notions of forwardness and politeness, so establishing a civil dialogue can be a delicate matter.

That’s assuming the class is taking place on a college campus. How much more difficult would teaching be in a prison, with half the students as inmates and the other half as young eager beavers from a celebrated nearby college?

Professor Justin Steil and Teaching Assistant Aditi Mehta took on this challenge as instructors of 11.469 Urban Sociology in Theory and Practice, newly published on OCW. In Spring 2016 they taught this course at the Massachusetts Correctional Facility in Norfolk, MA, where about half the students were inmates participating in the Boston University Metropolitan College Prison Education Program.  In their Instructor Insights pages, Steil and Mehta explain their strategies for breaking the ice between these MIT and BU students to create a collaborative learning environment.

Opening Up Discussion through Collaborative Assignments

One way to get people talking is to have at least one student from each group working together on assignments.  The task can be simple, such as handing out to each group identical images of urban life, and then having the students with matching images join up and generate some observations about what they see.  Other assignments, such as presentations on the Spring 2016 readings, required similar cross-group collaboration. The challenge for the students was compounded by the fact that they could not communicate outside of class because of prison rules. That meant that all of their presentation’s insights and structure had to be developed during class breaks.

In this environment, discussions bloomed and interestingly showed some telling differences between groups. The MIT students tended to focus on “the oppressive power of larger socio-economic structures,” while the BU students felt that this viewpoint was too limiting and “found more dignity in recognizing the significance of personal choice and agency.” As the instructors saw it, “The micro ‘personal stories’ and macro ‘abstract analysis’ were different and valuable ways of making sense of and engaging the same material.”

Unleashing the Power of Low Tech

The BU students had no access to the Internet, email, word processing, or printers, so Steil and Mehta had to prepare everything in paper form before class. This forced them to be more organized than they would otherwise have been. They believe that it improved the dynamics of the class as well:

“Simply making eye contact with someone when they speak instead of typing on your computer actually builds trust.  Students were really listening to each other, and distractions were not a problem in this class.  And as instructors, lecturing or teaching without A/V aids forced us to internalize and embrace the material and communicate it clearly. We could not hide behind a pretty slide or bullet points. In our future teaching, we hope to continue embracing this way of facilitating and learning— simply person to person.”