Professor Deborah Appleman on her new book, “Words No Bars Can Hold”

Discover the challenging yet rewarding accounts behind teaching literature and writing classes at a Minnesota prison.

8 November 2019 Posted In:
Education Studies professor Deborah Appleman
Education Studies professor Deborah ApplemanPhoto: Melissa Thomas
Book cover: Words No Bars Can Hold: Literary Learning in Prison, by Deborah Appleman

It was during her 2007 sabbatical that Education Studies professor Deborah Appleman first volunteered teaching literature and writing classes at a Minnesota prison. In the years since, she has become very close to several of her incarcerated students, many of whom are in prison for life. Through a new book released in June, Appleman said she hopes not only to “provide an argument for the importance of liberal arts learning” for incarcerated individuals, but to also “demonstrate their humanity and intelligence.”

In Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison, Appleman achieves this by not only including her own voice but also those of her students, giving them “an opportunity for their writing to be read by a wider audience.”

Through descriptions of her own experiences, blog posts written during her sabbatical, profiles of four incarcerated students, and her students’ writing, Appleman describes many of the difficulties around teaching in prison. From the culture of surveillance that restricts student-teacher relationships to the struggle with reconciling the fundamentally opposing goals of education and incarceration, teaching in prisons poses many challenges. Nevertheless, Appleman demonstrates the humanizing power writing brings to her students, one of whom wrote, “I believe writing can heal the deepest gashes and restore a fragmented soul.” Finally, Appleman explores the school-to-prison pipeline and suggests methods of breaking the all-too common transition from high school to incarceration.  

In a conversation with professor Appleman, we learned more about her book and the challenging yet rewarding accounts behind its creation:

LW: How do you come up with your curriculum for prison classes, and how does the setting of incarceration affect the curriculum?

DA: I usually use the same kinds of assignments and reading that I would if I were teaching a class at Carleton. I think it’s really important to have it be normalized, so I try hard not to modify it. I do have to think about their accessibility; they don’t really have any internet accessibility, so that affects the kinds of things that I have them read. And I also have to be a little bit more flexible about due dates because they don’t always have the same access to computers and working time that would be in a regular situation. I try really hard to not have the fact that the class is in a prison be the main criteria for the content.

LW: You write, “The goals and aims of education and the goals and aims of incarceration are fundamentally opposite.” How do you reconcile these fundamentally opposed goals?

DA: I think that there are some ways in which they’re not reconcilable, but in the end, the power of education can trump the power of incarceration for an individual in terms of how he or she feels about themselves. They can reclaim their humanity, and they can become aware of their own talents and intelligences. You toil in the carceral context even though you know that it’s going to affect the quality of education—you just have to take that as a given, like that’s part of the air that you breathe, and then you just have to do it anyway.

LW: You write, “I think every school teacher should be a prison teacher, at least for a while.” Can you elaborate more on the importance of teaching in prison for not just the incarcerated, but the teachers as well?

DA: When a person is teaching in a regular setting, like a high school, they’re not necessarily aware of how high the stakes are for the future of young people because they’re just assuming that everything is going to turn out ok. But teaching in prison and seeing what things are really like if they go wrong for students can add a sense of urgency to making sure that the curriculum is relevant, that you’re paying attention to kids, and that the punitive processes that are in place don’t take kids away. The teachers that I know who teach in urban high schools know that theoretically, but I think when you come face-to-face with people who have been incarcerated as adolescents, it becomes even more clear.”

LW: How does your experience teaching in jails influence your teaching at Carleton?

DA: I want my Carleton students to realize what a privileged space they’re occupying. Even though it’s hard, going to a highly ranked liberal arts college with high expectations is really a privilege and a privilege of freedom. Many of the Carleton students I’m working with have every possibility available to them—nothing has been taken off the table, whereas when I’m working with incarcerated people—everything has been taken off the table. That makes me think about the future of Carleton students in a slightly different way.

In the end, though, it’s not really that different; that’s the striking thing about it. The students in both places are devoted to learning, are really respectful, are grateful for their learning opportunities and really want to get the most out of their experiences. So, ironically, even though they seem like they’d be really different in the end, in terms of the classroom and my relationship to the students, they’re not really that different.

LW: You write, “The culture of surveillance invades the culture of the prison classroom and seriously limits the degree to which truly productive student-teacher relationships can be formed.” How would you like to see prison rules around surveillance and education change?

DA: I think there should be more access to teachers being able to bring in materials. I can’t bring in DVDs because they think that I might use them to smuggle drugs or something. I can’t bring in an infinite number of books. The students can’t avail themselves of online resources. So, things are much more restricted in terms of the kind of access they have. I can’t interact with students outside of class time. There’s no such thing as office hours or giving students the extra help or support that they might need. I think that that could be relaxed a little bit.

LW: What has been the most challenging part of writing and publishing this book? The most rewarding?

DA: I didn’t want to make myself the center of the story. I didn’t want it to be a hero narrative where it’s about some do-good white woman who goes into the prison and then focuses on me and my efforts. I had to balance how much of me was going to be in the book, and then I had to try to write about the students in a way that was fair and honors who they are. I’ve been really lucky that the incarcerated men that I’ve written about—those who have been able to let me know what they think—appreciated the characterization of themselves, and thought that it was fair.

In terms of what’s been the most rewarding, is just introducing other people to the students who would never meet each other in a million years. In general, the response to the book has been really positive. People have liked it and they have found it’s easy to read and accessible, because I didn’t want to write another academic book that only two people would read. I’ve been really happy with the reception so far.

Purchase Professor Appleman’s book.