Course Evals from Prisoners and Princetonians

Course Evals from Prisoners and Princetonians

Sukaina Hirji and Daniel Wodak, two graduate students at Princeton, are currently teaching a class of fourteen prisoners at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in New Jersey. You may recall that they were two of the philosophers interviewed here previously about their experiences teaching philosophy in prison.

Their course this term is called “Philosophy of Inequality” and includes philosophical readings as well as related materials from economics, law, literature, and news reports. In addition to the regular course meetings, there was also a “precept,” or discussion section, which eight Princeton undergraduates participated in. The readings for that day were passages from Plato’s Republic. 

How did it go?

The instructors had the students—both those from the prison and from Princeton—provide comments on the experience afterwards, and they kindly offered to share these with the philosophical community. They make for an interesting read.

First are the evaluations from the prisoners:

I really enjoyed the class a lot. It made me imagine a more educational setting. Everyone participated and it made the discussion more realistic. I got to experience everyone’s perceptions on what they got out of what we read. I feel it was a good experience that I haven’t witnessed in some time. Its good to be around people who are willing to take the time out to teach others.

The precept encouraged engaging conversations in a small group of students. The diversity of opinions made the learning experience fruitful and the professors as well as the students made the time valuable. Yet, I found that the Princeton students were somewhat withdrawn and they seemed to only offer generic ideas and a hesitant approach to challenging professors and/or material. I expected more because you’d think prestigious university equals prestigious students. Overall the class, or precept, was worthwhile, but it was not impressing. Perhaps it was the topic.

It was a good way to get the opinions of people who do not have clouded minds, stuck in a jail mentality. I did not like that we had to split up into groups. If we had two groups, and then came back to a big group and continued that would have been better. Or at least not having the teachers switch. We had a good conversation and then we switched teachers it killed our group. I talked to people from the other class and they agreed.

I like sitting with students from college. It gave me a sense of reality as in school was. It also was good to hear other opinions on the subject we were studying and we as the students was able to share our thoughts with each other. It would like to do it again cause it gave ….. that most of us will have to endure if we want to follow to follow our study in a ….environment

When the Princeton students came, I feel it was a good experience. It was easy to open up and really have a good discussion. I appreciated the whole idea of the Princeton students and I would do it again

Well I really liked the experience with the Princeton students because it gave me a different view on Plato and it was fun to have a conversation with them

I really enjoyed the experience from the precept with the Princeton students. It gave both parties the chance to pick the brains of a group of people in a totally different environment. I like the fact that the Princeton students embraced my ideas and thoughts and felt comfortable enough to give positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. If there was one thing I could change it would be a more in depth encounter, something like everyone being responsible for at least 2 to 3 min of the class so that we can truly grasp everyone’s ideas. Other than that great experience. I would love to do it again and thanks for the opportunity.

 I like the idea to have Princeton students join the class. It gave the class that Ivy leage type of feel with the professor and all. To get their input on the same topic we were doing was good.

Having the students from Princeton in our classroom was a great experience. Not only did it give me a better understanding of our discussion and a charitable view on other’s opinions, but it made me feel like I’m human and as though I have the ability to learn and succeed like anyone else. As though I am equal and not just another statistic behind bars.

Having the students from Princeton here was very interesting to me and it was fun and just knowing that we are reasoning the same as students in a university is very motivating

To me, I had enjoyed class; the interaction between the students and us (or me so to speak). Having the feeling to be normal as of being incarcerated and being with the students felt great, even though I myself enjoy my instructors very much (especially my greek philosopher instructor, lol, which is what I am into). Hearing their opinions made me realize that we do share the same ideas as they do, I would love to have them back because it gives more outlook to the subjects. I just felt great to hear from others than my own fellow classmates.

My experience was educational. I did like the fact that we were able to have outside views and new points. I felt that I was more or less in a real classroom. It was interesting and fun. One thing that could probably make it better is if there was more time which would most likely be impossible.


Next are the evaluations from the Princeton Students (who had more time to write):

I just wanted to respond to your request for comments: I thought it was really important and wonderful that the joint-precept allowed Princeton students and incarcerated students to interact as peers. There are many opportunities at Princeton for students to teach and tutor incarcerated students, and while this provides a really important service, it also creates an uneven power dynamic. I think the equity created by interacting peers allows for more mutual exchange, and also allows Princeton students to better recognize the deep potential, intelligence, and drive of the incarcerated students. I hope that there are more opportunities like this in the future that are more long-lasting, so that an even more engaging and interactive classroom environment can be created and Princeton students and incarcerated students can get to know each other as intellectual peers.

This joint precept was honestly one of the best experiences I have had.  It’s the first time I entered the prisons not as a teacher or a curriculum planner, but rather as a fellow student, and the discussions we had about Books 4-5 of Plato’s Republic were especially illuminating.  It is always very refreshing to discuss intellectual and academic topics with people who come from all walks of life, because they often bring the most unexpected perspectives and ideas to the table.  What I enjoyed most was the lack of judgment and the intellectual passion/curiosity that ran through the whole discussion — unlike so many other places in the society, in that classroom, we were not distinguished from each other by background, race or even age — we were all lovers of truth, and I do hope we all remain that way.

I really enjoyed participating in the joint precept at the prison this Monday. The precept was very intellectually rigorous–both in the way all students closely engaged with texts and in the way they were philosophically imaginative in making connections between the Republic and their everyday experiences. There were a number of extremely memorable moments: (1) a student analyzed how the experience of growing up in the “hood” cultivated his spirited and appetitive soul parts (because he was taught to care deeply about his social standing and he needed to constantly worry about figuring out how he would satisfy his most basic desires, such as hunger). (2) the students got into a massive debate about “court line,” which is the internal justice system at the prison. From this exchange we were able to learn about life within the prison, as well as see how they applied Plato’s reasoning about gender and the suitability for certain tasks to that system.

In general, I was surprised by how lively the classroom setting was. In contrast to my Princeton classroom experience, it was refreshing to be in a classroom environment in which the students were not so concerned about saying the “right” thing or saying what the professor wanted to hear.

I would suggest changing/being careful about: (1) maintaining a balance between prisoner vs. Princeton student participation (I think breaking down into small groups was a really good way to achieve this because it broke the ice). (2) doing a standardized sensitivity training (which I kind of got via chatting with Ms. Sussman and Sukaina) to help us be more mindful of their differing circumstances, to avoid some common, harmful stereotypes, and to address questions such as whether we should address the students as prisoners or inmates, etc.

I would definitely participate in such a precept again. That opportunity is a great way for us (Princeton students as well as prisoners) to think critically about (1) the role of education in rehabilitating someone in the criminal justice system, (2) how philosophy is truly applicable to many kinds of lives, (3) how these lessons, especially those from question #1 can and should fit into Princeton’s role as an educational institution. That opportunity, in which we are in the classroom as equals, is a great model for breaking down the jargon-heavy, standoffish atmosphere of Princeton classrooms and for thinking about how to approach scholarship with a sense of intellectual humility.

N.B. I really think we should propose that the Princeton communications department to do a story about the joint precept–it would be a great way to pave the road for university support for future joint precepts.

I don’t know if this is what you are looking for, it turned into a bit more of a commendation than a report, but my experience was just so fantastic:

I’ll admit that I had been nervous going into the prison for a precept- not only was I unfamiliar the material we were covering in comparison to my classmates, but I was also entirely unfamiliar with the prison environment, and based off what I knew of that environment from the movies and television, a bit scared. After going into the prison for an orientation session, the attitude of the sergeant towards the inmates – cold, cruel, and superior – reaffirmed these notions. However, as soon as the precept began, I found myself far more comfortable in that environment than even in a Princeton precept. From the moment we started discussing the text, I could see how passionate all the students were, how much they all cared about the material and wanted to contribute. My experience at the prison reminded me why I chose to study philosophy – the combination of debate and collaboration, the excitement of discussion – something many of my other precepts this semester, in which students seemed more eager to impress each other and the teacher than to create a conversation, had caused me to forget. The students at the prison were both incredibly bright and, what is perhaps more remarkable, extremely open to sharing their own ideas and listening to ours – an attitude I treasure and something I have missed. This experience not only shattered my preconceptions about the prison, but also reinvigorated my love for philosophy. As I left, I found myself upset not only because of prevalence of prejudices, such as those I had previously held, against inmates, but also because of how much I wished that I could soon go back to the prison another week and discuss another text, hearing more of the incredible ideas and fascinating discussion that the combination of Princeton students and prison students was able to produce.

Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in the precept, it was truly a wonderful experience. I’m sorry for the late response.

I was struck by the fresh, insightful comments the prisoners made. Sometimes in Princeton precepts it seems to me that the students are not fully engaged, are commenting to impress the professor, or are afraid to contribute ideas off the beaten track. Here, however, none of these seemed to be considerations, and the commentary was truly delightful- one of the best precepts I’ve ever taken part in. I certainly expected it to be a positive experience, but I was taken aback by how positive it was.

There’s little I would change. One thought I have- and granted, I had to miss the info session beforehand where perhaps this was addressed- is that the orientation we were given inside the prison by the officers there left me a little anxious about meeting the prisoners, and a little afraid of accidentally saying the wrong thing, or saying something that could be construed as overly familiar. Once I got into the precept itself, this concern gradually dissipated, as I realized how lovely the prisoners were, and that it was acceptable to joke and socialize a little. Perhaps there’s benefit in making it even clearer what the academic/social atmosphere of the precept will feel like, and how pleasant the prisoners are to work with, before the precept itself.

Again, it was an absolutely wonderful experience, and I’m so grateful to have been included.

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John Protevi
John Protevi
9 years ago

Thanks for posting this, Justin. Among many other passages, this one stood out to me:

“My experience at the prison reminded me why I chose to study philosophy – the combination of debate and collaboration, the excitement of discussion – something many of my other precepts this semester, in which students seemed more eager to impress each other and the teacher than to create a conversation, had caused me to forget.”

9 years ago

That one stood out to me too, John. Thanks for posting that, Justin.

9 years ago

I really want to do this too. How can others get involved?