Philosopher and Activist

Lisa Guenther (Vanderbilt) is profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) for both her teaching of philosophy in prisons and her activism regarding “the carceral state.”

She had been researching “the politics of confinement and the ethics of torture,” and their connection to academia, when “suddenly I realized that I really can’t do this work by simply reading 40-year-old books. I needed to engage,” she says. “I needed to be in conversation with people who were directly affected by that system.” Owing to her work with prisoners, she “has metamorphosized from an office-bound theorist into a self-described social activist. She is an outspoken critic of mass incarceration and the death penalty, and an advocate for radical penal reform.”

Her first experience teaching in prison was hosting a reading group on death row:

Every week, 10 death-row inmates and a revolving group of three to six volunteers, usually graduate students from Vanderbilt, read and discussed philosophy. In short order, though, the gathering became less of a curated book club and more of a social-justice discussion group, complete with subcommittees focused on domestic violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, prison medical care, and death-penalty law…

Guenther insists she is not interested in turning all of the graduate students who volunteer with her at Riverbend into political activists, nor is she of the mind to abandon the philosophical lessons and discussions she pursues with inmates. Her goal is to create an atmosphere for unfettered critical engagement, which she believes is the centerpiece of both learning and living a full life. “There’s a broader ethical horizon of education as a radical project,” she explains. “Not radical in the sense that you have to hold specific, radical political ideals, but that some sort of transformation, and some sort of engagement of your whole personhood should happen in the classroom, wherever that classroom is.”

The article also discusses how her work is perceived by others in her department and in academia more broadly, raising the question of how public service work should be recognized in the academy:

Her colleagues at Vanderbilt are, for the most part, supportive of her work at Riverbend and beyond. Still, Guenther senses that her peers consider many of the activities she participates in with community activists and other movement scholars around the country to be extracurricular. 

That mentality is typical in academe, says Marie Gottschalk, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a champion of prison reform. In her view, it’s also unfortunate. “The attitude is still: This won’t get you tenure, this won’t advance your degree, so don’t do it,” Gottschalk says. “We need to evaluate people differently. That’s not to say everyone should do public service, but if they are doing things in the wider public arena, that should be counted.”

Readers of Daily Nous may recall earlier posts on the subject, including reflections from several philosophers who teach in prisons and student course evaluations from a philosophy in prison program.

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