Reflection on WGSS 698: Teaching and Learning in Carceral Spaces
Monday, April 17, 2023
Monday, April 17, 2023
ON THE CONDITION NOT TO MEET AGAIN
By JOSEPH FRITSCH
Joseph Fritsch is a graduate student enrolled in WGSS 698: Teaching and Learning in Carceral Spaces, a course in the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies taught by Professor Laura Ciolkowski. Students in T&L in Carceral Spaces facilitate weekly tutoring sessions in local jails; participate in a UMass seminar focused on educational theory, critical prison studies, and carceral pedagogy; and grapple with broad questions around equity and access to education in prison and jail. Application for FALL 2023 admission to Teaching and Learning in Carceral Spaces is available here.
I’ve been struggling to write this reflection. I wrote about bell hooks—about the time I was stranded in Berea, KY for 48 hours, and what it means to stay home and make good. I wrote about the possibility of a democratic education in a culture of debt. I wrote about how I too rejected the tendency to distinguish between the real world and the university—cops, gun violence, wealth inequality, food and housing insecurity, substance abuse, abuses of authority, spectacles of punishment, administrative negligence and inscrutability...what doesn’t the university have! I wrote about the difference between pluralism and diversity and the potential for harm that radical idealism risks within coercive structures. I think, though, I am ready to write as the self I want to be from the perspective of last night’s conversation in our “Teaching & Learning in Carceral Spaces” seminar on saying goodbye.
Most weeks, when I pick them up, my tutoring partner and I discuss the weather first. For those who work the land or work outdoors as I do when I work for the park system in the summers, this has never been idle talk. I’m glad that climate crisis now haunts any declaration concerning good or bad weather, giving the lie to the bourgeois pronouncement that to speak of the weather is to speak of nothing. From a certain vantage point, to speak of the weather is to radically cut across differences in age, class, status, race, and gender and confirm with another our shared exposure to our environment. Whether I am miserable in winter’s grip or elated in spring’s embrace, I have never been so insensitive as to mention the weather to the learners at the Franklin County Jail. What does it mean not to be exposed to the weather? What does it really mean?
For weeks, I tutored Rob (a pseudonym). I’ve written about him before. He claimed a kind of learning disability wherewith he couldn’t read, because he read the words backwards. He tried to demonstrate this for me, but he couldn’t, because he can’t read. I would read him at least one poem when we met, and sometimes he’d latch onto one phrase or image and share his reactions to it. Mostly, when we met, he would talk and talk, telling me all sorts of stories. I could give a pretty decent biography of Rob. Though he is older than me, some of the details of his life—childhood abuse and neglect, a family history of alcoholism—might as well be my own. Other details are so beyond the pale that I cannot understand what it means that Rob told them to me with a childish glee about his face. Childish is the only way to describe the brightness in his eyes and the widemouthed grin that he had when he told me about some really awful stuff that happened to him or that he did.
I’ll play it fast and loose with the paraphrases here. Levinas (and Buber and allegedly Aquinas, though I’ve never found the passage) writes about the eyes of the other as the basis for ethics. The eyes of the other confront us with the evidence that there is somebody else, equally valid, complex, and unaccountable as ourselves, and we must dedicate ourselves to a negotiated and consensual interaction with that person. I have opted in my life for the embodied immediacy of ethics over the absolutism of morality. And I think about Rob’s eyes.
I think about the joy in Rob’s eyes when he told me that in twenty-four hours he was going to be sent to the minimum-security house. On that day, nothing could bring him down. I wanted to celebrate with him, even when I was all too aware that his change in circumstance was so precarious. He might have misunderstood what he was told. In his excitement, he might slip up and lose his privilege. He might be arbitrarily punished. And after all that, one is mindful of the fact that jail does not rehabilitate system-affected people, nor does it change their circumstances. It does not ensure that Rob won’t fall victim to the system again, won’t get too drunk again, and won’t wind up on the streets desperate. Put simply, one way or another, he might end up back here. We were upbeat, but I tempered my response to his excitement. I said, “here’s hoping.” I didn’t say goodbye.
When I saw him again the next week, still in the jail, I remember how different his eyes were. They were shifty and evasive. He did not want to study or even talk very much beyond an uncharacteristically terse “what’s up.” I wondered why he had not been moved. Did he slip up? Were they testing him? Punishing him? Again, I did not say goodbye.
Finally, I showed up this week and was told Rob had been moved to the minimum-security house. I never got to say goodbye. The riddle might run like this: To whom do you never get to say goodbye?
I barely thought about any of this all morning, Wednesday, April 12. First thing, I drove my fiancée to work, and we delighted that the air was warm enough not to make our bodies tense when we stepped outside. I was thinking hard about what I was going to do with my English 112 class at UMass, and how I was going to respond to those students who have not been meeting our learning goals by not showing up, not emailing, not participating, not completing assignments. Contemplating these pedagogical challenges, I got out of the shower. So help me god, I began crying as I am right now, writing this. I said it out loud: “I never met him.”
Years ago, I was at a lecture with Homi Bhabha. He was elaborating upon a concept Achille Mbembe coined, necropolitics. With this in mind, in regard to the migrant crisis and the phenomenon of immigrant bodies washing up on beaches, Bhabha was discussing his interest in an ethics predicated upon our inability to meet the other. At the time, it sounded like good academic sport: take a swipe at Levinas while also proleptically defending against the criticism that academics are removed from society, that is, encounters with the other. Question: To whom do you never get to say goodbye? Answer: The person you never meet.
What would it take to have really said goodbye, in good faith, to Rob? In one sense, to say goodbye would require that we met—that as ethical agents we looked one another in the eyes and understood what we shared without possessing. It might also require the certainty that we would not not meet again—that he would not be prohibited, as he was, from entering the minimum-security house; that we would not avoid one another’s eyes; that we would not see one another someday, perhaps wandering the streets in Amherst, in Northampton, in Agawam; that we would not end up back there, occupants of a space of not meeting.
If I wish I could have said goodbye to Rob, it is because I wish we could have met one another. This must be the hope. That one day we may find one another in one another as to wish each other well. We shared, no doubt, real—even caring—moments, but that is a far cry from the conditions necessary for ethical exchange. Education—that is the intersubjective exchange of knowledges that is also the creation of knowledges—must be ethical if it is to happen at all. Rob and I did not get to meet this time. But we thought together, in an awful space, and maybe the mind will win. Maybe the mind will create the conditions for each other in which we all may meet, share the weather, and wish each other well.