Tuesday afternoons, a group of 15 UVA students meet in the Cavalier Inn parking lot to carpool to Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, 50 miles southeast of town, where for an hour and a half they will discuss Russian literature with the residents. The UVA students are not there to act as teachers but to facilitate discussion.
UVA professor Andy Kaufman introduces the class format to students. “I try to model a certain way of interacting with students, a learning community, as opposed to a rigid hierarchical model, with the idea that we’re all trying to figure out Russian literature together,” he says. “I don’t come from the standpoint that there’s an absolute objective body of knowledge that I’m simply transferring from my mind to theirs.”
His course Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership aims to bring together different communities around the question “Why read literature?”
“We hear from students that their study of literature has stopped seeming relevant,” says Kaufman, who suggests that insights from the course can be applied to all humanities.
One Tuesday, during a conversation about happiness in Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” James, a Beaumont resident participating in the course for a second time, says, “I don’t really believe in happiness. There’s joy, but it’s always temporary. Otherwise, it’s just contentedness.”
Sam, another resident, responds, “I’m happy to have the time I have left and the things I do have, even if that’s not much.”
Mauren Campbell (Col’12) asks what the protagonist of “The Overcoat” would have needed to make him happy.
“Maybe if he found a woman,” James suggests.
“That’s what I would say,” Campbell responds. “If he found love, or a friend.”
For many Beaumont residents, the class is the highlight of the week. Every resident in the course has a GED, and many take trade classes and have jobs at the facility. They meet with the Beaumont librarian each week to prepare for the Tuesday discussion. Robin Farmer, Public Information Officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice, says that the course boosts the residents’ academic confidence. “This is the kind of learning that will stick with them because an effort has been made to make it relevant to their lives,” she says. She points out that both the UVA students and the residents are at crossroads. “Their conversations about Russian literature touch on important life lessons.”
Anna Olihnenco (Col ’13) and her group at Beaumont talk about feeling nervous when they started the class. Peter, a resident, asks if she was nervous because she would be working with prisoners. “We don’t use the word ‘prisoner’ in our conversations,” Olinhnenco says. “We think of you as fellow students.”
After class, Peter comes up to her and says, “You have no idea how much that means to us.”
Gracie Burger (Col ’13), who has worked in correctional centers before and currently volunteers with Legal Aid Justice Center, says that she struggles with the disjunction when she returns from Beaumont to UVA, but she enjoys talking about the course with other students at UVA. “The biggest problem is a lack of education and awareness,” she says. “Every time someone talks about it, at least it’s adding to the dialogue.”
Back in Pavillion VIII, UVA students talk about Tuesday’s class and prepare for the week ahead. Kaufman introduces “The Search,” the next story they will discuss, by giving some historical context. “But why do we care?” he asks. “What’s the value to you of knowing about Russia in 1908?”
Students respond that they like knowing about the author and context; it helps them better understand the characters’ feelings of powerlessness. “So this seemingly simple story is a complex window into a different time,” Kaufman says, “and, even more universally, it is a coming-of-age story. This is what it felt like in 1908 Russia to be introduced to the realities of adult life.”
He asks students to write about such a moment in their lives, and a few students share their stories. “What’s striking is how similar these stories are and how little things have changed,” Kaufman says. “America 2012, Russia 1908. Maybe that’s an answer to the question, ‘Why does historical context matter?’ So if a resident were to ask, ‘Why are we reading a story?’ one answer that I might give is, ‘This story is an example of how we can read literature from a different time and place and use it as a window into our own lives.’”
Robert Wolman (Educ ’11), teaching and research assistant from the Curry School of Education, works with the students and looks at data on outcomes of the course. His analyses show that UVA students come away from the course not only with a deeper understanding of the literature, but also with teaching and listening skills, and greater empathy and autonomy. These students are better prepared for jobs and often have new direction in choosing careers.
“So many nights I have other assignments,” says Campbell, “but this has real consequences. If I don’t prepare for this class, I let my group down—my co-facilitators and the residents. And they’re our friends. Yeah, we’re friends with them.”