Austen Unbound: Teaching Persuasion in Prison

Austen Unbound: Teaching Persuasion in Prison

Michael Verderame
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

1.        There might seem to be few less auspicious settings for a discussion of Jane Austen than a classroom in a men’s penitentiary. In fact, when I mentioned to a colleague that I had taught Perusasion behind bars, she related a telling anecdote: In describing a proposed prison higher education program to a university administrator, when asked to talk about course content, she used Austen as the paradigmatic example of what not to teach in prison. But in our age when her novels have found vast new audiences through films and even, unbelievably, popular mashup horror fiction, perhaps the notion of Austen in prison blues may be easier to entertain.

2.        In the spring of 2012 I had the opportunity to teach as a volunteer instructor at the Education Justice Project, a program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and serving Danville Correctional Center, a medium-high security men’s prison about 40 miles away from campus. [1]  The brainchild of Rebecca Ginsburg, a UIUC professor of landscape architecture, EJP has one paid staffer and survives on donations of time, money, and labor, primarily by professors, graduate students, and community members who serve as administrators, teachers, tutors, and workshop leaders. Unlike the prison’s adult basic education, high school equivalency, and community college programs, EJP does not receive any funds from the state. Its exclusive focus is on upper-level college instruction. Only students who have completed the equivalent of an Associate’s Degree are accepted into the program, and although EJP itself grants no degrees, classes are fully transferable to degree-granting programs at UIUC and other four-year schools upon a student’s release. EJP students are often regarded both by prison staff and the general population as role models—not only for their academic achievement, but also for their discipline, fortitude, and work ethic.

3.         With only a small library and a handful of computers, the use of which by students is severely restricted, many traditional classroom expectations need to be trimmed. Papers cannot be expected to be typed, for instance, since most of the students have limited computer access and many do not have keyboarding proficiency. The lack of internet access and small library make traditional research papers difficult, so like many instructors I chose to emphasize reflective, critical papers. Perhaps most significantly, having to go through X-rays and several security doors, walk past snipers, and teach class with correctional officers standing outside creates its own psychological challenges, not to mention the 90-minute commute, drug test, finger printing, tuberculosis test, and thorough background screening required just to be able to get into the prison. All this made me distinctly less sympathetic to colleagues complaining about long photocopier lines and poorly worded student emails in their classes back on campus.

4.         And yet, like every EJP teacher I’ve talked to, it remains the single greatest teaching experience I’ve had. The students all come from different levels in terms of background knowledge, but all share a hunger for learning more. The class size (about 16 students) promotes the feel of a large seminar, and I became used to students requesting extra reading and getting up during class to find more information from the library. There was technically a break in the midst of classes, but it never really felt like it, since most of the students would remain and continue the discussion with me until the correctional officer announced that class had “resumed.” A completely unique educational environment developed, with an optimal balance between the level of personal respect and decorum the students showed to me and each other, and the tenacity and passion of the intellectual arguments that arose.

5.         My class was specifically designed for EJP, and focused on methodological issues of literary history focusing on two discrete but connected eras—late Romantic England and the Harlem Renaissance. The overarching theme of the class was how writers engaged with their historical moment, how they articulated the role of literature in shaping historical change, and how they responded to and transformed the literary tradition they inherited. Teaching a class so heavily dependent upon historical context is difficult in a situation where external research beyond a very small library is impossible, and budget constraints forced me to use only major works in thrift editions. What we lacked in resources, however, was more than made up for through depth of engagement. Without much in the way of secondary materials, the class had fewer facts at their hands to provide contextualization for the novel, but they probed those facts more forcefully and thoroughly than a typical undergraduate class, often detecting lines of connection between the works that I had never thought of before.

6.         For the Romantic unit of the class, I chose two novels, Persuasion (1818) and Frankenstein (1816), and three major poets, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. This fairly conventional syllabus was in part dictated by the necessity of using thrift editions, but also reflected my desire, in a class centered on questions of literary-historical influence, to choose especially influential writers and works. Despite having some initial reservations about the suitability of Austen for an all-male classroom, I soon felt she was indispensable to the course I was trying to create. In particular, her satiric voice, depth of characterization, and psychological realism formed an important counterpoint to the forms of Romantic subjectivity embodied in the male poets. Persuasion also seemed the logical choice of Austen’s books for a class designed around questions of historicity, because of its connections to the Napoleonic Wars and other contemporary events, as well as the recursive quality of the narrative. What better way to explore questions of memory and historical imagination than with a novel obsessed with these concerns, a novel that is in many ways a “second-chance” story, commencing at a point in the heroine’s life years after the breakdown of a youthful romance. In effect, Persuasion was an Austen novel taking place after the conventional Austen plot had already failed.

7.         It would be nice to report that the power of Austen’s prose won my students over immediately, and I suddenly had a room full of committed Janeites. It would be equally satisfying to report that the students approached the text with hostility and that I, through my own pedagogical skill and sensitivity, convinced them of the book’s merits. The reality, of course, was more complicated. Persuasion faced more resistance than almost any other work we read over the course of the semester, and while most of the students left with a grudging respect for the novel and a sense of Austen’s importance, I still detected no great love for her, except for one or two students. How I reached even that point, however, is an interesting story.

8.         In later conversations with Austen teachers, I learned that male students’ difficulty with Austen is a nearly universal phenomenon, and I had found that to be true in my own teaching of Austen on campus as well. Beyond the gender barrier, I found additional challenges in the prison context. The students viewed, understandably, all the works read through the prism of their own experiences. Austen’s satirical depictions of the social conventions of the landed classes in early 19th-century England, and the female-centered marriage plot, made Persuasion seem as far removed as imaginable from the student’s lived experience. Other writers engendered a similar skepticism (the aestheticism of Keats evoked some particularly withering comments, while Byron and Shelley fared somewhat better), but Persuasion had the additional difficulties of Austen’s narrative style. The very factors that make her so significant in the history of the English novel—the meticulously precise diction, verbose yet elegant prose, the psychological complexity of characterization, the use of free indirect discourse, and the levels of irony at work in her narrative voice—all create challenges for contemporary readers.

9.         Nonetheless, I did find one advantage in teaching Austen in this environment: the lack of familiarity with filmed Austen enabled the students to meet the novel on its own terms. Filmed versions, in my experience, often favor a lush romanticism at the expense of Austen’s social satire, and even the most effective film cannot fully capture the sense of a novel in which so much of the action takes place inside characters’ minds. In television and film adaptations, the narrator’s voice has often been “clumsily and inappropriately translated into dialogue” (Roger 194). Taking advantage of the students’ ability to read with open minds and asking them to think about Austen in historical relationship to other writers of the time helped yield some surprising insights. Even today, Austen is often taught at the undergraduate level as either the culmination of the eighteenth century novel or, as it was taught to me, as the progenitor of Victorian fiction. I wanted to make a case to my class for a Romantic Austen, as deeply enmeshed in the debates and events of her time as Byron, Shelley, Leigh Hunt, or William Hazlitt. Making available selections from secondary works by Jeffery Cox and James Chandler helped students make these historical connections.

10.         One choice I made early in structuring the course paid particular dividends when we got to Austen. I designated one student to be responsible for leading the class in discussing each of the works, something I had done often in my campus classes but never before to this extent. I appreciated the seminar feel that developed once I relinquished leadership of the class, and also liked enabling (or forcing) students to take more ownership. Giving each student a turn also helped to democratize the EJP class significantly. Because EJP students are largely self-taught, their knowledge base and skill sets differ widely, and some students were much more comfortable expressing their ideas either verbally or in writing. Giving each student an opportunity to lead discussion confirmed that everyone had something important to contribute to the class. Moreover, every student diligently and creatively discharged his responsibility, making the overall class much more dynamic and interesting than it would have been had I been leading discussion. The success of this system confirmed for me the truth of a key EJP axiom, that when you set extremely high expectations they are likely to be not just met but exceeded.

11.         When we reached Persuasion, I was fortunate to have discussion led by an extremely energetic, thoughtful, and charismatic student. Equally fortuitously, he also happened to be the only student who expressed uncritical admiration for the novel. He broke down the residence of some other students to Austen’s prose style and the seeming lack of relatibility of her characters by suggesting that all enduring works of literature had something important to teach contemporary audiences across temporal bounds, and it was the reader’s job to make the imaginative and critical effort to transcend his historical experience. By repeatedly asking what Austen is trying to teach us today, he steered discussion in a direction that turned potentially disruptive resistance into a productive source of engagement. He preempted much of my plan for teaching the class by suggesting that our reasons for finding Austen difficult suggest the close relationship between literary works and their historical contexts, and that not merely had political and economic arrangements and language changed, but the fundamental ways people narrated and experienced their subjectivity in the world was different in Austen’s time than today. Moreover, his sheer energy helped transform what otherwise seemed likely to be an uncharacteristically sleepy EJP class.

12.        My students voiced many of the same difficulties that other modern readers, particularly male readers, are likely to encounter. They were not especially sympathetic to the romance plot, the lack of conventional “action,” or the intense fascination with the mores and manners of the social class Austen describes. Foregrounding Austen’s satirical voice helped overcome this objection to some extent, by showing the novels had more “bite” than they initially thought. I also found that bringing some of the other poems and prose texts we had read into the discussion helped them put together a picture of the intense social and economic changes going on at the time. Although I did not implement it in this iteration of the class, I think future writing assignments that focus on unpacking Austen’s complex narrative voice and language, and in particular her use of free indirect discourse, could help improve student comprehension for the novel. For instance, requiring students to paraphrase a paragraph of the novel in their own words, or conversely, describe a situation in their own lives by mimicking Austen’s prose style, could help penetrate some of the linguistic and narrative challenges presented by the novel.

13.         A second key move was in framing our discussion around historical events—not only on the macro-level (such as changing gender relationships and expectations for marriage, the rise of an urban commercial class, and the corresponding decline in the prestige of the gentry), but also more precise historical contexts, such as the final phase of the Napoleonic Wars after Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Without historical contextualization, the students would have had no way of knowing that “Austen makes the events of the novel coincide precisely” with Napoleon’s post-exile campaign, with Waterloo very much “at the forefront of Austen’s mind” (Deresiewicz 146).

14.         Here I followed Chandler’s argument for a model of literary-historical scholarship that emphasizes very tight windows of periodization. I also drew on the sense of Romantic-era war as reshaping the consciousness of temporality, based on the pioneering work of Mary Favret. Favret has pointed out that, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, readership and discussion of Austen has spiked in periods of war. During the two world wars, Austen was foremost among the literary treasures cited as “fortification” against the “upheavals of wartime,” a possibility with striking resonance for the contemporary Austen boom in a period which, for Americans, is not exactly wartime, but not peacetime either (Favret).

15.         Reading through the lens of wartime helped the students understand the changing status of the navy. Austen, herself the sister of two naval officers, left the navy alone unscathed from her satiric pen among major British cultural institutions. This reverence for the navy, and the generally sympathetic treatment of Wentworth, became more readily apparent to the students once we examined how Britain’s continued independence—let alone its empire and commercial prospects—depended upon control of the seas. In turn, this also helped the class appreciate the larger social trends at work in the novel, as they saw how the professional status of a naval officer would be so important, and correspondingly, for a commercialized and industrial society, how the possession of a good family name meant less and less. The combination of the historical background and the energetic contributions of our discussion leader helped warm the class towards Persuasion, which was reflected in their written work as well. Historicizing the work, and exploring it in terms of political, economic, and social relationships rather than just the marriage plot, improved the novel’s legibility and accessibility.

16.         One final analytical tool helped dramatically bring Persuasion alive. Throughout the class we had explored the period’s foundational arguments about the acts of reading and writing, and what the ultimate goal of literary expression should be. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and Keats’s letters had both generated intense and lively discussion about the promises and pitfalls of reading and writing. The morality and methods of reading are an enduring concern in Austen’s work, most notably in Northanger Abbey, but significantly in Persuasion as well, which probes questions such as how one should read, what material should be read, and what ultimate purpose reading serves. We spent significant class time probing two of the major instances of reading in the text. Sir Walter Elliott’s obsessive reading and notetaking on the baronetage registry at the beginning of the novel suggested one model of reading, conservative and self-oriented. Sir Walter read in order confirm his own beliefs, assuage doubts about his own rapidly shrinking social status, and shore up his faith in a disappearing order. In contrast, Captain Benwick’s preferred reading matter, flowery Romantic poetry, marks him as highly sensitive and refined, but also more delicate and less practical than Wentworth, whom the novel regards as a more suitable masculine role model. We eventually suggested a third model of reading that Austen seems to be promoting though the demands she makes on her own readers: reading as an active exercise of critical intelligence, as opposed the escapist (in different ways) methods of reading favored by Benwick and Sir Walter. In the course of our time on Persuasion, we problematized the act of reading itself in ways that resonated throughout the remainder of the semester. We learned that the meaning of “good” or “effective” reading is not universal, but has been contested at different historical moments.

17.         Bringing out the theme of different approaches to the purpose and value of reading eventually proved the most productive way to generate engagement with the novel. Having read Wordsworth’s 1800 "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," the students were already aware of the period’s anxieties about the effect of inappropriate or "low-quality" reading on the aesthetic taste and moral commitments of different segments of society. The students implicitly grasped this idea; as well-read autodidacts themselves, they already had a commitment to reading as a mode of intellectual and moral uplift that few of my undergraduates at my home institution shared. For them, the writers we studied were not an abstract intellectual exercise; rather, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc. represented living ideas, with the power to teach lessons that could be applied to their daily experience. They also had the experience of expressing tastes in reading that might come across as effete to some of the other inmates. Furthermore, they had the experience of having their own reading, viewing, and listening habits relentlessly scrutinized by prison authorities. So, by emphasizing Persuasion as a work in part about the promise and perils of reading, we situated the novel as an intervention to debates that they were already actively involved in.

18.         As my experience shows, Austen has the potential to reach all types of audiences, although different classrooms will demand different pedagogical approaches. We have seen film and television adaptations and pulp novelizations help to spread Austen’s appeal and create new generations of Janeites. But it is important not to underestimate the ability of the novels themselves to speak directly to even those contemporary readers without much experience reading literary fiction. At a time of shrinking enrollments in English classes and renewed fears about the health of the discipline, Austen is one of the field’s most reliable attractions to undergraduate students, standing perhaps second only to Shakespeare in possessing an equally high degree of cultural capital and popular appeal. My students at Danville Correctional Center taught me that her success endures not in spite of her difficulty, but rather directly because of the demands she places upon reading as an active exercise of critical intelligence.

Works Cited

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Deresiewicz, William. Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Favret, Mary. “Reading Jane Austen in Wartime.” In Novel Prospects: Teaching Romantic Era Fiction. Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons. Ed. Patricia A. Matthew and Miriam L. Wallace. Web.

Sales, Roger. “In Face of All the Servants: Spectators and Spies in Austen.” In Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Ed. Deidre Lynch. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. 188-205.


[1] For more information on the Education Justice Project, see its website. BACK