Tuesday, October 13, 2009

University of Iowa Professor Les Margolin was five minutes late for class. A typical class might eye the clock, hoping for a day off, but these students were eagerly awaiting his arrival.

Margolin is teaching a creative nonfiction writing class for seven inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, known as Oakdale Prison.

"They don't get many opportunities for expressing themselves," said Margolin, a professor in the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI), an interdisciplinary certificate program offered through the Graduate College. "They have a lot of time on their hands, and they all have stories."

Margolin is teaching one of two classes offered to the inmates by UI volunteers. Mary Trachsel, associate professor of rhetoric in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Matt Gilchrist, a program associate in rhetoric, are teaching a writing workshop on the Wednesdays that Margolin's students don't meet.

Mary Cohen, an assistant professor of music education with a joint appointment in the UI College of Education and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, began the outreach efforts with Oakdale in February, when she started an inmate's choir. Currently, 24 offenders and 25 volunteers (students, faculty, community members) are members of the choir.  Inmates then are given an opportunity to reflect on their experiences of singing in a community choir through writing assignments.

Those interactions were the genesis for the decision to teach the writing courses. Kevin Weideman, treatment services manager at Oakdale Prison, worked with the UI faculty to bring the idea to fruition. POROI is providing funding for textbooks and other course materials.

"We are developing a partnership with the U of I, and this is part of the volunteer efforts. There is so much talent and knowledge at the university, and it's great these individuals are willing to share their time with the offender population," Weideman said. "Classes like these are sometimes the highlight of the offenders' week. It's great to engage offenders in pro-social activities, and to have volunteers lead by example is important in a correctional setting."

Both classes will meet eight times during the current semester.

"The inmates are very engaged," Gilchrist said. "They respond to a writing prompt each week, work on things that are of personal interest to them, and share with the group. They respond to one another's writing as well."

Margolin's class meets for 90 minutes every other week. He assigns the students to write a personal-experience piece on one of three topics, for example, "working," "a bad date," or "my crazy ... " They read and discuss their papers in class. Later in the course, they will write six chapters on a single theme.

"They are kind of separated from the rest of the world, and they use this as an outlet," Margolin said. "Learning how to articulate your feelings and communicate with others is going to help you no matter where you are."