The Texas Program
Section 1. Introduction By Robert Waxler (profile)
Section 2. Address To The Houston Philosophical Society
Section 2. By Larry Jablecki (profile)
Section 3. Texas Women's Paradigm By Jill Carroll (profile)
The Texas Women's Program
by Jill Carroll
I taught the Texas Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) curriculum for 4 years in the Brazoria County program administered by Dr. Larry Jablecki, who was then the director of the county�s community service and supervision department. I taught a dozen or more classes of 8-18 women each in 2 different locations. In sum, I must say it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life as a professor and educator. Teaching in the CLTL program changed my life as much or more than it did the lives of the participants. Specifically, the experience confirmed my convictions about the impact of humanistic education on human beings.
Initial Involvement and General Orientation
I came to be involved in the program when Larry Jablecki contacted me through a colleague we had in common at University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL). Both of us were Adjunct Lecturers at UHCL and taught in the university's humanities program in the nearby Ramsey I state prison in Rosharon, Texas. He was looking for a female instructor to teach CLTL classes for the female probationers approved to take the course for 75 community service hours. He got my name from our common colleague and called me. In Larry's typical way, he summarized the program in a few quick sentences, told me what the general curriculum was, asked me if I was a good teacher, then asked if I wanted the job - all in about two minutes. Within three weeks, I was standing in front of my first class of 15 female probationers at Alvin Community College in Alvin, Texas, having them read Tillie Olsen's short story I Stand Here Ironing.
Larry and I share many basic convictions about life, philosophy, and the role of education in constructing fully alive and expressed human beings in the world. These shared convictions, which we weren't exactly aware of when we first began working together, grounded our common endeavors in the CLTL program just as they do now in our work as Lecturers in Humanities at Rice University. I will say more about this later; however, here I can summarize by saying that the underlying assumption of the CLTL program is that humanistic education and inquiry - as opposed to technical, vocational, or "applied" training - is vital for proper human development in general and for the cultivation of those traits of character associated with good citizenship in particular. Without such education and inquiry, we as people do not become fully human because certain capacities within us that distinguish us from other species go undeveloped.
Consequently, the highest and best of human capability and potentiality - from which our lives as law abiding, productive, and contributing citizens derive - remains unrealized and actualized only in piecemeal fashion, if at all. Therefore, the educational inquiry launched in the CLTL program takes on developing those profoundly human capacities within all the participants through the specific strategy of a humanistic curriculum. Larry and I both believe this with all our hearts, and this shared conviction drove all our cooperative efforts in the Brazoria County CLTL program. I was honored to work for and with Larry in the CLTL program largely because of this exact philosophical orientation both in the program and in me.
Course Set-up and Choice of Texts
The Brazoria County CLTL program used procedures, policies, and texts that it had gleaned from its "parent" program in Massachusetts, and I came to see the wisdom in most of these procedures. Chief among them was the gender segregation of the classes - a male instructor taught classes for male probationers, a female instructor taught classes for female probationers, and the classes were never gender integrated. Often, the classes would meet at the same time and at the same location - in adjacent classrooms - but they never mixed. Women and men never did a class together.
Gender segregation is essential to the success of the classes, I believe. I can speak experientially only of the female side of the equation, of course, but I think my own experience echoes that of my male colleagues who taught in the program. In short, gender difference in the classroom potentially undermines the power of the personal inquiry the program seeks to facilitate. The kinds of issues we tackled in our women-only classes were issues that many of the women would not have engaged in had there been men in the room with them. The women-only environment we cultivated together - that was nearly tangible by the end of the first session even - created a particular context for powerful sharing and substantial engagement with the texts and the issues they raised. The presence of men in the room would alter that context such that the women wouldn't want to share or feel empowered to share in the same ways as when there were no men in the room.
I asked the participants of all my classes for their feedback on the gender segregation; they were unanimous in supporting it for the reason I just mentioned. They felt free to share and engage in a way they wouldn't have with men in the room. Moreover, many of them were refreshed to see a female face to the justice system, especially those who had dealt exclusively with male judges, lawyers, prosecutors, probation officers, and other system officials. My male colleagues in the CLTL program echoed these sentiments on behalf of their male participants. They were able to facilitate a context of engagement in the classrooms that often resulted in very emotional and frank sharing among the men that simply would not have occurred with women in the room. The value of this component of the CLTL program is, I believe, immeasurable and irreplaceable.
Gender segregation influenced the choice of texts for us in the Brazoria County program. Given the gender gap, we chose texts that seemed particularly suited for either male or female readers. In selecting texts for my classes, I followed the example set by my predecessors in the program, both in Massachusetts and in Brazoria County. I took their lists of texts as my own for my very first class, with a view toward adjusting it as needed in future classes. I never adjusted it in over a dozen classes, except once, in order to comply with a request to use the CLTL anthology. In that instance, I incorporated three stories that I had not used previously ("Sonny's Blues", "Where are you Going, Where have you Been", and "Solitude of Blood"), and they worked well. But, after that class, I returned to what had become my regular course list. The texts on this list were:
I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Obviously, these are texts written by women; moreover, they are texts largely or exclusively about women. This alone provided particular access for the women in my classes to the issues raised in the texts, an access not immediately available to men. Likewise, my male colleagues in the CLTL program chose texts written by men and largely about men, which provided a specific context for their male students.
I am not suggesting that men and women cannot read with power and value texts written by or about the opposite sex. I am suggesting simply that with a participant population that barely reads at all and/or whose reading level is at a remedial or mid-range level, texts that have built in to them a viewpoint or worldview rooted in gender can provide an accessibility that will keep the reader engaged beyond the point at which they would have stopped reading otherwise. Any number of other components or features of a text besides gender can provide all sorts of accessibilities to their readers, of course. Focusing on this particular component, however, worked well for us and for me.
Importance of Environment
The Brazoria County classes were held almost exclusively at college campuses. We ran classes at two community colleges and at Rice University. I believe the choice of an academic class location is very important to the overall goal of the program for several reasons.
First of all, many of the participants had never stepped foot on a college campus. This fact alone raises the importance of having CLTL classes offered on a college campus if for no other reason than to give probationers the experience of being on a college campus and of sitting in the classroom where college students sit and learn and earn degrees. Students sitting in a CLTL class for six sessions have the opportunity to create another mental picture of themselves and their future, a picture that has them achieving something for themselves in an environment that most of them thought was off limits to them because of their background, lack of training or skill, socioeconomic status, or other factors. I made the most of this in my classrooms with my participants. I reminded them several times over the course of the series that I was a college professor and that I had experience with college-level students, that they were reading and discussing texts that I routinely taught in my own college classes, and that many of their insights were as good and strong as those made by my students in the university. I used the physical fact of our classroom environment as a tool to create with them an alternative vision of their future, a vision that had them sitting in those same chairs at those same desks taking courses for credit and earning degrees. In short, I used it to expose them to a world and way of living different than most of them had experienced directly, a world that could be theirs as well as anybody's.
Second, the college campus environment encourages a specific kind of interpersonal engagement that is instructive for everyone, particularly the CLTL students. The academic world has certain rules and protocols for inquiry and discussion, rules that involve specific ways in which one, for example, disagrees with someone's assertions or conclusions about something. We in academia are skilled in arguing our points, disagreeing with others, criticizing others' positions, and receiving criticism of our own positions in a civil, respectful, yet passionate manner. This is a skill of immeasurable practical value in life at large. Many CLTL students were amazed to learn that they could disagree with each other over an interpretation of a text or scene, could argue their own reading of it passionately, take each other to task over issues and ideas, and still walk out during the break and have coffee or a smoke together as friends. The "rules of engagement" in a college setting are rules that can make life and relationships as a whole much more workable and enjoyable.
I had no idea of the impact of this particular feature of the program until I began asking for feedback from the participants. Almost every class mentioned this as part of what they experienced in their dealings with me and with each other. They appreciated the way in which I respected and even encouraged their differing interpretations and viewpoints on issues raised in the class, all the while knowing that I myself had passionate views about the matters at hand. I modeled for them a skill that has become second nature to me in my profession and life as a whole. Until working in the CLTL program, I had not realized how remarkable and empowering that skill is for a happy and successful life. Nor had I realized how much I take this for granted as a skill that everyone has. Life and relationships, in general, are workable to the degree that people can tolerate difference in each other and still be themselves. Successful relationships on both the micro and the macro levels depend on our respective abilities to hear each other out, disagree strongly with each other, listen to each other's critiques, and still walk out with respect and general good will for each other. In its own small way, the CLTL program conducted in a college classroom according to the academic rules of engagement contributes to and develops this disposition in all its participants, including the instructors.
The schedule of readings in my CLTL classes guided the students from short stories, to a novella, to two longer novels, the last of which we read over the final two sessions. Most participants were not avid readers, and those who were, read mostly magazines and mass paperback novels; therefore, most were not prepared for or accustomed to the kind of reading we would do in the class.
The first night, I asked the participants to read Olsen's short story in class, taking about a half hour or more, and then we discussed it. In that first session, I tried to establish the patterns of dialogue, inquiry, and relatedness that I hoped would characterize the entire course. Chief among my objectives was to minimize the students' anxieties and cynicisms. Some of them were wary of the program and their abilities to do the required work. Others were cynical and suspicious of the program, its goals, and me, its instructor. So, part of my job on that first night involved trust building and selling them on the idea that we were simply going to read the stories, talk about them, mine them for whatever value and lessons they had for our lives, and that would be it.
Moreover, I told them quite frankly that I was as in need as they were of transforming my own life through whatever means available, in this case literature. Great literature, I told them, makes us reflect on what matters in life and on how we are living our own particular lives, and such reflection is what makes us human, perhaps even divine. Moreover, I told them that I, as a college professor, had given my life to such inquiry and that it was a privilege to spend six sessions with them reading and thinking about some of the best modern literature ever written by women about women. Finally, I told them I was committed to seeing them get value for themselves out of the sessions quite simply because I was committed to receiving value for myself out of the sessions. So, we were all in this together; I would do my part and hoped they would do their parts. I deliberately put myself on the journey along with them, the only difference being that I was the facilitator in the group.
This approach seemed to work well with every one of the dozen or so classes I taught. The students were often visibly changed by the end of the first session. They were more relaxed, expressive, and related to others in the room. The tension subsided, and they opened up and began to talk about the reading, their takes on it, and what they thought it all meant. In later weeks, many told me that in that first session they had gotten a glimpse that the course could be something interesting and different from what they'd experienced before in community service.
A key strategy in the course involved homework discussion questions. At the end of every session, students took with them a set of ten discussion questions for that week's reading. They were to bring those completed questions with them to the next session and be ready to talk about both the text and their answers to the questions. I instructed the participants that many of the questions didn't have right or wrong answers; rather, they were designed to provoke reflection and inquiry. So, they should just think about the question, the text, and write down their ideas. They shouldn't worry about correct form or grammar, just getting their ideas down and the page numbers of the scenes in the text that supported their ideas. I told them they had to at least try to answer all the questions to get full credit for the work, but that there was room for them to speculate and be confused or uncertain about the text and the questions.
This strategy worked for several reasons. One, it provided the participants a structure of access to the texts such that they were looking for certain things in the text as they read. The questions served to focus their reading on certain issues, themes, or characters. Second, the questions - more specifically, the various answers to the questions - gave us a starting point for discussion in the class. Often, the entire class session was composed of us going through the questions, sharing answers, and reflecting on the various interpretations. I, of course, guided the discussion toward those interpretations most closely supported by the textual evidence, being careful not to shoot down even the most bizarre of the students' ideas. To my utter delight, they often contributed interpretations of the various texts that were simply fabulous. Their fresh eyes and minds on the texts gave them an access to the texts that I, having taught and studied the texts for years, no longer have. Through them, I was able to see dimensions of the texts I had not before distinguished. This perc of the course for me was, frankly, invaluable.
Another of my central pedagogical strategies was to teach the texts in a way that focused not on the formal properties or literary/historical significance of the texts, but instead on themes, characters and their motivations, and the specific life issues the texts addressed. For example, we didn't delve into the place in feminist literature held by The Yellow Wallpaper or Gilman's work, although I did give them a brief overview of the "rest cure" in 19th-century medicine, just to give them a context for the short story. We did not focus at all on the place these various texts have within the context of modernism, or the 20th-century novel, or any such critical or academic discussions. In short, I didn't teach the course and the texts the way I would have in a for-credit university course. Instead, I focused the discussion around what factors, events, and contexts made the characters who they are, what motivated them to do what they did, what issues they were trying to resolve in their lives, what goals or aspirations they were attempting to actualize (or being thwarted in realizing), what frustrations, disappointments, hopes, and inspirations were theirs as they made their way through the journey the text presents, and other such questions.
I focused on those scenes that got us to these kinds of questions. I routinely read the scenes aloud to the students - sometimes even with an element of dramatic performance - so they could hear the rhythm of the passage (especially in Cisneros's novella), could feel the emotion in the scene, and really "get" the impact of the issues the scene raised. Also, quite simply, people love being read to, and I found that the participants were able to generate discussion and strong interpretations of the scenes after I had read them aloud to the group with them following along in their books.
Additionally, I did not teach the texts with a view toward testing the students to see if they had done the reading. I let the homework questions perform that task for me. I took it as a given that some of the participants would not complete their reading, or they would complete the reading but not know what they'd read. So, I taught the texts with a view toward luring those who hadn't completed the reading into sections of the text that, for whatever reasons, they'd abandoned or didn't get to and also with a view toward increasing clarity and understanding for those who completed the reading but were confused. I found that by the fifth or sixth session, the students had developed "mental muscles" such that they were able to pick out themes, issues, and important scenes without as much prompting from me as they required in the earlier sessions. Often, they began the class by excitedly announcing which scenes we had to discuss right now!. These scenes were the very ones I had in my notes to discuss.
Results and Philosophical Commitments
A handful of philosophical commitments and convictions drive the CLTL program, and these convictions are directly tied to the kinds of results the program attempts to produce. The theory of the program is that humanistic study - as opposed to technical or vocational training - provides access to critical reflection that can result in self-transformation and actualization. In short, the program strives to develop in the participants an ability to critically reflect on their lives in meaningful and transforming ways, aware of the empowering role of choice in human existence.
Critical reflection is the essential ingredient to living a fully actualized human life. The ancient Delphic Oracle exhorts us to know ourselves. Socrates, in his defense before the jury that sentenced him to death, claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Indeed, such a life hardly counts as a fully human life at all. Life without critical self-reflection is a life at the mercy of circumstances, whims, instincts, addictions, and emotions - in short, the animal life. Critical self-reflection is the engine of human consciousness of itself and the world such that people can create meaning for and in their lives and can choose based on those meanings and values.
Neither technical nor vocational training teach the skills of critical reflection. Only humanistic education has the potential to teach this empowering skill for human life. Moreover, the CLTL program operates under the conviction that if people can learn to critically examine the lives of characters in a novel or short story - assessing what makes the characters tick, what motivates them, what decisions derailed their lives, inspired them, and so on - they are that much closer to being able to critically examine and know their own lives. A great irony in life is that we are often most estranged from the person we are physically closest to - ourselves. As Plato suggests in "The Republic," only through critical self-reflection and inquiry can we emerge from the dark cave of ignorance into the full light of knowledge, including knowledge of ourselves, which brings the possibility of goodness and happiness to life.
The knowledge, goodness, and happiness that come from a life of critical inquiry and reflection is, indeed, the stuff of the fully human life. John Stuart Mill explains in his explanation of utilitarian philosophy that such capacity for reflection is what distinguishes humans from animals; moreover, he argues that our reflective, rational capacities are what set the standard for particularly human pleasures. We sometimes look at a dog, for example, lying peacefully on the grass with no cares in the world and wish we could be a dog with such pleasure. But, Mill explains, the pleasures of the human life are exponentially finer and more sophisticated than dog pleasures. We, as humans, can certainly experience the pleasure of the dog, lying in the grass under the warm sun. But, unlike the dog, we can experience also the pleasure of a well-written poem or novel, the pleasure of hearing a fine piece of music, of thinking about and understanding an argument or math problem. These are the higher pleasures reserved for humans, available only to humans.
To live beneath these capacities is to live less than a human life. To live without cultivating our capacities for these higher pleasures is to live a life much less than what God or Nature intends for us. The goal of the CLTL program is to remind the students - and ourselves as instructors - of these capacities and pleasures, to lure us all to the most powerful human life possible for us to lead, a human life that feels itself divine in scope and possibility. Humanistic training accomplishes this precisely because, by its nature, it engages those very capacities in human nature that must be cultivated for humans to live at the highest possible levels of self-knowledge, happiness, and self-actualization.
Larry Jablecki hired independent researchers affiliated with the University of Texas to study and measure the results of the CLTL program in Brazoria County. The results of that study are available from him or from elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say here, the program achieved its desired results in extraordinary fashion, based on interviews with participants who had completed the program. The program achieved its desired results with me as well, as an instructor and facilitator in the program. I felt my own life changed and transformed by my study of the texts of the CLTL curriculum and by my engagement with the participants. I am honored to have played a small role in the realization of the program's goals in people's lives.