I started teaching in an online program for people in prison. I’m teaching a writing course to incarcerated men and women scattered across the country. If you thought the LMS was bad, wait until you experience the prison LMS, let me tell you. The students have to download all materials on to a proprietary tablet during certain times, find time and space to write their essays and assignments, and then re-upload them at the appropriate time from a kiosk. The tablets are notoriously unreliable. Some students didn’t have access to a word processing program. Others were on lockdown. One prison was without water.
And yet here I was in our training for teaching under these conditions being implored to be “flexible” with deadlines with the students.
Who the heck is docking people in prisons for late work? I marveled at the audacity of anyone who would say, that’s 10% per day or even 1% per day, to incarcerated people. We get weekly emails updating us on the status of all of the prisons we are serving. The list is long and all of them, it seems, are experiencing technical difficulties of different kinds, as well as other hardships.
And now because of COVID-19, some prisons are on lockdown and the site representative can’t enter the prison to man the kiosk to allow the students to download and upload course materials and assignments. These are students who are trying against all odds to complete a college degree, to try and make a better life for themselves and their families. Who am I to dock them anything for any reason?
So I don’t.
I think about my students in prisons as we send all of our students “home”, kick them off of campus, away from safe, reliable facilities and infrastructure. I think about how we had to mandate that our faculty postpone any assessments or assignments scheduled for the first week. I think about those faculty who are teaching in the prison program who penalize late work. I think about the faculty who are asking students to do more work, because now they have “more time” or to make up for the missing “seat time.”
I think about how I am unable to process all of this and can’t imagine students having to do the same in much more unstable and uncertain circumstances. I think about how I have a network, grown and developed over time, that I can rely on, virtually and in person, during this crisis, and how I would not have been in the same place when I was an undergraduate. I think about how change is hard, but trying to keep doing “business as usual” under these circumstances is even harder, more frustrating for everyone.
I send my students in the prisons a message, one that I don’t know when and if they’ll see it, telling them that the world has gone mad, that I was blown away by their rhetorical analyses, that I have been struggling and see their struggles only getting more challenging. And that I will still and always accept late work without penalty.
It feels like one lonely act of kindness, insufficient, but all I can do. Model what you hope to see in the world.