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Professors and Prisons: Teaching Creative Writing from Beyond Prison Walls

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MISHAWAKA – When you think of college professors and prisons, they aren’t normally found in the same sentence. One is an institution for higher learning and excellence, while the other is a place that holds the lawbreakers and criminals of our society. They are very much on different ends of the spectrum. Jennifer Ochstein, a writing and English professor at Bethel College, found a way to bring them together. In her spare time, she volunteers in a creative writing program that connects prisons from all across the United States. The program is through Ashland University, Ochstein’s MFA alma mater.   

Ashland is] able to offer a liberal arts education to these inmates with the hope that once they’re released, they will at least have a portion of their [college] education and can go back for more”, said Ochstein. “Or they can do their entire education while they’re incarcerated.”  

Since Ochstein is a full-time professor, she teaches the online portion of the Ashland program. She first became involved with it last year and has been involved ever since.  “At first I was nervous doing it, mostly because you just don’t know what the students will be like,” she said. “But it’s actually turned out to be amazing. The students that I work with are just really incredible people….I’ve just been very moved by the situations that they find themselves in, them owning up to the mistakes that they’ve made and wanting to figure out a better way to live.”   The program has greatly impacted both Ochstein and the students in positive ways. It has given her a new and rewarding experience, and the students get to better themselves and attempt to turn their lives around, even if it is one typed paragraph at a time. However, if the program does effect the students in a positive way, Ochstein has no way of knowing.    “The difficult part about the program is that I only interact with them during this 12-week online English 101 program,” Ochstein said. “Afterwards, I don’t really have any more contact with them because…the system we use is a very closed system and it’s very restrictive.”   The inmates have limited access to the Internet and electronic devices for understandable reasons..    “I never know what happens to them, if they finish or when they’ll be released, or if they graduate,” Ochstein said. “So that’s a little bit of a difficultly for me, but I wouldn’t stop doing [the program] because of that.”   The lack of communication between Ochstein and those in the program has certainly created its own set of trials, since the professor is accustomed to speaking to her students face to face.    “It is such a challenge,” Ochstein said. “For example, I can only interact with them individually, so I can never create online discussion boards, because the students aren’t allowed to interact with each other. They also can’t message me first, so I have to initiate the message.”   Despite the challenges that face a predominately online program, Ochstein not only perseveres, but enjoys her interactions with the students. Being dedicated to a program such as this one can be difficult, but Ochstein has found it to be very rewarding. The end certainly justifies the means, especially if the students benefit from the program.   A wide range of students participate in the program, and most are not from Indiana.    “I originally thought that I would work with students from a particular prison, but it actually turns out that the students are in prisons all over the country. I actually work with a lot of students in Ohio and down south in Louisiana.”    The geographic diversity of the students has provided Ochstein with stories and writings from varying backgrounds and histories, expanding her view of those in her program.    “[The work completed by the students] is actually very similar to any introductory Written Communications II class that I’ve taught here,” she said. “Typically they start out with a more personal piece that asks them to explain who they are as an individual and how they’ve found themselves in the position that they have found themselves in.”    Ochstein has noticed that those in the program tend to open up about their situation and their lives, and become “attached” to you since you are in the outside world. They even look forward to doing their work, if it only means interaction with someone on the other side of the prison walls.   “They so look forward to doing the work, and they so look forward to getting feedback from you. Their enthusiasm for [the program] was not something that I was expecting at all, and their desire to hear from you and interact with you, because you’re in the outside world, it can be really moving and touching to see them be so enthusiastic about their academic work…Their enthusiasm is almost childlike.” 
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