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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

Professors instruct humanities class at Indiana prison

During the spring of 2016, Pierpaolo Polzonetti, a professor in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS), made the 45-minute trip from South Bend to Westville, Indiana, every week to teach a course on opera history. Polzonettis’s class in Westville was unlike anything he taught at Notre Dame — the final destination on his trip was Westville Correctional Facility, where he taught inmates the same PLS course he taught at Notre Dame on the history of opera.

“The course is designed for non-music majors and intersects with politics, history, literature,” Polzonetti said in an email. “Opera becomes a pretext to talk about many other things, but I also insisted for a technical, rigorous, analytical approach.”

Polzonetti is one of a few professors who have traveled to Westville to teach inmates. Both associate professor of English Kate Marshall and professor of PLS and English Steve Fallon — whose program Polzonetti cited as an inspiration — have made the journey west to teach at the prison.

Fallon, who had previously taught courses at homeless shelters, said he was inspired to start this program by two members of the Bard Prison Initiative — an initiative which, according to its website, “creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences.”

“I was inspired by their report of running a rigorous liberal arts program in several prisons in New York state,” Fallon said in an email. “I then joined a Notre Dame and Holy Cross College faculty steering committee, which began exploring and then mounting a liberal arts program at Westville Correctional Facility.”

Fallon said his students at Westville enjoyed his course, which focused on the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton, for similar reasons as his students at Notre Dame.

“They loved discussing the bottomless complexity of ‘Hamlet’ does Hamlet cross the line from feigned to real madness?” Fallon said. “... They loved Shakespeare’s psychological acuity and the beauty of his language. With Milton, they loved thinking about and discussing the questions Milton raises.”

Polzonetti said it initially took his students a little while to warm up to the idea of learning about opera.

At first it just sounds boring and looks weird,” he said. “Eventually it fills every cell we got with beauty and meaning. In their class evaluation one student wrote, ‘Learning opera! It is awesome! The technical side is complex and wonderful.’”

The success of teaching students about opera, Polzonetti said, is rooted in making it a more accessible media.

“We must share our talents and knowledge with people who did not have a chance to be exposed to forms of culture that are unjustly presented as elitist and preserved as inaccessible to most of our fellow human beings,” he said. “If we relegate opera, classical literature, art and music, etc. exclusively to the enjoyment of wealthy people living in big cities or to small groups of people who gain access to the academic ivory tower, these forms of culture won’t be more relevant to our society than collecting old stamps.”

The ability to engage operas with those who would not usually be able to experience this media helped Polzonetti to gain a broader perspective and bring his experiences back to Notre Dame.

“These students for the most part never expected to be in the kind of academic environment we are fostering at Westville, one that we are designing to be as much like Notre Dame’s academic environment as is possible while situated in a prison,” he said.

Fallon said the program was important in helping to gain a broader perspective, and said it can be seen as an extension of the University’s mission.

I see offering a liberal arts degree program at Westville as guided by the Catholic Social Teaching and the preferential option for the poor.” he said. “Notre Dame has amassed great intellectual wealth, and I see it as our responsibility to share that wealth.”