‘Prison Rhetoric’ Not For Squeamish

by Erica Mundell

During May term this year, Transylvania University students will be taking one course that allows them a greater focus on a subject in which they have interest. Some may be traveling out of the country, while others will stay and learn on campus. But the one thing these classes have in common is that they are unique.

Whiddon's class is designed to help students go beyond their "knee-jerk" reactions to prisons.Unique is just one of many words that may be used to describe Dr. Scott Whiddon’s May term class this year. “Prison: Rhetorics and Readings” will focus on texts, documentaries, films and even television shows, not just about inmates and prison life but also made and written by inmates themselves.

There is also the possibility of two visits to a juvenile detention center and a medium-security prison. The grades in the class will be based mainly on responses to the readings and films. There will also be one take-home exam.

But what is the inspiration behind such a class? When attending Louisiana State University, Dr. Whiddon became inspired for his dissertation in an unlikely place.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was about to drop out of grad school,” he said. “I was doing well, I had a nice scholarship, but I wasn’t happy. I was wondering what use anything scholarly that I was doing would matter outside of academia.”

During this time, Whiddon was invited by a friend to go to the Angola Prison Rodeo in Louisiana. “I knew Angola and its history,” said Whiddon, “but I thought, ‘What the hell?’ ” The rodeo is a sport for the spectator. The participants are inmates, competing to garner outside interest.

“While walking around, there were tons of booths set up. I found the booth for the ‘Angolite’,” he said. The ‘Angolite’ is the publication produced by the inmates of Angola, Louisiana’s only maximum-security prison, and the purpose of such an undertaking is rehabilitation. “From the 1950s to the 1970s, there was a buildup of the rehab programs, and there was a dismantling. And despite that, the ‘Angolite’ is still going! And it has totally changed from what it used to be,” said Whiddon.

“On the way home, I was flipping through a couple of back issues given to me by Kerry Meyers, a man with a life sentence. And I realized what I had in my hands,” said Whiddon. “The average reading level for an inmate in Angola is about fourth grade. Very few have diplomas or GEDs, and even fewer have gone on to higher education. And here was all of this thoughtful, insightful writing, done by the inmates.”

The next morning, Whiddon called his professor to discuss his idea. “I called her and asked her to meet me for breakfast,” he said, “and she agreed and hung up. I distinctly remember the click of that phone.”

After that, the process of getting into Angola and doing the research became an eight-month undertaking. “I had to get a background check and clear my project with the Internal Review Board at LSU,” said Whiddon. “But I also had the sponsorship of a local pastor who had been at Angola for 25 years, and he vouched for me.”

And so, through the research and data garnered by Whiddon over the two “really, really long” years it took him to complete his dissertation, called “ ‘To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’– Words, Walls, and the Rhetorical Practices of The Angolite,” he gained not only scholarly prestige (his angle on the rhetoric of prison had never been done before) but also an intense interest in the rhetoric in the separate universe that prisons become. This experience was his inspiration for teaching this May term class.

“This is an interesting set of texts and artifacts that we can use to look at rhetorical strategies we discuss in other classes like classical rhetoric or persuasion,” said Whiddon.

Whiddon made it clear that this class is not for the intellectually squeamish. “I welcome all into my class, but like most classes at Transy, it requires a commitment,” he said. “Some of the artifacts we will be looking at, like an episode of the show ‘Oz,’ shocked even me because of their intensity. And I’ve seen a lot.”

By looking at these various artifacts and analyzing the rhetorical strategies behind them, Whiddon hopes that the students in this class will learn to think beyond the knee-jerk reaction to prisons and inmates and take a deeper, more thoughtful approach to their issues.

Dr. Whiddon’s class will be from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in Haupt Humanities.


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