Professor Teaches Winter Term Class at Local Correctional Facility


Winter term, colloquially referred to as J-Term, affords both students and faculty unique opportunities for learning and study. It is a time when each student may enroll in only a single academic, credit-bearing course and each instructor, similarly, teaches only one course. It is possible for students to study at the college or away from campus, independently or as participants in a course.

This J-Term, associate professor of sociology Rebecca Tiger extended Middlebury’s classroom to include the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vermont. The “Sociological Imagination” course that Tiger taught to 16 male inmates at the jail examined what it means to think “sociologically” about the world around us. The students used short theoretical readings by classical sociologists to understand current affairs in the U.S. They also studied short stories, audio, video and journalistic essays to think through fundamental sociological concepts like status, power and social control. In developing “the sociological imagination,” they sought to understand how individual experiences reflect the society we live in.

“Being able to teach a course in a correctional facility is one way to bridge the divide between spaces of freedom and spaces of constraint,” Tiger said. This is an important goal to her and her colleagues who teach about the sociology of punishment.

Tiger has been planning this course for over two years, which included her attendance at numerous training workshops and conferences on higher education in prison. Middlebury’s Fund for Innovation financed this preparation, and the course itself was fully funded by Middlebury through the dean of faculty’s office. Tiger advertised the class within the jail through a flyer, and community educator Chris Cosgrove selected students to participate based on who showed the most interest

Many inmates eagerly joined, and Tiger’s course thrived because of their willingness to participate and voice their opinions. “This is not an environment where there is a lot of critical thinking, so [the class] gave them something to get up in the morning for,” Cosgrove said.

Tiger said that the inmates were eager to talk about the course’s central topics of power, social control, inequality and social stratification because they hit so close to home for them.

The class culminated in a personal essay in which students applied the sociological lens to their own lives. This assignment was difficult because many of the students struggled with writing, but with encouragement and one-on-one tutoring they were able to conquer their insecurities. “The students were surprised at what they could do when they applied themselves and pushed through their frustrations,” Cosgrove said.

He explained that many of the inmates struggle with personal relationships because of underlying misconceptions about masculinity and gender roles they encountered in their upbringing. This class gave them an opportunity to confront these issues. Cosgrove added that his job focuses heavily on helping students learn new social facts to better equip them for life after incarceration.

Originally, Tiger had been told to expect inmates to become disinterested and drop out as the course progressed, but aside from those who got released, all of the students finished the class. “It was great for me to see a lot of the students’ enthusiasm about the class and to be reminded of everything that excites me about sociology,” said sociology major Julia Shumlin ’17.5, who worked as Tiger’s teaching assistant for the class.

Both Tiger and the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility are excited about continuing to collaborate in the future. Cosgrove, Tiger and Shumlin all hope that the next step is for the course to adopt an “inside-out model” in which half of the students are inmates and half are Middlebury students. Shumlin believes both Middlebury students and inmates could benefit from the variety of personal experiences an inside-out classroom would bring together.

“Because this class depends on using a theoretical framework to understand the links between individual circumstances and broader structures, the experiences of the students are so critical,” Shumlin said. “Middlebury clearly has some amazing resources and brilliant professors, and I think that [an inside-out classroom] could be a great way to expand that access and to build a really engaging class environment.”