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  • Karen Barnes Kaplan

Teaching Math & Science in NJ Prisons: An Interview with Gillian Knapp


Gillian Knapp, Emerita Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University, began teaching math and science courses in New Jersey prisons in 2005. But Jill, as she prefers to be called, insists that it’s the teachers who learn the most from teaching in prison. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation about how she came to co-found the Prison Teaching Initiative, and what she sees as crucial next steps for higher education and the incarcerated population.


My involvement in teaching in prisons was the result of several things; it’s always several things. I’ve been aware, all my life, of the terrible treatment of black people in this society. And I myself, as a young woman physicist in the days when there weren’t many of us, was often on the receiving end of people’s blind assumptions.


When I was a graduate student at University of Maryland, the campuses tended to be quite segregated. A new chancellor came in and was very interested in desegregating the school. He started a program called Intensive Educational Development, in which graduate students like me helped other students with settling in, tutoring if needed, that sort of thing. And that was great for me.


The sciences are very white, and very male. The American Physical Society, which is centered in Maryland, did studies looking across the various sciences at distribution by race, gender and so on. They found--to no one’s surprise--that physics and astronomy were the most white/male sciences. So-called under represented groups--women, people of color--were more often in the social sciences and psychology. And there’s no reason at all for that. When I came to Princeton, I was given responsibility for the Graduate Student Program in astrophysics, which was a huge opportunity. We worked specifically at integrating the program.


Another influence: I was a bit jealous of two daughters of friends, both of whom are physicians. They worked with Doctors Without Borders. One served in Uganda and the other in Ecuador. I thought, “I’m doing astronomy, which is not nearly so useful.” But then I realized: “I’m also a teacher! I’m a useful human being!”


One last point: My children are adopted from South America. Just seeing how they were tracked, and how the children of color were tracked, in high school--differently from the other children. And this is here, in this progressive community with good public schools. Right before your eyes, and yet no one seemed to see it.


So all of those added up to my saying, That’s it. Something needs to happen. I’ve got to get going. At Princeton, we started this thing called the Prison Teaching Initiative in 2005, modeled on a similar program in San Quentin, in California. We started teaching with Mercer County Community College; they’d had a program in the prison for 30 years, first through Pell grants and later through the Second Chance Act. Students earned a certificate. When we joined to bring more math and science courses into the prisons, it was always with the intention to build it out to a degree program. The person who really made this happen was a fellow named Mark Krumholz, who came to us as a postdoctoral fellow from U.C. Berkeley. [Dr. Krumholz now teaches at the Australian National University.]


I have to say, there were few barriers to teaching coming from the Department of Corrections. Most of the difficulties are on the academic side. The academic world is not very good at thinking through its obligations here. And the obligations are enormously strong. We’ve all seen the huge difference that a degree program makes.


Anyway, a few of us started. It took a few years to build up a program. The courses were taught in the evening, and I remember at first we’d be the only ones in the basement classrooms at Albert Wagner [Youth Correctional Facility, closed in January, 2020]. But the next term, we’d add another class or two, and pretty soon the whole place was humming in the evenings. It felt like a real college.


I want to point out: the people who really learn in these courses are the teachers. If I could wave a wand, I’d require every first-year college professor to teach a course in a prison. We learn about our subject, and we learn about teaching. And the students: They so badly want to learn. In spite of all they have been through, they hand themselves to you -- the trust is astonishing. And they won’t let you move until everybody in the class understands the lesson. That’s how you learn how to teach.


The Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) RISE program [Returning and Incarcerated Student Education] provides the Associate Degree program inside the NJ Department of Corrections facilities. One of the super things that RVCC has done is bring more science course offerings into the program. In the past, there’s been a lack of interest in incorporating science courses--not on the part of the students, but on on the part of the supporting academic institutions. That’s changing. So this semester, I’m co-leading an Intro to Environmental Sciences. But I’m really a strong advocate for teaching more math. It’s the easiest thing to teach, for one -- it only needs paper and pencil, no special technology, no movies. And math courses are a door to so many other disciplines.


One spring, we had a final exam for three math courses all going in different rooms at the same time. In the middle of the exam period, there was a sudden disturbance in the courtyard. In my class, which was preparatory math, the students were distracted, laughing, and finally we all said “Ok, let’s get back to it.” Afterward, I mentioned it to the other teachers. The one leading the intermediate class said, “Yes, one of the students said, ‘It’s just some foolishness out there’ and they went on with the test.” The advanced algebra teacher said, “Nobody even looked up.”


It was such a revelation. You’re not just teaching people a subject: the more they learn, the more deeply engaged in it they become! They’re growing up as they study.


Another anecdote: A young man taking an algebra exam was saying under his breath, “Come on! Come on!”--I couldn’t get him to be quiet. But finally he looks happy and starts writing. And as he turned in the exam, he said, “You know, these problems are like picking a lock. You work at it and work at it, and suddenly it gives.” And that’s a good description of solving a mathematics problem. But his friend in the class said, “You pick locks? I just smash them.” And I must say, that was his approach to mathematics as well.


As far as the future of our program, and programs like this: There are two overwhelmingly important directions. One is to get college-level courses into every prison in the country--with the right kind of support, like tutoring. The prisons love it, as far as I know, because the students now have a hope of doing something different. And the students know perfectly well they can lose the right to take a class, or to stay in the classroom through the full term, if they don’t follow the rules. It’s really good for everybody all around. So that’s #1: Get a really settled, solid program inside, properly funded, because most college-level teachers need to be paid.


Second, we need to offer courses in mathematics and science that can apply to a degree program in that area. There are courses that fulfill a distribution or “gen-ed” requirement, but wouldn’t count toward earning a degree in a particular discipline. They’re different from courses that help satisfy degree requirements. In a prison program, we don’t have the capacity to teach both. So we need to offer math and science courses that can apply to a degree. And the students are perfectly capable of handling the major courses, that’s my experience.


I’m encouraged that it’s beginning to get through to many heads of universities that they have a responsibility to extend our resources to this community. If you ever want some insight into why education matters, go to a graduation ceremony in one of the prisons--it’s amazing. And yet, I had no idea. I’ve always taken it so for granted: that if I wanted to learn something I’d have the opportunity to do it. I mean, people used to say to me, “girls don’t do physics,” but they didn’t actually stop me. And watching people being stopped -- the cruelty of it just appalls me. You’re who you are, and you’ve been told that you can’t do this. We’re talking about doing physics or mathematics, or writing a novel. And for somebody else to say, “Sorry: not for you. You’re not one of the people who gets to do this.” It has to change.


As for tutoring at FORTE House: I’ve had very little experience so far. There’s a student there taking statistics, and we work on the problems together over Zoom. I would very much hope that when [COVID-19] clears up and we can be in the same room again, I would get to come to FORTE House and tutor mathematics in person. I’d really like to do that.