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Adam Carter

‘Writers with Conviction’: Teaching Fiction in a Men’s Correctional Facility

ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla. – Many graduate students in the humanities are undertaking internships to enrich their educational experiences, including forays into the corporate world, higher education administration, publishing, and non-profit organizations. However, for Adam Carter, third year MFA at the University of South Florida, a graduate internship became a unique opportunity to harness his professional background with his studies in fiction writing.

Drawing on his ten years as a public defender in Indiana, Carter taught a fiction course in the Zephyrhills Correctional Facility as a graduate internship course. Carter was eager to bring a writing program into the facility, stating “I’ve always enjoyed working with what I would consider a population that is generally ignored.”

Discussions on tapping into his experience in correctional facilities with English Graduate Program Director Dr. John Lennon during Carter’s first year at USF led to the development of the program. The process was not an easy one: getting into the facility took almost a year of communicating with officials, showing his syllabus and explaining his background, and going through training. Finally, Carter was able to offer the course during the spring 2018 semester. Once a week, he taught fiction writing to a small group of men, ultimately handing out eight certificates of completion.

When formulating the course, Carter recognized the unique potential of fiction writing to help incarcerated individuals share their experiences and relate to one another. Carter explained, “Fiction is all about empathy for me. Fiction is literally the idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and so I think creative writing is a really powerful thing to teach in a correctional facility.”

He also stressed that he viewed his course at the correctional facility like any other writing course and thought of his incarcerated writers as students first, running his correctional facility class like his fiction courses at USF, with some key differences. Students began with a writing prompt, reviewed the readings from the previous class, participated in workshops, and talked about each other’s writing. One major difference was access to reading and writing materials. As students could not buy textbooks, Carter provided all readings in print form. Without access to word processors, students wrote by hand. However, this did not curb their production: three students wrote entire novels this way.

Also, unlike many students in undergraduate fiction writing courses, Carter’s student at Zephyrhills were not interested in exploring alternate worlds, such as fantasy or science fiction. Carter said, “They weren’t interested in any kind of mystical realism or anything like that. I had a really interesting conversation with one of my students where he said, ‘You know, you would think we want to escape but we deal in reality here.’”
The students’ infectious enthusiasm was immediately apparent to Carter, who stated that their level of engagement was “almost overwhelming.” It was, in fact, the most participatory class that he has ever taught.

The students even wanted to name their group, choosing the tongue in cheek “Writers with Conviction.” They did not have to be prompted to participate, and attention to the class readings and writings was never an issue. Carter was nervous about asking the students to participate in the first workshop, but they had already traded work and given each other feedback even before the official class workshop.

The class presented zero management issues. The students were good self-regulators and politely managed each other as well, including one student with mental health issues who would occasionally become disruptive but would be met with kindness and patience from his classmates. The participants genuinely enjoyed being in the class.

Carter relates a story in which the class started 15 minutes later than usual due to issues getting through security and a locked classroom. While, according to Carter, most college students would be itching to go home at that point, his writers were visibly upset, asking if they could make up the 15 minutes at the end of class.

When the course ended, the students overwhelmingly expressed their gratitude and appreciation. Carter said he has “never taught a class before where at the end they all wanted to take a picture. They all lined up and shook my hand when we left the last day. They all specifically asked as a group, ‘If you teach this again, can we be in the class? Can we do this again?’ Even though they weren’t getting college credit or time cuts.” While very few journals accept hand-written submissions, many students expressed interest in future publication.

In addition to teaching writing to the students, Carter gained invaluable insights into their lives and experiences that will inform his future writing. In his own writing, he explores socioeconomic issues and social justice, particularly crime. Inspired by his time teaching in the correctional facility, Carter attended the National Conference for Higher Education in Indiana in November, 2018, which afforded him the unique opportunity to network with other higher education professionals serving incarcerated individuals.

As a result of his experience, Carter encourages his fellow graduate students to follow their interests and create opportunities for themselves if they do not currently exist. He states, “It’s all about just putting your feet on the ground and getting out there and getting motivated…it’s about not just confining yourself to a traditional curriculum and going out and finding things that you’re passionate about and pursuing them.” The fiction writing course at Zephyrhills will continue, run by another USF MFA student. Carter’s experience shows the potential of graduate education to transform not only the participating students but also impact a community and establish permanent partnerships for the future.

Filed under:Arts and Sciences English    
Author: Elizabeth Ricketts