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Janelle Davis: Teaching Debate on the Inside

Every Tuesday for the last six months, Master of Arts in Cultural Studies student Janelle Davis has traveled to the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, where she teaches public speaking and debate. Getting to class means emptying her pockets and passing multiple security checks.  Once inside, she participates in an active college learning environment, a result of ongoing leadership and organizing on the part of inmates, volunteers, and community partners.

Davis works on campus as an assistant coach to UW Bothell's forensics team, and a peer consultant in the Writing and Communication Center.   She traces her current volunteer work with prison inmates back to social and academic engagement that began as an undergraduate.  In 2008, while attending Linfield College, she participated in a showcase debate against inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem, Oregon.  Dr. Jackson Miller, Linfield's Director of Forensics, had begun working with the Capital Toastmaster's club inside OSP to teach inmates the fine art of debate. His work since has grown to include an annual tournament held inside the penitentiary, and attended by multiple colleges from Oregon and Washington, including UW Bothell.

Janelle came to the IAS’s Master of Art in Cultural Studies program with a commitment to deepening her research and teaching skills while exploring directions for her future education.  In the course of her studies, Davis learned about the nonprofit University Beyond Bars (UBB) through IAS Assistant Professor Dan Berger's course Prisons, Politics, and Activism.  Davis then took Public Art and Social Change, a mixed enrollment course that draws students from both UW Bothell and WSR, taught by IAS Lecturer Gary Carpenter. These courses, combined with her experiences in debate and tutoring Spanish, led Davis to design a public speaking and debate class for UBB‘s fall term.

Over the last six months, Davis has worked with incarcerated students on their speaking and critical thinking skills as they engage in lively and thoughtful discussions about race, class, criminal justice, and communication ethics. Each class period looks a little different – students have given impromptu speeches on famous quotations, written and memorized informative and persuasive speeches, and lately they've been honing their argumentative skills in formal debate rounds.  Most class periods include a combination of lecture, discussion, and activities as students work through ways of applying communication theories to both their coursework and their everyday lives.

Davis’s students say that they value learning practical communication skills and really appreciate the open discussions and debates in class. “In particular, learning to argue from multiple perspectives is very useful to them, and having discussions where their thoughts and opinions are received critically but with respect is, they say, quite meaningful. Opportunities for dialogue are somewhat limited in prison, and having a place where they are treated as intelligent and valuable human beings gives them a space to express themselves and to really consider what and how they think,” says Davis.

“This has been the most rewarding six months I've ever spent,” Davis says of her teaching. “I've learned so much, not just about teaching, but about people, systems, and incarceration.”

Davis, now a second-year student in the Master of Arts in Cultural Studies program, hopes to use these insights in her upcoming capstone project, a narrative exploration of prisoner reentry experiences. “I’ll be doing storytelling workshops with former prisoners,” Davis says of the project, “which is in some ways an extension of the work I’ve been doing inside the prison already. The problem of mass incarceration is huge, and I hope to revisit some of these same questions in the future as I continue to pursue an academic career.”  Davis hopes to build upon the academic and community work she has done here in IAS as she applies to PhD programs in communication studies.