My name is Celena Todora, and I am a fifth-year PhD candidate in the English Department. My dissertation, “Liberatory Education in Anti-Liberatory Spaces: Rhetorics of Freedom in Prison Education,” examines my role as a participant-observer working with two prison education initiatives coordinated by local abolitionist organization Let’s Get Free (LGF): Let’s Get Smart and Knotweed Salon. I am grateful to have received the Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Fellowship for the 2021-2 academic year, as it has enabled me to continue my active role in working with LGF, further refine my research design, and go through the IRB process. At this midpoint in the year, I am taking this time to reflect upon the opportunities and challenges I have experienced thus far.
First, I will talk a bit about my work! My dissertation focuses on two programs: Let’s Get Smart, which seeks to promote access to higher education in PA state prisons through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and Knotweed Salon, a correspondence-based political discussion group with participants on the inside and outside of the prison walls. These two approaches to facilitating education for incarcerated people have differing methodologies but a shared political vision of abolition. Interviewing LGF activists and examining my role as a participant-observer working within these two projects, I explore how prison education activists frame their work as “liberatory,” ultimately aiming to contribute to the liberation of (non)incarcerated people, despite working between institutions that may impede these goals.
Since beginning my fellowship, my work has gone a little differently than expected, as I have been adapting to the IRB process and revising my research design. Taking this additional time to reflect on design has brought positive changes that I did not anticipate. While I had initially planned to focus solely on Let’s Get Smart, I realized that my research question would be better answered through a comparative look at Knotweed Salon as well. Additionally, after one of the facilitators of Let’s Get Smart had to step back, I became the sole facilitator, which brought many challenges as well as opportunities. This shift largely does not impact my research design, as former facilitators are still happy to participate in interviews, but it has shifted my weekly responsibilities to some extent. Largely, I have more content to write about, as I am interested in the struggles of activism, and lessened people power is certainly a significant strain on liberatory goals!
Having a fellowship has also made it easier to devote time to more auxiliary activities related to my career and activist goals. I also participated in a writing workshop last semester, which helped me produce drafts of professional documents as well as a dissertation chapter. Most importantly, I have been able to take the time to attend LGF meetings and events, like their most recent art show, which exhibits the work of artists on the inside and outside of prison walls. I am grateful for the experience of working with a community organization because I am able to see and make meaningful connections between my work and the world beyond my computer monitor! This has been especially inspirational during the pandemic, when it’s been difficult to find inspiration all around.
For me what has been most difficult about fellowship life is lacking the structure that teaching and coursework provided me in previous years—and this has been exacerbated by the monotony of spending most of my days in the same space and mostly seeing others behind screens. I have found that it is important to find a work schedule that works for me but gives me work-life balance. What has been most helpful for me is setting up regular co-working sessions with colleagues (virtual and in-person) for accountability and structuring some of my time. As someone who experiences ebb and flow of inspiration throughout days/weeks, often at irregular times, I appreciated how this fellowship enabled me to work with my times of inspiration outside of a traditional work schedule. The downside of this was fighting against societal messaging of when I should or should not be working and turning of my “work brain” when I wasn’t working. For other humanist grad students currently applying for fellowships, I recommend working on shifting your mindsets about work that are counterproductive as much as possible. Don't beat yourself up if process is slower than expected or you aren’t doing work in the way you had imagined. Any work is good work, especially during a pandemic.
Overall, I am grateful for this opportunity, and I encourage other graduate students doing community-engaged work to explore the Immersive Dissertation Fellowship!