My reflections follow from Bob Meager’s insights into the melancholy that besets academics at this time of the year. I share his dismay about re-entry into a world that is often distracted by a war of words, where victory is often measured by the promotion of one camp over another. Clearly, in this war of words damage is done, directly to faculty members and students and less tangibly but no less critically to our intellectual lives and entrepreneurial spirits.
Yet I am intrigued by Bob’s use of the reentry metaphor, not in the least, because the topic of ex-prisoner reentry has been my primary research domain in recent years. His use of the term has a somewhat backward meaning—it suggests that as academics we experience freedom as lone practitioners engaged in knowledge production and then re-entry is a like voluntary imprisonment within the institutional structure of the college or university. Yet in the “real world,” the prison is the omnipresent and all-encompassing institution that plays a recurring role in the lives of people from poor and vulnerable communities and reentry is a process of being released into the communities where personal resources and economic vitality has been depleted by the cycles of mass incarceration. But then again, the idea of reentry as stepping into a world of highly constrained possibilities, devoid of freedom, is a quite appropriate description of the ex-prisoner reentry process also.
The complexity of the reentry metaphor is my starting point for two seemingly unrelated points of exploration. The first is: how do we best conceive of our connections and commitments as academics to communities with limited possibilities for freedom? And secondly, how do we maximize our promise as critics, with a special investment in creating space and time to develop human potentiality. Do we value our time for thought and reflection for only our own sakes, or do we see the power of this activity transcending the academic sphere?
This July I took on a new role as faculty advisor to the Center for Community Engagement at Amherst College. This has spurred my reflections about the first question and more broadly about the meaning of community engagement. Humanities scholars have been among the most vehement critics of new community engagement initiatives in colleges and universities; fearing that at best such efforts distract scholars and students from core academic pursuits and at worst promote harmful do-gooders and pander to those who are marketing higher education. What these critics have in common is a lack of imagination—either by characterizing community engagement in cynical and naïve terms or by seeing the “life of the mind” as inconsequential to efforts to make the world we live in a better place. Stated positively, what would it mean and what changes could arise if academics committed themselves to enlarging possibilities for freedom not only among themselves but also in the communities around them that see it in such short supply? This query, in itself, opens up possibilities, for collaborative knowledge production, theorizing about democratic life in the context of highly constrained institutions, and seeing the common boundaries restraining the creativity of the most and least privileged in contemporary society.
Considering these issues in the context of ex-prisoner reentry, the linkages between the challenges of scholarly inquiry and community survival are striking. In my scholarship I have shown how the new focus on reentry within the criminal justice system is a continuation rather than a reversal of mass incarceration. In particular, methods for supervision and treatment, many of them developed to manage the increasing numbers of women imprisoned, according to “gender-responsive” methodologies, are being applied outside the prison and incorporated within the re-entry bureaucracy. My critique is rooted in many strands of theoretical criminology while also drawing upon and reinforcing the knowledge produced within criminalized communities. Most emphatically this academic perspective recognizes the ethnographic realities of close contact with the criminal justice bureaucracy and everyday life in marginalized neighborhoods. This perspective runs counter to research and funding priorities; hence the cost of scholarly independence is the diminishing of voice and avenues of influence. In this regard, academics and vulnerable communities share important and common goals—in articulating an accurate and complex vision of social realities and maintaining integrity of purpose amidst countervailing institutional pressures. Whatever our reentry situation, academics and communities share the fundamental ambition of making our knowledge relevant, material, and in the service of expanding the possibilities for freedom. This is a formula for energizing our reentry.