Collaboration unlocks philosophy's biggest questions


- Stephanie Harrington

New course by Audrey Yap brings together UVic and incarcerated students in September 2019. She's seen here outside the VIRCC.
UVic philosopher Audrey Yap, who launches the new course this fall, outside the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre (Wilkinson Road jail) in August 2019. Credit: UVic Photo Services.

Philosophy undergrad Madeleine Kenyon wants to walk the talk.

In September, she will be among 10 University of Victoria students who will join their counterparts on the “inside” for a first-of-its-kind philosophy course at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre (VIRCC).

The new partnership between UVic’s Faculty of Humanities and BC Corrections puts a powerful spin on experiential learning, with UVic and incarcerated students learning side-by-side about big issues including justice, free will and human nature.

Kenyon, an honours student who aspires to be a philosophy professor, says she wanted to sign up for the course, called “Conceptions of Justice and Engaged Pedagogy,” as soon as she heard about it.

One of the points of philosophy is to have a better understanding of the world and how to communicate with other people. I’m excited to be in a setting where people are not within the same institutional set-up I’ve always been in.

— Madeleine Kenyon, UVic philosophy honours student

Course inspired by Inside Out program

Audrey Yap, an associate professor in UVic’s Department of Philosophy, was inspired to create the new course after the successful Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, which runs at two Vancouver Island universities and was founded in 1997 in Philadelphia.

Rather than studying criminology as Inside Out students do, the UVic class will be reading and discussing works by the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, feminist scholar bell hooks, civil rights leader Martin Luther King and writer Albert Camus, including his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Yap, who also teaches in UVic’s University 101 program, which offers free, non-credit academic courses to people who have faced barriers to learning, ran a successful pilot project last year at the Wilkinson Road jail with then-student Adam Donaldson.

Audrey Yap and Adam Donaldson inside VIRCC in September 2019
UVic alumnus Adam Donaldson (left) says the line between people on the “inside” and “outside” is a lot thinner than people think. Dr. Audrey Yap (right) said the pilot project showed the incarcerated students are “hungry for critical thinking.”

Donaldson, who received his BA last summer from the Faculty of Humanities (with a major in history, minor in philosophy) worked for BC Corrections’ head office at the time. During a directed study, Yap and Donaldson decided to approach VIRCC to teach in the jail’s Right Living Community, which uses role modeling, social learning and peer accountability to support positive changes in thinking and behaviour.

Goal to make education accessible

Yap says the goal was to make philosophy accessible to incarcerated students while encouraging UVic students to learn from those with different perspectives and experiences of the world.

And she says the pilot project shows that the incarcerated students are “hungry for critical thinking.”

Yap recounts one occasion during the pilot when she introduced two texts to the class – Plato’s The Republic and the discourse on dualism by René Descartes – only to learn that one of the incarcerated students had already read both books, borrowed from the centre’s library.

She leads the class discussions by describing the general concept behind each reading and “applying a philosophy lens” but then “letting the students take it where they want to go.”

Yap says for incarcerated students, education is one of the best interventions against re-offending.

“It’s all about making education accessible,” she adds.

“A lot of them think they’re not good at school. They've been told they don’t have the capacity for abstract thinking.

"But they can think in sophisticated ways if they want to develop the skill.”

Gaining more than you give

For UVic students, the lessons can be equally profound. Donaldson, who will begin studies at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School this fall, says it’s important to recognize incarcerated students are human beings who have made mistakes.

“In society, I think people see these big differences between people inside and outside,” he says.  “The line is a lot thinner than people think. You can have one really bad day and that can change your life.”

Kenyon, meanwhile, needs little convincing about the initiative’s value. She says she was more excited to start this course than her summer vacation.

“I think it will be really good for me,” she says. “Hopefully we have something interesting to offer but I also expect to gain more than I give in this course.”

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In this story

Keywords: philosophy, social justice, University 101

People: Audrey Yap, Adam Donaldson, Madeleine Kenyon

Publication: The Ring

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