UIC Institute for the Humanities

Notes from the field

From: Anne Parson, Assistant Professor,University of North Carolina at Greensboro
2011-2012 UIC Dissertation Fellow, Institute for the Humanities

Dissertation Defense behind Bars:

In May 2013, I defended my dissertation, "Re-institutionalizing America: The
Politics of Mental Health and Incarceration, 1945-1985" at UIC. A few weeks
later, I held a second defense at Danville Correctional Center with a
committee comprised of fifteen incarcerated men. The men were college-level
students taking classes with the University of Illinois through its
Education Justice Project, where I had volunteered as a tutor for two years.
They gathered as a group to critique my project, which explored the history
of confinement in the state mental health system. As a public historian, I
wanted to hear the critiques of these men in particular. While I wrote about
the politics of confinement, I had not myself experienced it. Recognizing
that vantage point, it became important for me to hear the perspectives of
men who had themselves lost their liberty in the prison system.

While not all of them agreed about my work, many of them urged me to
integrate the perspective of the patients more. Also they saw a number of
economic connections between incarceration in state mental health
institutions and prisons that I had not drawn out enough. They themselves
lived with the economic implications of the prison system every day and from
their vantage point, money played a far larger role than I had described.
Finally, they challenged me to write not just for an academic audience, but
for a public one as well. Ultimately, the experience deeply humbled me and
their suggestions will greatly deepen my work.

Photo credit: "Students in the Education Justice Project" courtesy Rebecca
Ginsburg, University of Illinois.


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