A dissertation defense behind bars

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Education Justice Project, University of Illinois

Students at the Danville Correctional Center.  Photo credit:  Rebecca Ginsburg, Education Justice Project, University of Illinois.

It was a June morning when I got out of my car and walked towards the barbed wire and concrete of the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security men’s prison in central Illinois. The guards behind the plate-glass windows cleared me through the six mechanical locked doors to enter the facility. I walked past the dining hall on my right and the cell-houses on my left towards the education building. Finally, I reached the classroom where I was holding a mock dissertation defense with a committee comprised of 15 incarcerated men.

The men were college-level students taking classes through the University of Illinois’s Education Justice Project, where I volunteered as a tutor for two years. They graciously gathered as a group to read and critique a significant portion of my dissertation, “Re-institutionalizing America: The Politics of Mental Health and Incarceration in America, 1945-1985.” The project explored the history of confinement in the state mental health system, where involuntary commitments were used on a massive scale until the 1970s.

But why would I possibly hold a second defense when even the first one had frayed my nerves enough?!

The period of time after finishing a dissertation offers a perfect opportunity to gather feedback in order to strengthen the project for the book revisions. As a public historian, I wanted to hear the critiques of these students in particular. While I write about the politics of confinement, I have not myself experienced it. I wanted to hear the perspectives of men in prison, who did not have their liberty, even if they haven’t had experiences in the mental health system, the focus of my study.

While not all of them agreed about my work, a few key shared critiques emerged. A number of them argued that I needed to integrate the perspective of the patients into my work more. From their experience, society often undervalues the voices of incarcerated people. The Education Justice Project has even created Education Justice Radio, a program of student reports that broadcasts weekly on WRFU and online. Because the program showcases the voices of people behind bars, that perspective bled into their critiques. They urged me to work harder to include such voices in my book.

Student(s) at the Danville Correctional Center, Courtesy of Rebecca Ginsburg, Education Justice Project, University of Illinois

Students at the Danville Correctional Center.  Photo credit:  Rebecca Ginsburg, Education Justice Project, University of Illinois.

Second, the men saw a number of economic connections between incarceration in state mental health institutions and prisons that I had not drawn out enough. Contemporary state governments (and the predominantly rural towns where those institutions often reside) rely on prison jobs and income today just as they had relied on the massive mental health hospitals for income and jobs during that earlier era. The inmates themselves live with the economic implications of the prison system every day. For instance, they spend their time next to the guards and administrative staff from the rural Illinois region whose main livelihood comes from their incarceration. They understand all too intimately the economics of state institutions and their deep value to many communities across America, a point I did not explore enough.

In addition to critiques drawn from the men’s own lived experience, it was also valuable to present my work to them because they are deeply interested in the history of confinement. This history is particularly important to them because they live the practice of mass incarceration on a day-to-day basis. They challenged me to not just write for an academic audience but for a public one as well, so that today’s practice of imprisonment could be better understood and reformed. Public historians have long had a commitment to opening up research to popular audiences and to communities most affected by that history.

Many colleges and universities are increasingly valuing community engagement as a part of research and scholarship. Public historians have long been interested in the practice of public engagement. This dissertation defense behind bars stresses how the concept of public engagement does not just have to apply to seasoned scholars. Instead, it can have meaning for graduate student work as well. Young scholars can connect with the communities their work speaks to at an early stage, sharing their work and learning from the experiences of people affected by these issues.

Anne Parsons is Assistant Professor of History at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she teaches Public History and studies the history of confinement.

  1. Reginald D. Jones, Student at DCC via A. Parsons says:

    The following is a post written by one of the participants in the defense and posted by Dr. Parsons.

    Critiquing a Scholar

    When I initially signed up for Dr. Anne Parsons’ Mock Dissertation Defense, I was thrilled to be one of the first EJP students to have this opportunity. I was also very curious about the process one endures which leads to the awarding of a doctoral degree. After reading the assigned material and listening to Dr. Parsons deftly answer questions from the student panel assembled, I became aware she was not awarded the degree she sought; she had in fact earned it.

    During the defense, Anne accepted my critiques of her research in a welcoming way and that relieved my apprehension. Who would have thought I would have the chance to critique the findings of an actual Ph. D candidate? I felt compelled to let her know the legal citations to which she referred in her dissertation could and should be more precise, because readers might feel compelled to use her research as a point of reference to further their own course of study. A point which is magnified by the fact legal references change depending on the part of the country you are in, especially when the source cited is not a federal-level cause. Therefore; a citing from the State of Pennsylvania is more difficult to find in Illinois.

    I was also one of the students who stressed the need to hear individual voices of those directly affected by the seismic shift from mental health assistance in asylums to actually incarcerating these individuals as a result of changing legislative policies; policies which turned a blind eye to the necessity for asylums in an effort to expand the Prison Industrial Complex, which turned asylums into prisons nationwide.

    As an individual who is currently incarcerated I’m well-aware how this shift from mental health treatment has caused individuals and their families’ unnecessary pain and anguish. Because the sentences many are serving could have been avoidable if the same funds which keep them incarcerated were used to provide adequate medical treatment and therapeutic opportunities . And it is for these reasons I hope Anne and her colleagues will continue to reveal this otherwise hidden history to the general public.

  2. Cragg Hardaway, EJP, University of Illinois, via A. Parsons says:

    When Anne first started asking the men of EJP how they felt about her presenting her dissertation defense here at the prison I thought is this white women gone crazy. Everybody knows that a dissertation defense is something that happens in a academic university with several prestigious people who all have doctorates degrees deciding if the graduate student has successfully acquired enough knowledge to join the ranks of his/her fellow esteemed colleagues. It’s not something that takes place in a multi-purpose room in a prison serving as a classroom for three hours, right?

    Looking back my initial reaction was how in the hell did Anne plan on bridging the gap between the university and the prison, and what the significance of this endeavor? Intrigued with the thought of possibly sitting in on a dissertation defense I started asking questions; what is a dissertation? What goes into the defense of a dissertation? What are the expectations of the graduated student and the committee? And what is Anne expectation of me/us serving as a mock committee?

    When Anne explained that my task was to read and critique a significant portion of her dissertation, “Re-institutionalizing America: The Politics of Mental Health and Incarceration in America, 1945-1985” I thought how cool is this. I felt so many things at once i.e. empowered, liberated, and honored. I can’t speak for all the men who found themselves in the same situation (being on this committee , but being incarcerated has a way of devaluing a person worth, so when Anne provided a way for us to show that we had the academic currency to critique her dissertation, I for one felt empowered.
    In a way Anne validated all that we are doing here at EJP, while embodying the atmosphere of what we are teaching and learning every day, “That one moment doesn’t define who you are, but it’s what you do after that does”, and for me that has been pursuing my education and trying to give back to society.

    Why do I believe that having a dissertation defense is significant in institutions like Danville or any prison across America? For one it open the doors to a part of Academic that has been closed off to a segment of the population that has been condemned and stripped of their [personal liberties] it also gives them a voice to weigh in on matters concerning policies.

    What I found intriguing was what happened afterwards. Anne admitted that some of the ideas raised during our mock dissertation were not critiqued during her dissertation on campus, and that she was going to consider revising her dissertation to include them. If this is not a good reason for having a mock dissertation at a prison then I don’t know what will.

  3. Cathy Stanton says:

    It’s great to hear these thoughts from people who participated in Anne’s “mock” dissertation defense (and I put “mock” in quotation marks because it’s clear that this was actually a serious exchange for both sides). It takes such a lot of effort to have voices and ideas flow across these kinds of systemic barriers, in either direction!

  4. Anne Parsons says:


    I agree! Thank you for your support.


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