Abolitionist Pedagogy in the Neoliberal University: Notes on Trauma-Informed Practice, Collaboration, and Confronting the Impossible.

Author:Whynacht, Ardath


In this article, the authors offer a critical reflection on an experimental critical criminology seminar course that was designed to provide a framework for abolitionist learning. Trauma-informed pedagogy and peer-led learning are suggested as concrete ways to build and maintain spaces of trust and vulnerability while tackling difficult subjects such as violence and systems of oppression. When students are supported in forming new and different relationships with each other, alternative and more radical forms of collaboration and imagination become possible. Despite the challenges posed by the neoliberal university, trauma-informed pedagogy and radical forms of collaboration and imagination can hold space for abolitionist learning in the university classroom and beyond.


A STRONG EDUCATION IN CRITICAL CRIMINOLOGY REQUIRES ATTENTION to abolitionist theory and critical prison studies. However, teaching and practicing abolitionist analysis requires both the professor and students to acknowledge their complicity in the carceral state and continually reflect upon cycles of violence in ways that can touch upon personal experiences with state or family violence. Unresolved traumas, anxiety, and hostile learning environments can make this kind of learning difficult. How can one help students to feel safe connecting their victimhood to the carceral state while also examining their own complicity in violent structures? Students face deep pressures and tensions inside the neoliberal university, where individualism, competitiveness, and rationalism are rewarded and collaboration, emotionally informed analysis, and consensus building are discouraged. Experiential learning requires us to not only theorize about the world in distant ways, but also connect these theories to real, complex, and messy experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. Practicing abolitionism requires students to be in solidarity with each other as they seek to engage members of the public on issues of penal policy and crime control. The following article shares insights from a critical criminology class that sought to use trauma-informed practice, insurgent collaboration, and creative writing to respond to some of the challenges of teaching and practicing abolition.

Abolitionist Pedagogy

One of the primary advocates for abolitionist approaches to deconstructing the prison industrial complex is political activist, academic, and author Angela Davis. According to Davis (2003), prison abolitionist approaches are not singular strategies of dismantling prisons. Instead, prison abolitionist strategies must reflect an understanding of the complex connections between institutions that we often see as disconnected. Prison abolitionist work requires critical reflection on how our present social order, which is embedded in a complex array of social problems and injustices, must be radically transformed (ibid., 69). Abolitionist pedagogy, then, must also commit to exploring the complex and seemingly infinite connections between the violence of the prison and everyday life. It is not enough to teach critical criminology within the narrow confines of disciplinary critique; one must encourage students to hold space for complexity and to compassionately acknowledge their own experiences (and complicity) with the carceral state. This approach can create discomfort for students who have unresolved experiences with state or interpersonal violence, as it forces them to complicate notions of victim/offender and see beyond the binary logic of guilt and innocence. We believe that abolitionist texts can and must be taught in the classroom. Abolitionist education explicitly intends, through content and instructional methods, to work toward liberation from a system of neoliberalism, oppression, and mass imprisonment.

The Neoliberal University

Mount Allison

Mount Allison University is a small liberal arts and science university that sits on unceded Mi'kmaq territory between the shores of the Bay of Fundy and the Northumberland Strait. The institution prides itself on being a Canadian equivalent to a US Ivy League liberal arts college, ranked as the top undergraduate university by MacLean's magazine for 18 of the past 25 years of its history. The institution has one of the highest numbers of Rhodes Scholars per capita in Canada and attracts high-performing students from both public and private schools. These students live and work alongside students from the Maritime provinces of Canada, who often have drastically different cultural and class backgrounds. The university is located in the town of Sackville, New Brunswick, which has a population of roughly 5,000 residents. The university is the backbone of the town's economy, although there is also a strong arts and culture scene supported by local galleries and an independent music festival that takes place each summer. The neighboring community is Dorchester, a village that borders upon the Mi'kmaq community of Memramcook and is home to Dorchester Penitentiary, a federal correctional institution that was built in 1880 and is the second-oldest federal prison in Canada. For most of the previous century, it held all maximum security male prisoners in Atlantic Canada, but it has since been downgraded to a medium and minimum security facility that specializes in men who require protective custody and/or are serving long-term sentences. The university and the federal prison complex represent the two largest employers in the neighboring towns of Sackville and Dorchester. Many local students from the Maritime provinces go on to seek employment in either border control or correctional services upon graduation.

Individualism, Competitiveness, and Perfectionism in the Classroom

Coupled with the conflicting demands of the job market and a desire among student activists to transform their communities is the institutional context of the neoliberal university. This environment forces students to compete against each other for top grades, scholarships, and recognition from professors and administrators, who occupy an elite institutional hierarchy that is built upon the exploitation of part-time faculty and underpaid maintenance and administrative support staff. The neoliberal university is a structure that replicates and maintains the role of discipline as part of the carceral continuum as described by Michel Foucault. The university itself as an incubator for the human sciences, a breeding ground for discursive structures of power/knowledge that are implicated in the organization of power, reduces even the most radical abolitionist phdosophies to abstract terms that students must manipulate--through practices of citation and memorization--in the competition for grades and prestige. As Eli Meyerhoff (2015) suggests, the prison and the university are "two sides of the same coin," and prison abolitionists must also work toward abolishing the neoliberal university. Indeed, one cannot ignore the role of the university in replicating and maintaining global capitalist power relations that patent, subjugate, objectify, oppress, and exploit. As the Undercommoning Collective (2016) has declared, the university consists of "a force of racialized and class-based figures of authority, enforcement, and violence that guards, incarcerates, entraps, on the one hand, and on the other, punishes freedom, solidarity, and communal potential." In the rural, settler-colonial context of Atlantic Canada, where the prison and the university sit side by side as the largest employers in the region, and given the tenuous position of students inside the neoliberal university, which rests on their ability to comply with the demands of individual competitiveness, discipline, and obedience, we were deeply aware of the need to hold space for different relational patterns between and among students (and their professor) as a practice of abolitionist collaboration. Was it even possible to teach abolition in a meaningful way, given our position inside the neoliberal university?

Anxious and Traumatized Students

Our experiences with and ideas about violence cannot be held separate from our analyses of the carceral state. As Angela Davis (2003) has pointed out, the foundational logic in the carceral state is one of violence. Our course was designed to begin from the places where we had all been impacted by, or witness to, such violence. Students were cautioned from the very first day to assume that their peers could have had experiences with violence, crime, or the criminal justice system in ways we may not be aware of. Barraclough (2010) identifies the challenges of teaching prison abolition in a similar setting, that of a small liberal arts college in Michigan with a reputation for social justice and a student body that is also largely white and upper middle class and has little direct experience with the criminal justice system. Her challenge was to convince students of the problematic ways in which they are always already implicated in the carceral state and encourage them to work against the distancing awarded to them through their privilege. Our challenge was of a different nature, namely, that of the grinding intensity of vulnerability as we worked our way through discussions of violence and incarceration once a week for a three-hour seminar. We struggled with the weight of intimacy and relationship budding in an institution that rewards distancing and objectivity. Shalka (2014, 21) points out that at least two-thirds of students on an average college campus have had a serious traumatic experience prior to attending university. We know that many students on our campus have experienced family violence, sexual assault, or intimate partner abuse. We began, intentionally and slowly, from that place and labored to create the conditions in which these vulnerabilities could allow for different patterns of relating to emerge as part of the...

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