History at Bard Prison Initiative (feat. Delia Mellis)
Alumni Aloud Episode 40
Delia Mellis is the Director of Program and Faculty Development for the Bard Prison Initiative and an alum of the Graduate Center’s PhD Program in History.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Delia discusses her passion for teaching and learning. She speaks at length about the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that extends teaching into six correctional facilities in New York State. She also talks about finding the motivation to finish her graduate degree.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Di Wu. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
This podcast episode was produced by a Graduate Center student who participated in an Alumni Aloud fellowship offered through the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. This programming was sponsored by the CUNY Central Office Career Success – Workforce Development Initiative.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
DI WU, HOST: I am Di Wu, a PhD candidate in the Computer Science program at the Graduate Center. In this episode, I sit down with Delia Mellis, who is Director of Program and Faculty Development for the Bard Prison Initiative at the Bard College. Delia earned her PhD in the History program at the Graduate Center. In this episode, Delia discussed her passion about teaching and learning. She introduced us to the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that extends teaching into the six correctional facilities in New York. She also discussed the most important motivation that can help us to go through the hard work of getting a PhD. Delia lives in New York and we met in person at Bard College. Hi Delia, we’re so happy that you can join this show. Could you please introduce yourself?
DELIA MELLIS, GUEST: My name is Delia Mellis and I was a History PhD student at the Grad Center. I studied with David Nasaw, he was my dissertation advisor, and a number of other excellent professors in the history program. And I’m currently the Director of Program and Faculty Development for the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). I also am one of the history professors for BPI.
WU: What was the experience you had at the Graduate Center and how did you move to your current career?
MELLIS: At the Graduate Center I took almost entirely courses on African-American and US History. My major was US and my minor was African-American. I took a couple of European history classes. I wrote my dissertation on a race riot that happened in Washington DC in 1919, so my studies, for most of us who study US history, we study the whole sweep of it. But the focus of my research was the late 19th and early 20th century race relations and racial violence in the US. When I finished the dissertation I had already started teaching. Unlike many Grad Center students I did not teach, I didn’t adjunct while I was in coursework, mostly because I couldn’t afford it; I needed more income than I could get by adjuncting. But I did hold the writing fellowship, which connected me with the Writing Across the Curriculum program, which was a fairly new initiative at CUNY at that time. But I was lucky to have the fellowship at Queensborough Community College and I gained a tremendous amount of training as a teacher and also really help for my own thinking about my own academic work while I held that fellowship.
And it also led to a reconnection with Bard College, where I had been as an undergraduate. Because Bard is a very writing-based institution and the Writing Across the Curriculum initiative at CUNY has a lot of resonance with Bard’s writing-based approach across the undergraduate college. So that happened while I was still a student and I began teaching for Bard in the summers in their language and thinking workshop. Which is an introduction to college workshop for the incoming undergraduates at Bard. And also as I was finishing, I got a job teaching… I was adjuncting at Barnard and then I was also adjuncting at Hostos Community College and, both of those were incredibly rewarding and interesting teaching assignments. To be at Barnard working with, I was teaching a junior colloquium so I was working with upper-level students who already were moving, you know, toward the degree. And then at Hostos I was teaching survey courses. So I got to do like advanced seminar and intro courses at the same time, which I think was incredibly helpful for my teaching and also for my thinking about what I wanted to do as a professor. And what career path, which way my heart was pulling me as a teacher, who I wanted to teach and where I wanted to teach.
WU: Sounds cool! What do you enjoy most about your job? And what do you find the most rewarding part of your job?
MELLIS: Since I’ve been at BPI… I started at BPI just before teaching and then moved into an administrative position. And most of us who are administrators at BPI also teach. I love to teach and I love being in the classroom with students. Being challenged about what I think and what I believe and also hearing their questions and challenging them. And engaging with this material which, I’m a historian, I’m profoundly concerned with historical questions and historical thinking so being able to practice that with really motivated and intelligent and thoughtful students is incredibly rewarding. I’m lucky enough to have an administrative position that is also very focused on teaching. My work mostly revolves around faculty and development and faculty support. I have other administrative work which I also find really compelling but the bulk of my work is with people who are teaching our students or are contemplating or we are contemplating them teaching. And so I get to think about teaching and learning with other educators all the time whether they’re my colleagues who are administrators or whether they’re teaching for us.
WU: So could you please explain what exactly is BPI?
MELLIS: The Bard Prison Initiative is a program of Bard College. Bard College has it’s main campus in Annandale in Hudson, New York but Bard also has campuses in very unlikely places all over the world from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and that’s the American university in Central Asia, there’s a campus of Bard… They’re all partnerships with other colleges at these international sites. There’s one in Jerusalem, there’s one in St. Petersburg, Berlin and also Bard partners with the Boards of Education in cities around the country, particularly in New York City. So they have Bard High School Early Colleges. It’s a growing aspect of the college. And we have the Bard Prison Initiative, which has campuses in six different correctional facilities around the Hudson Valley and in New York.
BPI, the Bard Prison Initiative, also has a new program called a micro-college and we have a couple of sites that are not in prison but that offer the same curriculum and the same instruction and the same model as the in-prison campuses. So we offer a Bard Associate’s degree, a liberal arts degree, to incarcerated students in these six different facilities and at the micro-college’s. We also have a Bachelor’s degree at one of our sties. Our curriculum is the Bard College curriculum. Our pedagogy is the Bard College pedagogy, this writing-based pedagogy. And that’s sort of where my path as both a Bard alum who had this education myself as an undergraduate and the Graduate Center student with a writing fellowship and this sort of deep relationship to writing-based pedagogy come together.
WU: What is the expectation for faculty to teach at BPI?
MELLIS: Our expectations for faculty are that they have high expectations for our students. We don’t think of what we do as prison education, we think of it as education. We don’t want prison pedagogy, we want pedagogy. One of the things we say to our faculty over and over again is that we want them to teach the same courses inside as they would on the street. We can’t have lab sciences and we are limited in terms of the studio arts and we don’t have a lot of technology. Working with a blackboard not a smartboard. But aside from that, again, in terms of content, in terms of expectations for students, we really want our students to get the full range of teaching and of challenge and of possibility that professors would bring to any students, any good students in any setting. We are giving Bard College credits and Bard College degrees and so the college holds us to the same standards that they hold to everybody else whose conferring these credits and these degrees. We don’t want people to be completely inexperienced teachers because again we don’t our students to feel or to have an experience that’s “less than” the experience of the students on the main campus. That said, we do often hire people who are newer to teaching who demonstrate teaching ability. We don’t want people who are really curious about prison because we’re not, that’s not…you’re going to go in a classroom and you’re just going to be in a classroom. And we don’t want tourists or…
WU: Story writers.
MELLIS: Story writers, yes. We don’t want researchers. Our students are not research subjects, they’re students. And yeah that’s a really important one. We’re not offering tourism or experimentation.
WU: Any other challenges?
MELLIS: Well yes of course! You’re in a carceral environment and it has many challenges to it, yeah. There are probably pretty predictable challenges. From the very beginning you have to pass a background check. Then you’re entering a secure facility and the department has its general rules and then each of the prison’s has its own rules and its own process. It’s different to come into Fishkill then it is to Woodburn. And, but everybody has to go through security, everybody has to make sure they don’t have their cell phone or any other electronic devices with them. And then I think also by the same token, you can’t communicate with students except when you’re in the building with them. You can’t send them emails, you can’t get emails from them, which for most of us is probably a relief, but it means that you have to think ahead more, you have to plan more. You can’t bring in materials that you thought of at the last moment.
You have to get your materials cleared in advance. Usually that’s not a problem in terms of getting them cleared but you do have to plan in a different way than most of us who don’t have to do that are accustomed to doing. If something comes up in discussion one day in class, you can bring in or make reference to something. Send your students to find something that our students… they don’t have internet access and so anything that comes from the internet needs to come through the college. So those kinds of logistical challenges are sometimes considerable. That kind of planning and thinking through can feel really difficult. It also helps you be more creative and more self-reliant as a teacher.
WU: Thanks a lot for sharing your experience at BPI. So let’s talk a little bit more about yourself. A lot of students now getting to graduate school for jobs. If you’re going to get a job in computer science, accounting, maybe a good choice of major. From my understanding, history is not the first major to get a job.
MELLIS: *laughs* No.
WU: So I would like to ask you, how you felt and how you are feeling?
MELLIS: Well how I felt. I am not a good example for this because I went to graduate school to study history because I wanted to understand history. I was not career-minded, I never thought I would be a teacher. I was sort of resistant to the idea of being a teacher, ironically enough. Because now my whole focus aside from the specific studies is teaching and how to do it well and why it matters and I’m so into it. But I really did not think practically about what this might lead to. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay, I wanted to see about it when I went, when I first started. And I really struggled to initially, to learn how to be a graduate student. But I was bit by the bug immediately. You know I knew that the way of thinking and the kinds of texts and the kinds of conversations we were having in classes and the challenges of the work, I felt that was completely exciting and compelling for me. But the more practical aspects and the kind of life of the graduate student.
Also living in New York City as opposed to going off somewhere in the prairie where rent was cheaper and other things were pulling on me less. I was, I had already been living in New York, so I already had a life. So it was very challenging for me to sort of move out of that previous life and into the life of the graduate student. And it was only after I’d been at it for some time that I started to recognize the possibilities of an academic life and the richness that that could offer and the kind of, to really… I think it was a little bit of self-image thing for me to see myself as an academic was exciting and different. So I don’t think, I think I’m atypical in that way, especially now of people who are choosing to do a PhD. Because it’s so very hard and as a history student right, you better love it. You should only do it if you love it and it’s what you want! And I think that better, that should be true across the board. Because if you are trying to be practical, you should not be doing a PhD. *laughs* It’s a beautiful thing to do, it’s a vestige of a time when scholarship was valued and possible in ways that it is much more constrained now. And you should be able, I think you should luxuriate in that and embrace. And if you can’t do that, if you’re trying to do it to get to something else, there must be a better way. There must be a better path.
And I’m afraid that I really think that, in particular about teaching. That even if you don’t know how to teach and you can’t imagine how you would want… how you would be able to teach, that you should have some drive to teach. Because that’s the only thing a PhD makes.. it doesn’t even guarantee that! It absolutely doesn’t guarantee that. But I think the life of the classroom and the space of the classroom and what you feel like in that space and who you are in that space should inform your decisions about that. Because it’s very different, as you know, to be in the teacher role rather than the student role. But you’re all working together in that space of the classroom. And if you feel like that’s where you live as a student then you’re probably going to feel like that’s where you live as a professor. Even if, like me, it kind of takes you awhile to kind of come to terms with that. I’ve always loved being in school and in class. Even when I didn’t think I was very good at it. I think that that, you know… And I do, I mean I’m aware that the Grad Center now does more active training for teaching. I think I was in one of the last cohorts that didn’t have a teaching colloquium or some kind of more active than passive training for teaching. I think that’s really important.
WU: If you could do something differently when you were at the Graduate Center, what would you change?
MELLIS: If I could do something when I was a graduate student. I would, you know sometimes, often when I’m talking with people who are thinking about doing a PhD, I recommend, for instance, going somewhere else. Not staying where they are to do their degree which is what I did. I stayed in the midst of my life in New York, which I loved. And that was, what I saw as one of the benefits of going to the Graduate Center was staying in New York. And I love the mission of CUNY and I am so proud of CUNY and so proud to be a CUNY alum. But I’ve often thought had I gone somewhere where I didn’t know a lot of people and where I didn’t have a well-established life and world, that I might have been able to go deeper and go faster through the process.
I went one year for the first time to England. My sister and I went to Oxford and I saw the university and the way that the world of the university was in this small city. And I realized, oh this is the model. I realized in a different way, in a more visceral way. It’s a monastic model, right. The way that the graduate study comes from this monastic tradition where you’re… Not only is the study the only thing that you have to do but you’re also around other people for whom that’s true. And I thought, ok that’s why it’s so hard to do it the way that I’m doing it because it’s actually based on this other kind of life. But that being said, New York City. I mean, you know, living in New York and being in the world of New York those years was also really important for my education.
WU: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Delia for coming on the show to share her experience with our listeners. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every 2 weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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