HL90 ES: Prison Abolition

We’re excited about Thomas Dichter’s new HL90 this semester! Thomas told us some more about the class’s format and activism component.

Tell us about your class!

This course will give students an opportunity to apply historical and literary methods to studying the prison abolitionist movement, while also getting hands-on experience working with activists. Alongside our readings and class discussions, students will work in small teams on volunteer projects with organizations that are working to transform the criminal legal system. The goal is not just to move between “theory” and “practice,” but to see how the distinction between those two things may not be so distinct after all. 

How will this class help students understand the present?

The idea of prison and police abolition has garnered a lot of public attention in recent years, and in 2020 especially. But these ideas didn’t just appear last summer, and in fact there have been other times, like the 1970s, when the notion that prisons might be abolished received remarkably widespread support. We’ll also explore different social movements that many prison abolitionists have drawn on for inspiration or claimed as political ancestors. 

Do students need any particular experience or familiarity with this material to take the class?

Nope! Everyone is welcome, whether you’re new to thinking about these issues or you’re a committed prison abolitionist. I really want the class to offer something to everyone, and for everyone to be able to offer their own perspective to our collective exploration of this complex and difficult topic.

What are the assignments like?

Rather than ending the class with a long seminar paper, this course has a handful of shorter written and collaborative assignments. For one thing, your volunteer work will count towards your grade, and you’ll have opportunities to reflect on it in writing. There will be some short writing assignments to practice key close reading and historical contextualization skills, and there will be a number of assignments built around group discussions and collaboration—including a final exam you’ll complete with a team of classmates.

How can students find out more about the class?

I’ll be holding open Q&A sessions on Friday 1/15 and Tuesday 1/19 (details are on the Canvas site). You can also reach me at dichter@fas.harvard.edu. I’m looking forward to meeting any students who may be interested in learning more about the class!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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