January 23 2018

Quotes, Notes, Questions

by Joshua Dubler, University of Rochester


Last fall, I taught the course Theories of Religion to students at New York’s Auburn Prison through the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). As funded through a recent grant from the Mellon Foundation, CPEP is in the process of expanding its program from two facilities to four and is assembling a consortium of area schools to participate in it. The University of Rochester, where I am an assistant professor of religion, is one of these schools.

I required my Auburn students to complete a weekly writing assignment. Below, I present the assignment in full, as it appeared on the syllabus, with notations to follow.

  • Weekly writing assignments1 will consist of three quotes, three notes, and three questions from and about the assigned text. A few words on each:
    • A quote is a passage from the assigned text. A quote may be as long as a paragraph or as short as a word. In selecting your passages, you should choose quotes that help you to illuminate something important in the text. You may feel like you “get” the quotation perfectly, or the quotation may make no sense to you whatsoever.2 Either is okay. (Please note page numbers.)
    • A note is an observation or extended meditation about the text. Notes may comment on the text’s language, style, tone, or bias.3 They may attempt to explicate something complicated, call into relief an unstated premise, or argue for a limitation or implication of the author’s argument. Your obligation in your notes is not to be “right,” but rather to be thoughtful and probing of the text.
    • A question is a textual question.4 That is, it is not a biographical or historical question that might be adjudicated through outside research.5 It is rather a question about what something in the text means, does, or commits the author to.
  • In writing up your weekly writing assignments, you will likely find it easiest and most fruitful to sew your quotes, notes, and questions together. That is: choose a pregnant passage, transcribe it, analyze it as best you can, and where your analysis runs aground or leads you someplace provocative, pose a question that you’d like to discuss in class. Repeat twice more and you’re done.
  • Weekly writing assignments will be judged on quality not quantity. For those looking for guidance, however, I expect your assignments to run in the ballpark6 of 500–600 words. Depending, however, among other things on the lengths of your selected quotations, that estimate might run high or low.
  • Weekly writing assignments will be given a grade7 of √+, √, or √-. A √+ paper is characterized by probing engagement with a broad selection of textual elements. At times it clarifies, and at others it muddies the waters. It evinces critical thinking, offers original insights, and poses pointed questions. A √ paper demonstrates competency with the text. Its selections are considered, but a bit concentrated or safe. Its explications intrigue, but stop short of producing aha moments. Its questions are thoughtful, but do not necessarily break significant ground. A √- is a slapdash affair. It evinces the half-baked thinking and ramshackle prose that only a looming deadline can provide. It confuses as much as it enlightens.

QNQ Goals

The Quote, Note, Question (QNQ) has four primary goals. First, in combination with the list of keywords drawn from the week’s assignment, which I distribute in advance, it offers a structure for fostering critical reading. Second, by forcing students to put their thoughts down on the page, it is intended to bridge the gap between the privacy of the text and the public space of the classroom. Third, on the theory that conversation moves naturally from the concrete/particular to the abstract/universal, but rarely if ever drifts in the other direction, I use student-selected passages to firmly root class discussion in the text. By doing so, we reinforce together as a group what critical reading looks like in practice, and we pinpoint, assess, and preserve for future usage that week’s critical vocabulary. Fourth, as sketches in analytic writing, QNQs serve as incubators for the ideas and arguments that will grow later in the semester into proper analytic essays.

The Quote, Note, Question is a generic assignment. While I vary the number of required QNQs by course level and enrollment, all of my students are required to complete at least one per week. Part of my rationale in presenting this assignment in the present forum then is to implicitly argue the case that a prison classroom is just another classroom. There are important pedagogical and political implications to this position, and to an overwhelming degree it has the advantage of being true. Once you’ve made it through the baroque security protocols, and navigated the maze of the prison, what you find yourself in is an ordinary classroom with its familiar classroom rhythms, and the prison fades away. But particularities matter. What follows are annotations to the assignment presented above. In these notes, I hope to illuminate for those interested in prison teaching some of what I take to be the unique challenges and opportunities inherent in teaching—and in teaching religion—to incarcerated students.

A few caveats: First, I know for a fact that my undergraduate female TA from the fall never experienced the prison “fading away;” that is to say, my own positioning as a middle-aged man who has spent a fair amount of time in prisons is not incidental to my experiences or correlative judgments. Second, my teaching to incarcerated people has largely been limited to men’s prisons with relatively stable populations and robust student cultures. For those teaching in county jails or in other facilities with transient populations, the observations that follow are potentially inapposite. Third, even within this narrow context I address, one encounters a wide range of student personae and attitudes. For every point I make below, I simultaneously hold in mind many who defy the delineated molds.

  1. "Weekly writing assignments…"

    Courses in prison meet only once per week. Perhaps needless to say, students have no access to online course platforms. In contrast to classes on campus then, where I can receive and process students’ responses in advance of class, when teaching in prison this is impossible. What I do consequently is to divide each class session in two parts. In the session’s first half, we return to and discuss for a second time the assigned text from the previous week, but now with selected passages and an agenda drawn from their QNQs. Only in the session’s second half do we turn to the reading and writing assignments due that day.

  2. "…or the quotation may make no sense to you whatsoever"

    Much of the thrill of teaching incarcerated students (and I say this as someone who has otherwise taught mostly at selected private institutions) is getting to engage with an entirely different set of students than the ones to which I am accustomed. Compared to my students on campus, my incarcerated students bring to the table a very different set of life experiences and perspectives. Nor are they subject to elite academia’s standard conventions and mores. This presents additional challenges and obligations—for example, a good number of my incarcerated students struggle in their writing with grammar and syntax—but it also opens up a wonderfully expansive set of textual responses. Does something in the text strike them as preposterous or impenetrable? My incarcerated students generally won’t pretend otherwise. In far greater proportion than their on-campus counterparts, as discussants, my incarcerated students provide precise guidance in helping me to clarify that which requires clarification.

  3. "…comment on the text’s language, style, tone, or bias"

    Because they have not been acculturated into the pre-professional, middle-class rules of engagement that tend to govern intellectual exchanges in on-campus classrooms, incarcerated students are less likely to mask their own commitments. This makes for especially interesting teaching in the case of religion. In prose and in class, I’ve had students categorically dismiss religion in crude secularist terms, and I’ve had students testify to their god. On occasion, a student has made a direct play for my soul. I won’t say this sort of boundary obliviousness/refusal is always welcome, but it is indicative of this: to a startling degree, for my incarcerated students, classroom learning is no mere exercise. The paucity of other opportunities for nourishment and growth is in this regard surely partially determinative. But as incarcerated people, my students tend to feed off of and feed back into the pedagogical encounter in holistic and soulful ways. In contrast to the norms on campus, what my incarcerated students read, what they write, and what they say is in no way walled off from how they live. Could a humanist ask for anything more from his or her studies?

  4. "…a textual question"

    At the heart of the discipline instilled by the Quote, Note, Question is a mulish insistence that rather than fleeing the text an attentive reader is required to stick around. Incarcerated or not, students are generally reluctant to abide by this imperative. The difficult text is an alien place, a destabilizing place, or a boring place. Better to abandon it for what one already knows, and knows well. This goes double for my incarcerated students, many of whom have come to higher education later in life, and for whom an essay by Saba Mahmood or Cornel West might as well be written in a foreign language. The most studious read them precisely in this way, with a dictionary and pen in hand. Others grab onto the first familiar thing they come across like driftwood in a flood. Because it’s my job, and because I believe deeply in the value of such encounters, I try to force them to go further. It sometimes feels ridiculously professional or haughtily imperialist to impose such disciplines onto radically subjugated men. Because I’m a pragmatist and a softie, I do not defend protocols to the letter. But overall, resisting the urge to relax expectations seems to me like the pedagogically responsible thing to do.

  5. "adjudicated through outside research"

    Incarcerated students have no access to the Internet and limited access to information more generally. In planning one’s assignments, one needs to keep this in mind. Depending on local rules and culture, an instructor may be able to supplement research materials as the semester goes on. When doing so, however, one needs to be aware of where the institutional boundaries lie.

  6. "ballpark of 500–600 words"

    Higher education breeds in some incarcerated students a kind of perfectionism. While for many, as is broadly conventional, a word limit provides a ceiling, for others, it’s a floor. Regardless of the stipulated parameters, I’ve found that some students will wildly exceed it. I try to protect these extraordinary students from themselves, but to date they have proven resistant to such protections.

  7. "grades"

    On campus, I don’t generally give weekly assignments grades. The first time I taught in a prison, I began by not grading them there either. However, early feedback suggested that my anti-hierarchical aversion to grades was making my students uneasy. So I started giving grades. Further feedback indicated that students wanted not only grades, but an honest grade range that clearly—and widely—distinguished excellent work from less excellent work. For a time, I came to oblige this preference as well.


Public advocacy for prison education generally focuses on the power of education to effectively reduce recidivism and to assist formerly incarcerated people with social reintegration. These effects are real, but the reasons to get into teaching incarcerated people go well beyond such narrowly measurable outcomes. As with our students on campus, humanities education is an intrinsic good that fosters for incarcerated people aspects of the good life regardless of their conditions. It says something about where we are as a society that carceral spaces are one of the few sites where the humanities are thriving, but that’s where we are.

Teaching in prisons isn’t revolutionary, but it’s not nothing either. As American citizens, we are at our most complicit with mass incarceration when we allow the rigid barrier between the incarcerated and the free to stand unchallenged. By bridging these boundaries and by bringing incarcerated people into our institutional lives, we whittle away at the dehumanizing invisibility on which mass incarceration depends. Along the way, those who teach in prisons discover just how extraordinary these teaching experiences turn out to be.


Davidson, Howard S, Editor. 1999. Schooling in a “Total Institution”: Critical Perspectives on Prison Education. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Fitch, Brian D., and Anthony H. Normore. 2012. Education-Based Incarceration and Recidivism: The Ultimate Social Justice Crime-Fighting Tool. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Karpowitz, Daniel. 2005. “Prison, College, and the Paradox of Punishment.” Studies in Law, Politics and Society 37: 305–331.

Pompa, Lori. 2002. "Service-Learning as Crucible: Reflections on Immersion, Context, Power, and Transformation." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 9 (1): 67–76.

Scott, Robert. 2013. “Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison,” Radical Teacher 95: 22–32.


Joshua Dubler is a critically engaged scholar whose teaching and writing takes place where American religious history and ethnography intersects with critical theory and with the theory of religion. Among other topics he teaches classes on religion in America, Islam in America, theories of religion, guilt, genealogy, and pilgrimage. He is author of Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). With Andrea Sun-Mee Jones, he is the coauthor of Bang! Thud: World Spirit from a Texas School Book Depository (Autraumaton, 2007). With Vincent Lloyd, he is currently writing a book entitled Break Every Yoke: Religion, Power, and the End of Mass Incarceration, which looks to marshal religious resources toward prison abolition. He is also working on a cultural history of the concept of guilt in America.

Photo: A student raises his hand in a English seminar facilitated by Cornell University at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Credit: Cornell Prison Education Program.