By Kristin Sloane
One of the things that I've always enjoyed doing as a teacher … was figuring out how to make literature exciting to everyone—not just students and fellow academics—but how to take the beauty and the power of literature and share it with many others outside of the academy.
Andrew (Andy) Kaufman has been sharing his love of Russian literature with UVA students since 2005. A few years later, after having what he calls a life-changing experience, he decided to take his passion to a perhaps unlikely audience.
Andy is an associate professor and the creator of the popular UVA course Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership. In this community-based course, UVA students meet with juvenile correctional center students in Virginia to discuss Russian literature and how the readings relate to their lives.
“One of the things that I've always enjoyed doing as a teacher … was figuring out how to make literature exciting to everyone—not just students and fellow academics—but how to take the beauty and the power of literature and share it with many others outside of the academy.”
Books Behind Bars is celebrating its 10th year this semester. Andy’s course has received a lot of attention locally and nationally and is the subject of the recent feature-length documentary Seats at the Table by Chris Farina of Rosalia Films.
The film has premiered at a number of film festivals across the country, including the Virginia Film Festival last year. The greater University community will soon have another chance to see the film, which Andy says highlights just one example of community-engaged teaching and learning taking place at UVA.
The CTE is hosting Connecting Lives, Opening Hearts: Community-Engaged Teaching on March 23, as part of UVA’s first-ever Public Service Week. Through the documentary and a panel discussion, the event aims to showcase, celebrate, and inspire community-engaged work across Grounds.
“[President Ryan] is invested in teaching that helps promote the values of community, discovery, inclusivity, and service. He and I thought it might be interesting if the University community got a chance to see this film and then use that as a springboard for further conversation about what UVA is already doing and what else we can be doing.”
Andy is now well positioned to assist in building those bridges in his new role as the CTE’s Assistant Director of Community-Engaged Learning Initiatives.
“My role now is to support other faculty primarily here at UVA, but also at other universities and colleges, because there's a lot of interest in community-engaged learning.”
Andy tells us more about he got involved in this work and the impact he hopes to have in his new position.
Q. Where did the idea for Books Behind Bars come from?
A. As part of a National Endowment for the Arts-funded program called “The Big Read,” I was asked to do some workshops on Tolstoy for high school students, but also do a workshop in a prison for adult inmates. They asked me to facilitate a discussion about the story with a group of adult inmates who’d read it in advance. And that was my first exposure to the prison world.
In that hour and a half, I was thrown into a completely foreign environment. I had no idea what to expect. All my preconceptions about what a classroom is, who has the expertise in the room, were thrown out the window. I'd come in, had a traditional lecture and questions ready, had it all perfectly planned out, and I walk in, and instinctively, I just knew in that moment that everything I had planned was not going to work. So I threw it out the window and I simply asked them a very honest question: What did the story mean to you? And that's all I had to ask.
I just knew in that moment that everything I had planned was not going to work.
So I threw it out the window and I simply asked them a very honest question:
What did the story mean to you? And that's all I had to ask.
I was a student that day, having as much to learn from these men as they from me. And a light bulb went off. I thought, what if I were to create a class at UVA where I put my students together with a group they might not otherwise interact with? What would happen—and not just for the students, but for the community partners, too? What kind of powerful learning could take place on both sides? What kinds of human connections could be built? I didn’t know the answers, but was determined to find out. That prison workshop was the spark that led to it all.
Q. What has teaching Books Behind Bars for the last decade taught you?
A. It’s taught me how to view my job less as imparting knowledge and more as creating an environment in which significant learning can take place. It’s taught me that our students are hungry for deep learning and for meaning. It’s taught me how to connect what happens in a literature classroom with the needs and concerns of the community. It’s also taught me how many bright, gifted, creative young men and women there are in our juvenile correctional centers. These are young people who, if given both the chance and the trust, will work hard to get off the path they’re currently on. It’s also taught me the power of relationships in a classroom. The richer the human relationships are, the deeper the learning. The deepest forms of knowledge are always co-constructed, never unidirectional. Everyone in the class—the UVA students, the correctional center students, the instructors—we learn from one another.
I also learned the importance of risk-taking and being willing to make mistakes and even fail from time to time. Yes, we want our students to succeed, but we also need to let young people know that it’s okay to fail, and learn from their failures. Failure is often the greatest teacher—in the classroom, and in life. In an experiential learning class like Books Behind Bars, setbacks are inevitable. I as a teacher have to be okay with this—both for myself and my students on both sides—and let them know that it’s okay, as well. And then we can face these challenges together, figure out solutions together.
Q. Tell us a little bit more about Connecting Lives, Opening Hearts: Community-Engaged Teaching. What do you want people to know about and take away from this event?
A. This event is really an opportunity to let people see one example of what UVA is doing [around community-engaged teaching]. And I emphasize just one example because there are many faculty across Grounds who are deeply committed to this work and have been doing it for many years. In my short time in this new position, I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with some amazing people and units on Grounds who are passionate about ethically responsible community-engaged teaching: the office of the Vice Provost for Academic Outreach, the Equity Center, Madison House are just some examples. I look forward to having many more conversations with others.
I also hope our event in March will get the wheels turning, inspire others who are maybe on the fence to start seriously considering the rewards of community-engaged teaching. I want to advance the conversation about the power of this kind of teaching and how it is potentially transformative for our students and for our community, and even for faculty themselves.
Q. As the CTE’s Assistant Director of Community-Engaged Learning Initiatives, what do you hope to achieve in your new position?
A. I think about [my goals] in three different categories: inspiration, education, and communication.
There are a lot of people on Grounds already thinking about community-engaged teaching. Some may be daunted by the prospect of this kind of pedagogy. I want to help them identify what at the deepest level might compel them to want to do this kind of work even for reasons that they may not have thought about. And one of the ways you do that is you share stories about what other people have done. Once you get people's hearts involved, their minds will follow.
The second piece is what I'm calling education. That's the nuts and bolts of how you do it, what kinds of assumptions about a classroom need to be challenged and which are the same. Helping people think deeply, and also practically, about the paradigm shift that needs to happen to do this work—and do it in an ethically responsible manner.
And communication—in both directions. We need to be sharing the insights that come out of what we do with a wider audience, but we also need to be listening to a wider audience, understanding how this work fits into larger concerns and issues prevalent in our community and our world.
Even though my focus is community-engaged teaching, I think there’s something even bigger at stake here … and that’s rethinking what education is for, and who it’s for. This experience (Books Behind Bars) has challenged some of my basic assumptions about what a classroom is and can be, what “community” means, and how to teach in a way that honors our deepest ethical commitments as teachers and as human beings.
This experience (Books Behind Bars) has challenged some of my basic assumptions about
what a classroom is and can be, what "community" means, and how to teach in a way
that honors our deepest ethical commitments as teachers and as human beings.
These are some ideas Andy hopes to explore with attendees at Connecting Lives, Opening Hearts: Community-Engaged Teaching. The event is scheduled for Monday, March 23 at 4:30 p.m. in the Newcomb Theatre. The evening will include welcoming remarks by President Jim Ryan, the documentary screening, and a panel discussion moderated by Provost Liz Magill. It is free and open to the public. We ask that you please register in advance.
If you’re interested in talking with Andy about community-engaged teaching and learning, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Sanjay Suchak/UVA Today