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Faculty Spotlight: David Cunningham

Shortly after arriving at Washington University in 2015 to take up a position in the newly revived Sociology department, David Cunningham met Maggie Garb by chance at a friend’s backyard barbecue. Garb, a professor in the History department, had spent much of the previous two years getting the Prison Education Project (PEP) off the ground at Washington University and teaching its inaugural course, “Freedom, Citizenship and the Making of American Life” in the fall of 2014. At the barbecue, Garb asked Cunningham if he would ever be interested in teaching at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC). Even then, Cunningham remembers being “enthusiastic” about the idea, excited that he had come to a university where a program like PEP could flourish.

Two years later, while on a research trip to Jackson, Mississippi, Cunningham happened to have dinner with a friend who spent much of the evening talking excitedly about teaching college courses at a nearby women’s prison. The very next day, Cunningham arrived back in St. Louis to find an invitation in his email inbox from Maggie Garb, asking him if he would be willing to teach an introductory sociology course for PEP the following semester. In spite of the enormous set of responsibilities he had taken on to help rebuild a Sociology department almost from scratch, he couldn’t refuse the offer.

In the fall of 2018, Cunningham taught “Order and Change in Society” at MECC to a class of 15 students. It was in teaching one of the central books for the course—Shamus Khan’s Privilege: The Making of An Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School—that Cunningham most clearly began to appreciate the particular way his MECC students approached their learning. Khan’s book documents the experiences of students at St. Paul’s, an elite New Hampshire boarding school, to illuminate the ways that this and similarly elite institutions reproduce social inequality. Cunningham had previously taught the book a number of times, to students at Brandeis University and at Washington University, where the discussions had often revolved around students’ own experiences of privilege, including familiar routes of access to elite higher education and social connections, and the implications of this privilege for their future goals and civic engagement. At MECC, however, students also responded to Khan’s work with “wonderment,” marveling at the countless ways that the St. Paul’s students featured in the book were thoroughly and unquestionably supported in their educational pursuits for their entire lives. For the majority of students in the MECC course, there had been little to no support for their educational pursuits. The reading prompted a discussion in the MECC classroom about what institutions and the world at large would look like if everyone had the same experience of such unquestioned commitment to learning.

That semester, Cunningham was also teaching the “Order and Change” course to a class of 100 Danforth Campus students. With permission from MECC’s warden, Cunningham brought 15 of his Danforth undergraduates to MECC to hold a combined class session in the days leading up to Thanksgiving break. When both classes reconvened separately nearly two weeks later and debriefed about their experiences together, Cunningham was amazed at “how attuned the students were to one another.” Not only had the students learned a great deal about the course material by engaging others’ perspectives during the session, but even weeks later, the students from both MECC and the Danforth Campuses could remember names of individuals and the particular details of one another’s contributions to discussion in ways Cunningham had never expected.

Whether at MECC or on the Danforth Campus, Cunningham noticed that the students in the “Order and Change” course emerged from the semester having reached largely similar conclusions about the topics the course addressed. The paths students took to those conclusions, however, were very different and reflected the ways that sometimes profoundly different life experiences shape students’ engagement with the material. Most students, Cunningham observes, come to their courses looking for ways to make their learning relevant to their own lives and aspirations. PEP students are no exception. “PEP has helped me move from a generalized sense of how students apply what they learn, to a more finely tuned attention to what such engagement and application means to students, and to PEP students in particular.” There is “an added responsibility” to teaching at MECC, he adds, given that the incarcerated students have gone to extraordinary lengths to participate in PEP in the first place, often making hard choices about their personal lives and time constraints to dedicate themselves to their studies. In their college coursework, PEP students actively seek for ways to make their learning relevant to their lives, and, as Cunningham observes, sociology courses play an especially important role in this pursuit.

When the opportunity arose to teach again at MECC in the Spring of 2020, Cunningham jumped at the chance. This time, he enlisted two colleagues, Sociology professor Hedwig Lee and African and African-American Studies professor Geoff Ward, and an undergraduate teaching assistant, Kennedy Young, to co-teach an upper-level course, “Social Conflict.” When the pandemic led to the closure of the prison to outside visitors and instructors in March, the course moved online. In spite of the loss of connection in the classroom, PEP students remained incredibly engaged in their work, producing final papers and projects that have impressed Cunningham and his co-instructors.

For the past year, Cunningham has also been a crucial part of PEP’s leadership, serving on its executive board as PEP has expanded its course offerings and year-round programming. As the chair of PEP’s curriculum committee, Cunningham oversees the coordination of PEP’s academic offerings, ensuring that a rigorous slate of courses from a range of disciplines necessary for the completion of both the Associate in Arts and Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies degrees is offered each semester, including summer sessions.

To Cunningham, PEP’s work is a clear extension of Washington University’s mission. The “production of knowledge for the public good,” along with offering new ways of thinking about how this knowledge might matter, Cunningham affirms, are “nowhere more fully realized than in PEP.” PEP’s work ensures that educational opportunity reaches those who could otherwise be left behind, challenging barriers to educational access in ways that fully align Washington University’s institutional goals. Just as important, the students at MECC, much like those on the Danforth campus, are committed to using their education to make their own communities better. For Cunningham, PEP and its students are examples of WashU at its best.

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