Comparative Classrooms: Teaching to Transgress

Valerie Fendt

How do we value education, who benefits from it, and what are the impacts of Columbia classes inside of state correctional facilities?


This installation was a part of HEAR & NOW: An Interactive Oral History Exhibit, showcasing multimedia projects and stories recorded by the 2017 cohort of Columbia University’s Oral History MA program. 

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Inspired by radical educators, like bell hooks, and including professors at Barnard and Columbia, I became a teaching assistant for classes taught by Columbia professors for college credit at state correctional facilities through the Center for Justice. Featuring audio excerpts from those involved with prison education— as students and advocates— and materials taught and produced in those classes, this exhibit recreates on the outside a classroom on the inside.

Every classroom I have been in inside a correctional facility has been notable for the walls of windows: at least 2 full walls, either adjacent or parallel. Not only does this promote a sense of surveillance (or transparency depending on your perspective) it also has the very real consequence of making the classroom permeable to the sounds of the hallways and the yard, simultaneously. This is the cacophonous backdrop to college courses in correctional institutions. And yet the classroom discussions are remarkable, with almost all of the students having something to say, every class, even if they have to shout over ambient noise.

Below, you will find the biographies of three narrators from this project as well as audio selections from their oral histories.


Bianca van Heydoorn (BvH) is the Director of Educational Initiatives at the Prisoner Reentry Institute of John Jay College. Critical and creative thinker, radical educator, all-around powerhouse, Bianca has over a decade of experience in direct service and program implementation with justice involved populations. She was a 2007-2009 F.A.O. Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow and is published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. Bianca graduated Magna cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Correctional Sociology from the CUNY Baccalaureate Program for Interdisciplinary Studies and earned a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Vivian Nixon (VN) is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. An alumna of CCF’s program, Nixon advocates nationally for the return of college-level education to our nation's prisons and is an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals impacted by mass incarceration. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. Nixon received her B.S. from the State University of New York and is currently a creative non-fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Vivian Nixon has written articles for VICE, HuffPost, and the Boston Globe among other outlets. She has appeared on several MSNBC news shows and is a regular speaker on criminal justice reform panels.

Sean Pica (SP) was sentenced to 24 years in prison when he was 16 years old. While he was incarcerated he received his GED and then became the first person in his family to earn a college degree. In 1994 Pell Grants to prisoners were abolished and higher education in prisons dried up before Sean finished his degree. While at Sing Sing he was part of a pilot project taught by incarcerated graduate students (not for credit, just to keep the education going) to those who had not yet been able to graduate. He speaks specifically about this experience on the track, "SP: on class taught by incarcerated graduate students.” He also was one of the prison community organizers who brought college education back into Sing Sing. Sean is the Executive Director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison and is currently working on his third graduate degree.

While working in the technically and physically demanding professions of bicycle messenger, theatrical stagehand, and bookbinder/conservation assistant, Valerie Fendt fed her intellectual hunger through literature, film, the study of liberation struggles, and the camaraderie of fellow artists/activists. Since coming to Columbia, she has been delighted to discover that she could not only build on this non-traditional educational background but also thrive in the academy as a passionate student of history, culture and politics.