Inside Literature (formerly Reading World Literature) is a community-based learning program predicated on a simple model: two instructors and a group of twenty-five students read one book over the course of six weeks at a pre-trial correctional complex. I founded the Inside Literature program in 2014 after reading an article in the Washington Post about Russian literature courses run by the University of Virginia in a juvenile detention center. In the article, a young man tells an anecdote about a time that he was hassled by another young man at the facility. Instead of what he says would have been his “usual” response, he gives the other young man a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, a powerful story concerning mortality and living a good life, tells him to read it and then come back to talk. I work on Russian literature and know the text well. I am not surprised that it had this impact on someone’s life because that’s what great literature does—it changes you. The article inspired me to put my own work into practice and with the support of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office & the Comparative Literature program at the University of Texas, Inside Literature held our first course in August 2014, teaching Father Goriot, a 19th century French novel by Honoré de Balzac, which was a great success.
Inside Literature has held over thirty courses since the program’s inception. We have taught books from France, Russia, Iraq, Cuba, Pakistan, England, Germany, Canada, and the United States to hundreds of students. The act of reading together breaks down prejudices, checks privilege, and develops community. In each course, no matter how many times I’ve read the book before, I relearn how to read it because my students make insightful observations and offer powerful arguments that often move me to reconsider my own positions on the text. Community-based learning reminds us that I may come in as the teacher but that doesn’t mean that I do not have more to learn, and my students may come in to learn but that doesn’t mean they don’t have something valuable to teach. In our courses, the text is a meeting place where we are engaged in a shared experience of reading.
These students show up to each class by choice and with no expectation of material rewards. Sometimes it’s the book, sometimes it’s being part of a learning community, sometimes it’s just for want of something else to talk about, as a student once put it, but they keep coming back to read with us. In Spring 2018 there was a cohort of students taking all six courses that were being offered, reading what was equivalent to a university course reading list. Sometimes the texts are difficult, the language is a struggle, the themes are heavy, and the book is long, but the students never fail to rise to the challenge.
The nonprofit Inside Literature comes out of the work begun by RWL, and in our new incarnation we are able to continue working with the Travis County Sheriff's Office and the Program in Comparative Literature at UT while growing and expanding our work to other communities and universities. Thank you to everyone who has supported us.
Kaitlin Shirley, August 2018