WAITING by Jason LaFountain

I missed our first UWW Study Hall of the term, because my TB test results had expired, which I didn’t realize until Tim and I arrived at the prison, so I couldn’t get in on February 5th. The next Wednesday it was Lincoln’s Birthday and our class was cancelled. So to this point, I have only actually been in Study Hall once this semester, which was this past week. As a result, I was originally thinking I should probably wait until March or April to write a Dispatch, so I would have some more fresh encounters to draw on. But it has also occurred to me that the experience of going out to Stateville and not getting in is common, perhaps a fundamental part of what it is to be involved in an activist teaching practice there.

My first years teaching with PNAP, lockdowns were usually the cause. In 2016 I used to go in with Lasana on teaching days, who one time couldn’t get in because, unbeknownst to him, his driver’s license had expired. That same year, I once got through shakedown and all three of the gates, and between the final gate and when I arrived at the school building, they called a lockdown. Nobody told me, so I stood outside in a snow shower, my arms full of books and papers, banging on the door of the school building for a while, before a plow truck came by and told me school had been cancelled.

More recently–since I have been helping run the UWW Study Hall this past year–I have faced additional days arriving at Stateville and not getting in—twice, I think, for lockdowns this past summer, usually on account of guard staffing shortages. After one of these lockdowns, a day when I stopped by Erica’s house to pick up student portfolio materials to return, I drove back to Erica’s, putting the materials back where I had found them in her entryway. The following week Erica was covering Study Hall, and she got halfway to the prison before calling and hearing about a lockdown, so turned around. Tim took the materials in the week after.

I suppose I often feel that days when I have gotten to the prison and can’t get are time and energy wasted. I also feel bad when class is cancelled, since for the guys we teach that means something different than for most students on the outside. On the other hand, those days when we get there and can’t get in are maybe the most significant indicator of what this work is and why we do it. Whatever we are teaching or doing there more specifically, it is the basic act of showing up again and again, being there for the students, not being deterred by contingencies or bureaucratic difficulties or fascistic regulations that is critical.

When Luke and I taught our “American Art: A People’s History” course for PNAP in the spring of 2017, we had a week on second-wave feminist art, including study of Faith Wilding’s waiting-related works. For readers unfamiliar with these, Wilding, later a faculty member at SAIC, did a now-famous performance for Womanhouse in 1972 called Waiting. In it she sits in front of an audience, rocking back and forth, and reads a poem (the poem was published in Ms. magazine the same year) about the experience of being made to wait. In the 1972 work, Wilding largely reflects on how patriarchy disempowers women through the management of women’s temporal experience. Wilding later revisited this project, thinking this time about how waiting together with others might be a form of empowerment. Her 2007 performance is called Wait-With, and although it begins much as the 1972 work did, with the artist alone and talking to herself, part way through Wilding invites the audience to join her in waiting. She intones,

Wait-with, an act of political love.
Wait-with, an action,
Wait-with, a meditation,
Wait-with, open space between actions,
Wait-with, a space of resistance,
in this room,
in this moment.

Wait-with as our work.

In the past year I have read a number of other things that talk about waiting as activism, or patience as empowerment. I recently read some work by the 19th-century Christian Socialist Christoph Blumhardt, who developed the dialectical motto: Wait and Hasten.

I mention this and the Wilding works because the days of going to Stateville and not getting in can be many, depending on the term, and they are a fundamental part of what teaching there involves. We may have to wait another week, maybe more, to see our students. And then there are other sorts of waiting, even when we get in. Students may not be able to come to class for various reasons, so we have to wait to obtain or return work. We may have to wait on gate passes for course materials. And so on.

This past year Tim and I have dealt with another form of protracted waiting. Three of the students in the first UWW cohort needed one more math course in order to complete their bachelor’s degrees, so since last spring, we have been going in extra days for math, particularly to proctor exams. While Marshall completed his correspondence course this fall, Eric and Raul are still not finished, almost a year later. As often as not, the guys have not been ready for this or that exam, because of limited access to calculators, kept in the chaplain’s office, or delayed receipt of feedback on homework from their professor in Colorado. So even if we head in, we usually have to go again for the same thing–we have to wait. Anyone who teaches at Stateville realizes the extent to which the state exercises power by making people convicted of crimes wait. Sharing in the experience of delay and deferral, even as we work against it, might be one of the most important things we give our students.

Jason LaFountain
is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where during 2019-2021 he is directing the first-year art history program. In addition to his SAIC and PNAP/UWW teaching, Jason also works with organizations committed to poor relief in the greater Chicagoland area.