Philosopher: Nancy McHugh

Nancy McHugh

Nancy McHugh is Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University. In addition to the usual academic duties she teaches philosophy in prisons, has served on the board of a local women’s shelter, and is active in other forms of community engagement. In this interview she talks about discovering her interest in philosophy as an undergraduate business major, the decision to become a professor, her work with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, and the relationship between philosophy and social engagement.

DEREK: Before we talk about your philosophical outreach and community activism, I’d like to ask about how you became a philosophy professor. Your bachelor’s degree is in International Business. Why did you decide to major in business as an undergrad, and what made you decide to pursue graduate education in philosophy?

NANCY: I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue as a major in college and business seemed practical. International Business seemed somewhat exciting, so I went with it. My favorite courses though college were history, literature, philosophy, economics, and biology. I ended up dropping out of college in my junior year to help my friends restart a music magazine called Alternative Press (AP). The magazine ended up being pretty successful and is still coming out with new issues. Here is the link to their website:

It was a great job. I would work at the magazine all day and then go see bands at night. We got to meet a lot of musicians before they became famous and inaccessible. I was the advertising manager and would contact record companies to get them to advertise in the magazine. It was perfect because I got to use my business skills. It also gave me basically a year to mature and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I started reading philosophy then and was intrigued because it was so hard, yet answered so many questions. I went back to school and finished my undergrad in International Business basically to finish up so that I could go on to an MA program in Philosophy.

DEREK: Were you already planning to be a philosophy professor when you enrolled in your MA program? Did you explore or consider any other career options during your graduate education?

NANCY: I knew before I graduated from college that I wanted to be a philosophy professor. When I returned to college I started taking philosophy courses. My first course was in existentialism. It was life altering. What made this class so intellectually and emotionally challenging and in many ways such a gift to me and to other students in the class was that the professor, Jim Liotta, was one of the bravest people I have ever met. Prof. Liotta was dying of multiple sclerosis. He had lost most motor functions, and thus used a wheel chair. He was blind, incontinent and beginning to lose his hearing. Since existentialism asks us to engage one of the most basic questions of human existence: Can one give meaning to life in the face of what may perhaps be a meaningless existence?  To be seeking answers to this question with a man on the brink of death—he died two years after this course—can’t be compared to any other learning experience I have had. The lessons that I learned in this class, not just about philosophy, but also about pedagogy, have carried me through graduate school and many years as a faculty member. He instilled in me that the best gift a professor can give her students is not a set of facts, but the skills to know how to ask the right questions and the methods to learn the answers to those questions given one’s discipline. When a student has these abilities she/he has been empowered to take responsibility for learning inside and outside the classroom. The challenge for the professor is to shape an environment that fosters the critical acquisition of skills and the asking and subsequent answering of critical questions.

The other lesson I learned from Prof. Liotta is a willingness to be vulnerable in the classroom. I can’t imagine the courage it took for him to be rolled into the classroom everyday with a catheter and a urine bag hanging from his wheel chair and to talk to a group of 18-22 year olds about what it was like listen to Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be instead of reading it, as he had just a year or two earlier. I realized in that space that good teaching starts from a place of humbleness and vulnerability and that teaching is not about a figure in the front of the classroom who commands attention. Instead teaching is about the willingness to open up the pedagogical space for students, a willingness to challenge students at the same time we challenge ourselves, and a willingness to recognize that as teachers we are also always students.

DEREK: For the past five years you’ve been teaching credit-bearing undergraduate philosophy classes in prisons and youth detention centers as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Each of these classes has 15 “outside” students (regularly enrolled undergraduates) and 15 “inside” students (inmates at the detention facility). When did you first start thinking about teaching philosophy in prisons, and how did you become involved with the Inside-Out program?

NANCY: Temple University, where I earned my PhD, is where the Inside-Out Program started. I had a two-year visiting position there from 1998-2000. In an office near mine was a woman, Lori Pompa, who had a visiting line with the Criminal Justice program. One day I walked in to her office to chat and asked her what was new. She got really excited and said that she had taken 15 Temple students to have class with 15 men who were serving life sentences. She said it was incredible and that one of the men that was incarcerated said she should run a whole course like that. Lori’s next sentence was basically, I’m doing it and I’m calling it the Inside-Out Prison Exchange.

I left Temple in 2000 for a tenure track position at Wittenberg University. I got involved in other things, such as trying to get tenure, but I also was committed to doing community engagement work and worked with a girls’ program, called Grrlz to Womyn. I did that for several years, directed Women’s Studies for two years, which had a lot of community engagement.  I was interested in issues related to incarceration and education. I’ve always believed that philosophy is a discipline that everyone should have access to because critical thinking and compassionate thinking are valuable no matter what your circumstances. I thought about Lori Pompa and wondered what she was up to. I Googled Inside-Out Prison Exchange and found out that she had done incredible work expanding the program and that it had grown into an international program, with multiple training sites. I sent her an email asking her if I could be trained in the program. I did my training in spring of 2011. My trainers, in addition to Lori Pompa, were 17 men, who call themselves the Theory Group, who are incarcerated in Ryan Correctional Institution in Detroit, Michigan. These men, many of whom are juvenile lifers, are some of the smartest, most well-read people I have met.

DEREK: In advertising itself, Inside-Out seems to emphasize the educational form of these classes over their content. By putting incarcerated students in the same class alongside traditionally enrolled undergraduates, the class fosters an environment where they meet each other as equals. This sounds like a profound educational experience for all involved, and the testimonials from program alumni seem to bear that out. Based on your experience, do you think there is any distinctive benefit to the philosophical content of your Inside-Out classes? Alternatively, do you think there’s something special about the environment of an Inside-Out class that makes it an especially suitable venue for teaching philosophy?

NANCY: Here are some quotes from my students about their experiences in the course. These are from inside and outside students. I think they give a perspective on the experience that I can’t.

  • “After these courses, I have found myself marveling at the educational value of the engagements and interactions we are conditioned to fear or hesitate around. I don’t know if this is because of entirely internal fear of stepping outside of our comfort zones, or if it more literally built into society – prison walls are a powerful metaphor – or some combination of the two. But the Inside Out model takes two groups of people who hold expectations about each other, but who would likely never actually engage so deeply. This is where so much of the power lies.”
  • “Self reflection has caused me to ponder the “what if”… I could have found the desire for an education … graduated with my class … not come to prison … have become a prominent member of society? Slowly I have to push the “what ifs” out of my mind. It is our trials and tribulations that make us who we are. The same way a sculptor chisels and carves a piece of marble into a figure, our experience shapes us. That is why each of us are so similar, yet so different.”
  • “I expected to walk into the classroom and see nothing but criminals. … but I saw men who loved their families and wanted to further their educations . . . they were in no way what I had expected. So now I know that when I see prisoners being portrayed as nothing but hardcore criminals, I can tell people that’s not the case, they are people just like you and me locked away. They have good hearts, they are kind, and they don’t deserve to be stereotyped.”
  • “This class has transformed how I value the blessings in my life, but most importantly, it has transformed how I see each of you. I can recall the very first day of class… and having this uneasy feeling of being in a classroom setting within prison with other “incarcerated individuals.” Yet, as that feeling faded, the transformation came as I began to see each of you as just another human being who deserves the same love and respect as anyone else that I might encounter on a daily basis. There is a mutual process of discovery as free students become temporarily unfree and as unfree students experience the outside in a newly created space that belies the restrictiveness of the context in which the class is being held, our classroom became an independent space.”
  • “This course has helped me to think, write, and speak more globally and thoughtfully, as I have always been a bottom line/black and white kind of guy. What I mean to say by this is that I always used to use the logical side of my intellect to make quick decisions which was and is a very non-feeling and controlling way to live.”
  • “My eyes were opened to the many hidden factors that people do not often consider when thinking of those incarcerated. We often first consider education and poverty, but I never once considered racism and ethical obligations as key factors to the incarceration of many people.”
  • “To be honest I had no idea that I could help those who were truly in need. Not to say that I hadn’t helped people in poverty, but I was unaware that I could save someone’s life in the process, or at all. Although the material gave me many perspectives, the bottom line was “you can help” and that struck a nerve for me. I will forever be conscious of that factor.”

In terms of the content/form distinction with I-O, I think this is a false distinction much like the false distinction between form and content in aesthetics. Because of the form of the Inside-Out class, which works to develop symmetry between the students and provides a critique of the model of education in which the professor is “delivering” information, it provides the conditions that we can engage in critical inquiry and self and social critique, and thus gets to the very heart of the philosophical enterprise. Given what I said earlier about good teaching coming from a place of humbleness and not being about a commanding figure in front of the classroom, it is not surprising that my classes, whether in a carceral setting or at in my traditional university setting, tend to be very dialogic. Inside-Out classes are set up well for this type of teaching. Thus in many ways my teaching didn’t need to change to fit the I-O model.

An advantage of the Inside-Out classes is the students come to class much more prepared than they do in a traditional university setting. The inside students really push this, coming to class with their books annotated, with post-its marking important sections, and their papers having gone through multiple drafts. When the outside students see how hard their classmates are working, they start applying the same practices. (The first time I taught an I-O class a student came to class having read “The Apology” five times, with the reading carefully annotated and a set of questions for discussion.) Thus, the inside students frequently end up modeling what it means to be an engaged, motivated student for the outside students.  Thus, the quality of analysis, critique, and discussion is very high in these classrooms.

As for whether philosophy is a discipline especially well-suited to this type of teaching, I’d say yes, but there are not many of us that teach Inside-Out courses. Most of the faculty are in sociology and criminal justice, which in some ways makes sense because it is directly applicable to their majors. Because the official capacity size of the courses is 15 students (the universities only generate revenue on the 15 outside students) many schools won’t let their faculty cap courses this low, even though with the inside students the total number of students is frequently 30. In sociology and criminal justice it might be easier to show the learning value of the course for their students. On the other hand, if you believe that philosophy is about developing the skills to think critically and compassionately, and you believe that everyone should have access to these, this sort of course is incredibly valuable for people both on the inside and on the outside.  People who are incarcerated tend to be very good critical thinkers and/or very interested in developing those skills. Thinking critically and understanding how systems work is pretty key to doing one’s time well and safely in prison. Many of my students will say that reading philosophy and academic engagement in general is giving them the skills that they need to transition to life outside of prison. For those with longer sentences, living a philosophical life gives them a sense of purpose in prison that makes doing time more bearable.

I have taught several different types of courses as I-O courses; The Art of Living Ethically, Many Faces of Justice, Knowing Bodies, Philosophy of Women’s Lives, and this spring I’ll be teaching Global Health Justice. The readings vary widely based on the course topic. All of these courses I have also taught in the traditional classroom setting.

DEREK: You recently co-authored a paper with a group that included some of your students who are currently incarcerated at the London Correctional Institute. This kind of co-authorship is still much rarer in philosophy than in many science fields. What is your role in that process? Presumably it’s something less than the role of a professor who develops her works-in-progress in part by teaching them to students, while retaining sole authorship. Are you more like the Principle Investigator publishing the joint results of a lab you lead?

NANCY: This paper is the first time I have co-written a paper, so it was a significant learning experience for me. The co-written paper by the LoCI-Wittenberg University Writing Group truly is co-written. We wrote it over the course of 13 weeks in a spring semester writing group when I wasn’t teaching an I-O course. (I was on sabbatical.) We came up with a thesis, an agreed upon set of readings, and then met every other week for a couple of hours. We all agreed to read and write outside of class and come to the meetings prepared. We had three outside students, ten inside students and me. We’d read the material and then come to our writing group with notes and short papers in response to the readings that helped to develop our thesis. Then we’d talk about the readings in small and large group. We’d have a student each session responsible for taking notes about our discussion.  At the end of each meeting I’d collect all the individual notes and short paper responses and the collective discussion notes and then frame them into sections of a rough draft. Next session I’d give back the draft I had organized. We’d read through it, comment, rearrange, fix, disagree with each other, etc. It was a great process. I am intentionally not on the paper as a first author or PI because these were ideas, language and writing that arose out of the collective work of our group, not any one person.  The nuances of incarceration and the epistemology of incarceration were not concepts that I could have developed in the way that they are developed through our collective writing because I don’t have that experience even though I’ve been teaching in a correctional setting for several years.

DEREK: The paper begins – as academic papers often do – by situating itself within an existing academic literature, and it makes use of terminology and categories that will be familiar to academics conversant in that literature. But those same features make it less accessible to a lay audience – or even to academics working in other disciplines/specialties. Is this because you and your co-authors thought of this as the necessary language for publication and reception by your targeted academic audience? Or did (some of) your co-authors find that this specialized language allowed them to express something about their experience of incarceration that is not easily expressed using more familiar terms and concepts?

NANCY: The language in “An Epistemology of Incarceration: Constructing Knowing On the Inside” is very academic. We were intentional about that choice. First, many of the inside students found that when they were reading material in epistemology of ignorance and epistemic injustice that it provided a powerful explanatory platform for them to reshape on their own terms to explain their experiences of injustice in the carceral system and in society. Second, many of my students have expressed concern with the view that academic language is inaccessible to people who are not academics or not philosophers.  They clearly understand that the language can be alienating to some people, but they also find that the assumption that it takes a college degree, an advanced degree or even a degree in philosophy to be able to understand and utilize the insights from these arguments is a failure to recognize the cognitive resources of people who are incarcerated or people who work for justice in the carceral system. In other words, just as there might be a type of academic snobbery in writing in a certain type of way, there is also a type of academic snobbery in assuming that only academics can understand and utilize academic language. Third, we intentionally intermixed many specific examples into the paper to make the concepts clearer and more applicable to a broader audience. Hopefully we were able to find the balance that we were trying to achieve.

DEREK: I’ve focused a lot on your Inside-Out class, but you’re actually engaged in a number of other forms of community outreach. On your Wittenberg website, you make a connection between your commitment to philosophy and your work with the women’s shelter Project Woman and the girl’s group Grrlz to Womyn. What is it about this work that you see as distinctively philosophical, or as an expression of your own philosophical commitments? Does your academic training allow you to contribute to these organizations in ways you otherwise wouldn’t be able to?

NANCY: I believe that philosophy has a strong social justice mission and that philosophers should be connected in meaningful ways to the community in which we live. For me and for many other philosophers, philosophy should be public practice. I don’t necessarily think every philosopher needs to be out there doing this sort of work, but I think many more of us should be. This type of engagement should count toward the tenure and promotion process because it does more to promote philosophy as a practice than any paper we can write for our own academic audience. One of the reasons why philosophy has become such a poorly received discipline by the larger public is because we have not sufficiently been out in communities and public life applying our skills, such as our ability to ask critical questions, the think critically, compassionately and creatively, to raise issues about social injustices, to be collaborative, and to keep pushing issues until there is a resolution. People don’t understand what we do, not because they can’t understand it, but because we fail to communicate it or engage them. We sell our selves short as a discipline and it makes me worry about the future of philosophy. I am very happy that there are organizations such as the Public Philosophy Network and the Consortium for Socially Relevant Philosophy of/in Science, and the NYTimes blog “The Stone”  because these have the opportunity to change this course.

As for the work I’ve done, I was on the board of Project Woman for several years. I learned so much from the other board members, who included women who had once been clients of the domestic violence shelter, people who ran metropolitan housing organizations, the police commissioners, local business people, doctors, etc. We each brought something different to the board. My work in feminist philosophy and social justice added something, just in the way that the police commissioner added insight to the board. But more powerfully, the women who had been clients of the shelter had insights and made contributions that none of us who had not had this experience could make. My training, I think, puts me in a good position to ask the right kind of questions, to keep asking them, to be collaborative, and to be very focused and organized in my processes. Some of this also comes from having been a program director and department chair.

DEREK: Many philosophers return to the academic job market year after year because they don’t want to give up on their commitment to philosophy. Do you have any advice for keeping philosophy part of your life, or for using philosophy to make the world a better place, that doesn’t depend on traditional academic employment?

NANCY: Although philosophy is a discipline, it is also a set of tools and skills and many organizations outside of the academy are badly in need of the tools we have to offer. Working for non-profits and NGOs is very well-suited for the kind of training we have as philosophers, but so is working for a corporation or in politics. Not only would philosophers’ ability to sort through complex ethical issues be highly beneficial to corporations or politics, so would our high problem solving skills. Perhaps having more philosophers out in the business world or working in government institutions would make for more ethical and just practices.

Many people feel shame in not landing the right job in philosophy or a job in philosophy, but the reality is the market is flooded with philosophy PhDs. Thus, not everyone, even if they are very good, is going to get a tenure track job. If we perhaps viewed our skills as those that are applicable in a wide variety of disciplines and areas and that the contributions that we can make to those areas is valuable, then instead of seeing it as a wasted degree or a failure, we recognize the value of the degree to something else than academia. Perhaps PhD programs should track other types of employment for their graduates than just academic positions. This might give those tracks some legitimacy.

There are many ways to stay engaged in philosophy regardless of whether one has a job as a philosopher. Many prisons would be thrilled to have volunteer philosophers leading reading and writing groups, as would juvenile detention centers. Leading philosophy groups outside of prisons, such as in city libraries or community centers is a highly valuable way of sharing philosophy with the broader community and staying engaged in one’s field. You’d be amazed, for example, how many doctors want to have discussions about philosophy of medicine and bioethics.

DEREK: Speaking more generally, would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy and a desire to make the world a better place to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion?

NANCY: I would say if you want to go on to get the PhD do it because you really love it, not because you are sure you are going to get a job in philosophy. I think it is important to have socially committed philosophers both inside and outside the academy. Those of us in the academy that are socially committed, we help students to see the job that philosophy can do outside of the academy by presenting opportunities for them to do publically engaged philosophy. I’ve had excellent students go on to excellent PhD programs and get jobs in philosophy. That said, some of my very best students have also chosen not to go on to PhD programs. Many of these students have gone on to work in nonprofits, some have gone on to medical school, PhD programs in other fields, such as psychology, some have gone on to law school. Philosophy gives students a set of skills to critically and compassionately engage the world. These skills are valuable almost everywhere.

I have to say that after teaching Inside-Out courses, doing work in restorative justice with detained youth, and other types of community engagement, it becomes harder to believe that articles that I write or the book that I published last year are at the highest end of my professional commitments. These are all important to me. I care about them, and I write and do research every day, but it is in the teaching and community engagement that I feel like I make an impact on people’s lives, even if in a small way.

Thanks to Nancy for taking the time to share her experiences and insights. For more information about her teaching, research, and community engagement, you can visit her personal website. She also engages many of the issues discussed here in her recent book The Limits of Knowledge, which uses case studies involving marginalized groups and communities to show what pragmatist feminist philosophy looks like in practice.  You can visit the official website of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program for more information about the program and about how to get involved.  Finally, the paper Nancy co-authored as part of the LoCI and Wittenberg University Writing Group,  “An Epistemology of Incarceration: Constructing Knowing On the Inside,” is available online. An institutional subscription is required for full access, but everyone can read the opening pages.