Since April this year, we’ve been meeting up with students who took part in Learning Together (LT) courses in 2015, 2016 and 2017. We’ve met former students in all sorts of places in England including Cambridge, Kent, London, Hull and (virtually) in other countries across the world. Some had been recently released from prisons, several others were still in different prisons across the UK. Some students had recently graduated from their degrees, others were starting jobs and careers, some living abroad. Catching up with members of our community is part of a new phase in our research of Learning Together, which is focused on understanding the transitions that students face after they have taken part in courses and understanding what role, if any, Learning Together plays in the midst of those transitions. By the end of the summer we will have spoken to over 40 students, with a more or less equal distribution of students who were originally based in Cambridge and prison.
In one of our first interviews, Gareth, an LT student from 2015, stated that one of the most significant aspects of Learning Together for him was that ‘it was still going, that it is still there’. Building from this answer, in this blog post I want to briefly explore some of what we are learning from our students so far, about the role of community in Learning Together, and the way in which community building, including through research, expands Learning Together temporally and spatially beyond individual courses.
While for most students that were still resident in Grendon and Whitemoor, Learning Together was still playing a key role in their lives, the connection with LT was still present for many of those who had been transferred to other prisons. Some of the students who had been transferred to other prisons said:
I suppose if I had been getting those letters and that when I was in Grendon, it would have just been, ah, I’m in Grendon, I’m here, they come here. But when I went away from Grendon, and I was in [another prison] for fourteen months, and I was still getting those letters, that showed a bit more inclusivity. I think that’s why I felt closer to them, because even though I was further away from them, and further away from where I had done Learning Together, I was getting pulled back more and more. (Nick, LT student, 2016)
The amount of time that you take out of your time to come and see us guys and write us letters, let us know what’s going on. On a personal note, whatever we are going through, you stick with us and you try to help us in the best possible way that you can. (Rosca, LT student, 2017)
It’s strange. I don’t know how to answer that because it’s made a huge impact in my life. I guess the biggest role it’s played is being part of a community, being part of something, a sense of belonging that I kind of get in my life. I know that I can either go on the internet or that there are people that can relate to me who are part of something bigger. ‘Oh, you were part of LT. Oh, how was for you?’ So we can share stories, we can do that. (Ahmed, LT student, 2016)
Nick and Rosca both note how letters and communications after the course connected and ‘pulled’ them back to LT after they were transferred, (extending the reach of LT into other prisons and in time), while Ahmed states that this communication does not only connect him to the initiative but also created a community of connections with other people that had done the LT course in other universities, other prisons and at other times. The three describe the effects of a certain type of labour, built around the production of affective bonds and feelings of support, connection, closeness and love. Ben, an LT student from 2017, describes this as a labour of inclusivity:
Yeah, it’s the feeling of inclusion that comes and I think it’s obviously something that is a deliberate feature of Learning Together, and that’s the thing. I think it is really easy, people feel […] It’s really hard to disagree with the idea of inclusion in the abstract but it’s like I said before, it goes against the grain and it takes conscious and deliberate effort (Ben, LT student, 2017).
In this context, we’ve started wondering about the role that this piece of transitions research may be playing in a labour of inclusivity, expanding the temporal and spatial reach of the Learning Together initiative and community. Reconnecting with students, and inviting them to reflect on their experiences, expresses interest and concern in their whereabouts, progress and wellbeing. As part of our research process, we’ve travelled to meet with students shortly after their release from prison, we’ve celebrated students’ successes and empathised and sought to help in the face of difficulties. We’ve come together to eat, and some of our students have visited Cambridge for the first time. A WhatsApp group called ‘LT Family’ has emerged, which now has 31 members.
The process of conducting research then, we think, might be playing a role in deepening and broadening our community across time and space. But more than this, how the research process is unfolding might tell us something about the type of relationships that are built within our community.
Since April, when we started contacting students to see whether they might be willing to meet with us for a follow up interview, the great majority of people we contacted replied swiftly saying that they would participate and, more than this, that they were happy to be involved. All of the students we have met so far, accommodated our meetings generously within their schedules and have engaged with us enthusiastically about the role (if any) that LT has played, and is playing, in their lives. Some have written at length about the role LT has played in their own lives as well as the lives of their peers, and have sent these reflections to us. Others have taken time to talk to us at weekends, after work or during work breaks. One student happily agreed to meet with us on the first full day he could remain outside of prison. All of this seems to speak to the depth of meaningful relationships that are emerging within the Learning Together community and the importance of nurturing those relationships across and beyond partnerships between individual criminal justice and higher education institutions. For us, our new phase of transitions research, also invites renewed reflection about the contribution that ongoing research might be able to make to inclusive and transformative community building.
Victoria Pereyra-Iraola – Learning Together Researcher