‘It's Criminal’ documentary features Dartmouth English class

A panel with professors, students and past participants followed the film showing on Oct. 26

by Kylee Sibilia | 10/31/17 12:10am

While other courses at the College build students up, English 53.04 breaks them down — and in that way it acts as a catalyst for real change. The course “Telling Stories for Social Change,” taught by English professor Ivy Schweitzer and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Pati Hernández, pushes students out of a traditional method of learning by memorizing theory into understanding through experience. 

On Oct. 26, a film documenting ENGL 53.04 called “It’s Criminal” was screened in Loew Auditorium in the Hopkins Center of the Arts. Following the progression of the “Telling Stories for Social Change” class during the summer of 2010, “It’s Criminal” has been screened at various venues across the country since the spring 2017 term. The plot of the film focuses on the transformative experiences of inmates and students as they work together over the course of 10 weeks to write and perform an original play. 

The film highlights the “Telling My Story” method of teaching that Hernández developed in 1999 and described as utilizing individual narratives in a way that promotes change.

“It’s a program that works on the development of self awareness and communication skills through the arts,” Hernández said. “And we put the arts to the service of the situation.”

The “Telling My Story” method, as it is depicted in the film, requires students to combine theory and practice as they discuss issues of incarceration and addiction. The class alternates between visiting a local prison and visiting a local rehabilitation facility, and although the film follows the course’s completion at a prison, it still pays a great deal of attention to the issues of substance addiction.

Emma Marsano ’18 has taken “Telling Stories for Social Change” and has worked as a teaching assistant for the course for two terms. Marsano described the goal of the class as understanding narratives of oppression.

“Most women who are incarcerated have been abused throughout their lives,” Marsano said. “Most people who are dealing with substance abuse problems were exposed to some kind of trauma, so the idea is to trace those underlying factors and understand how they fit into systems of oppression and the structure of society, and then understanding on top of that the narratives that allow us to kind of write people off who are in one of those facilities.”

The course uses unconventional methods to achieve its purpose — methods the film chooses to focus on. Hernández noted the importance of individual students’ agency when taking this course.

“People are so used to being told what to do,” Hernández said. “Here I’m not telling you what to do. I’m giving you the space to try. Trying is fundamental.”

Schweitzer also described how the course asks students to embrace parts of themselves that no other course at Dartmouth asks them to embrace.

“Your academic experience is defined as an intellectual experience that stimulates your brain and your thinking powers but not necessarily your affection and your spirit,” Schweitzer said. “But this course does. And that’s very risky. It requires that people practice vulnerability and humility and … it’s really hard to have humility in an academic setting. To be humble about what we don’t know. To be humble about our own shortcomings and our own imperfections.”

The film captures the process of inmates learning from students and students learning from inmates in a way that emphasizes the similarities between these two groups rather than the differences. The film received a standing ovation from the audience in Loew. Film and media studies professor Samantha Davidson Green attended the screening and praised the film’s use of hopeful narratives to move its audience.

“Ultimately, it is optimistic against a very bleak moment in our culture,” Davison Green said. “And I think we desperately need hopeful stories of people overcoming division and seeing each other as human throughout all the filters of the labels and identities that are applied to us. That depth of connection is what made me feel like my heart was exploding in my chest. I just loved and admired all the characters.”

A panel featuring director Signe, Hernández, Schweitzer, Taylor and participants in the film and current students in the class followed the screening. Marsano emphasized the importance of the panel in motivating the audience to do something meaningful with the material they had just witnessed.

“The reason we always make sure to have at least one student on the panel, even if it’s not a student who was in the film, is to really make sure that it’s impressed upon the audience that it’s a mutual experience of collaboration,” Marsano said. “The importance of the panel and the importance of talking through the film and talking through people’s reaction to it is that the process is transformative for everyone involved.”

By creating this dynamic of equality in learning, the film has the potential to promote real change. Tracy Geng ’19 noted the way the film spurred people to action.

“I think that it was moving not only in the moment,” Geng said. “But it also made me want to do more things for the cause.”

Schweitzer said that one of the most important goals of this film is to give these issues more exposure in the national conversation.

“If we can destigmatize addiction and incarceration, we will have made a real difference in people’s lives,” Schweitzer said. 

Marsano is a member of The Dartmouth senior staff.