Engaging History Professor TALKs Books with Prison Inmates

Posted by Janae Melvin on February 17, 2016 in book, discussion, foulke, geography, humanities, KHC, Larned, library 2014-steven-foulke003.jpg

Ottawa University’s professor of history Dr. Steven Foulke has been a part of the Kansas Humanities Council TALK Program (Talking About Literature in Kansas) for more than a decade. He travels around the state, leading book discussions with various reading groups and book clubs in small town libraries. Many of these groups are well established and the individuals have been gathering for years, so they look forward to a visiting scholar coming to their town to discuss the assigned reading.

In the summer of 2015, Foulke was presented with the opportunity to lead a discussion of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with a different group of citizens – the inmates at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility in Larned, KS.

“The group was about 10 inmates,” said Foulke, “and the session was very engaging. In fact, I would say it was one of the most engaged sessions in all the years I’ve been doing these talks. They had all read the book and these individuals have had all kinds of life experiences, so it made for a spirited discussion. I never once felt like I was in a prison setting. I was in a library talking to a group of guys.”

The TALK program is the oldest council-conducted program in the state. KHC provides books to non-profit organizations or private reading groups who can then apply for a grant to have a professor scholar come to their town or library to discuss the chosen material.

Most of the books are fiction and the council tries to create themes with the different series’ that spans as much of the Kansas experience as possible. While not all the books are set in Kansas, the council believes Kansans can easily relate to all the books in the various series’. At the moment, there are 30 series’ available with topics ranging from the Civil War to agriculture.

“Many of us, when we get out of high school or college, are still hungry to learn and we want academic discussions, but we to participate more and bring our own experiences to the table,” said Leslie Von Holten, director of programs at KHC.

Von Holten said the KHC used to do programs in Kansas prisons several years ago, but due to various reasons the programming ended. About three years ago, she began working to bring the prison programming back.

“I believe in the power of the humanities to uplift everyone so I was thrilled when the opportunity came to bring the TALK program to Larned. I put out a call to scholars to see if there was anyone interested in working in prisons and Dr. Foulke responded. He was the first one to lead a discussion at the correctional facility and the feedback I got on him was incredible,” she said.

The inmates were given a list of 10 books to choose from and they narrowed it down the three, with “To Kill a Mockingbird” being the first book they discussed. Nearly all the inmates who participated in the discussion were familiar with the book, either by name, had read it or watched the movie. It added to the excitement of the TALK discussion.

“One of the things we really try to do here at Larned is to create an environment to help our inmates leave a better man than they arrived as,” said Lana Hopkins, activity specialist at Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility. “By bringing someone in from the outside to do this type of programming, it helps with empathy. We conduct the discussions in our library so it’s very relaxed and casual. While spending time with Dr. Foulke, the men were able to leave the prison behind for a little while. This helps them think about socializing in a positive way.”

Dr. Foulke made quite an impression on the inmates while he was at Larned.

“They all really liked him and thought he was very easy to talk to,” said Hopkins. “I sat in on the discussion and noticed that when they would give an example, even if it was similar to something previously discussed, he would reengage the conversation and not dismiss their comments. He made them feel like they were an important part of the discussion. By the time the discussion was done, they felt like they had really accomplished something that day. Something positive. It made them feel good.”
While the Larned TALK was the most unique setting Dr. Foulke’s been too, each trip he’s taken has had an impact on him, personally and in the classroom at OU. Each city he visits, he tries to arrange a tour or visits a historical site – something he can take back to the classroom.

“I’m a geographer by training,” he said. “I like to be out and on the road, visiting small towns and this gives me the opportunity to do that. It’s great to go to a place where people are excited to see you and hear what you have to say. They are excited to have an intellectual hour. I know these events are meaningful, and I’m pleased to be able to be a part of these literary experiences.”