Featured Course: What Is a Criminal?

What Is a Criminal?

New course helps Honors students think differently about crime and punishment.

Gabriella Calvino
Junior Gabriella Calvino presents her work on wrongful convictions in "What Is a Criminal?"

 

By Catherine M. Welter

 

Students listened intently as Gabriella Calvino, a third-year anthropology major, ran through a list of men and women who had been wrongfully convicted of various crimes.  As the litany continued, photographs and biographies of each person flashed across the screen.  When Gabriella finished her presentation, the room was somber and silent, but not for long.  Hands shot up as other students, eager to contribute, offered knowledge and perspectives informed by their semester-long participation in “What is a Criminal?”

The new humanities course, also known as HUMA 444E, was offered to students in the honors program for the first time this past fall, but many other UHP students will have the opportunity to take it over the next two years.  Funding for the course comes directly from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded an Enduring Questions Grant to Dr. Kate Gaudet, the Assistant Director of the Honors Program, for her proposed course on criminality.  These federally-funded grants, which are highly competitive, enable faculty to bring an interdisciplinary humanities approach to questions of great social concern.

As the title itself suggests, “What is a Criminal?” asks students to consider a question that philosophers, theologians, and legal scholars have been debating for centuries.  In order to provide her students with a solid background in the history of criminality, Dr. Gaudet drew from a broad range of texts, including religious treatises on retaliation, forgiveness, and reformation; essays by Plato, Hobbes, and Rousseau on the formation of government and society; and 19th- and 20th-century texts about morality, discipline, and the human brain.  While examining the theoretical underpinnings of America’s criminal justice system, students also read and analyzed fictional representations of crime and punishment, as well as a memoir about life in an American prison.

In addition to the reading assignments, which students described as “fascinating” and “eye-opening,” the class took a field trip to the local prison, where they toured the facility and spoke with the warden and three inmates.  For sophomore Stephen Bouzianis, an Information Systems major, the visit to the prison was “emotional.”  The opportunity to speak with young inmates had a profound effect on Stephen, who had spent the semester reading about crime and incarceration, but did not have any personal experience in those areas.  Class visits from the local police chief and a therapist who works with sex offenders also provided the students with additional context for understanding crime and criminality in 21st-century America.

At the end of the semester, the class learned about “criminals of conscience,” people like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who sometimes defied or circumvented unjust laws in order to rectify various forms of injustice.  Inspired by these men and women, the students then embarked on final projects of their own choosing.  One student started a book drive for the local prison, another created a video to educate people about their rights, and a third conducted a study about millennial attitudes toward criminality and race.  Each unique project involved a social justice and/or community service component, a multimedia requirement, and a class presentation, all of which enabled the students to share their new knowledge with others in their class, their communities, and online.

By all accounts, Dr. Gaudet’s pilot course of “What is a Criminal?” was a massive success.  It filled quickly in its first and second iterations, attracted students from a variety of majors, and received rave reviews.  At times “frightening,” but always “valuable” and thought-provoking, the course taught students to ask important questions, consider multiple viewpoints, and dive into the history and ideology behind our concepts of criminality.  As Anneke Smith, a Human Development/Family Studies major who took the pilot course, put it, “I’m not kidding when I say it’s one of, if not the best class I’ve taken in my life. It completely changed my perspective on the criminal justice system. [...] I have never learned so much from a course before.”

Anneke’s words remind us that without a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, HUMA 444E: “What is a Criminal?” might never have been offered at the University of New Hampshire, where, as at so many other educational institutions, programs in the humanities face shrinking budgets.  Financially-speaking, the national drive to expand American expertise in “STEM” fields has put the humanities in a difficult position. Consistently under-funded, but vital to our nation’s well-being, the humanities teach us about ourselves; through reading about our past, studying systems of thought, analyzing cultural artifacts (like literature and art), and, above all, learning to think, read, and write critically, students gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become conscientious citizens in a rapidly evolving world.