Pilot Humanities Course at River North Correctional Center

From Aug. 22 to Sept. 19, 2022, the Center for Humanities, working with the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), piloted a 4 week undergraduate non-credited humanities course at River North Correctional Center in Independence, Virginia. The course was taught by Sylvester Johnson and covered history, culture, literature, philosophical themes, ethics, and futuristic challenges. A total of 10 students enrolled in and successfully completed the course.


The project began in fall 2021, when undergraduate students from Virginia Tech’s project based Calhoun Program for societal and technical learning began collaborative meetings with Margaret Breslau of the Blacksburg based Coalition for Justice and VADOC education stakeholders Kimberly Phipps (Principal, River North Correctional Center), Jeffrey Millner (Central Regional Education Administrator), and Scott Richeson (Deputy Director, Division of Programs, Education and Reentry). These Calhoun program students worked closely with Johnson to develop an undergraduate humanities course syllabus and to plan modes of instructional delivery. During the spring of 2022, Virginia Tech students joined Johnson on a site visit to the River North Correctional Center in Independence, Virginia.


Johnson worked with Virginia Tech’s Athenaeum Director Joe Forte to create eight high quality and engaging instructional videos for the course to supplement the reading assignments. Students were highly responsive, engaging with the assigned readings and completing all writing assignments. Before each twice weekly class meeting, they read assigned short stories, excerpts from novels, non-fiction, and poetry. They wrote 500 word essays in response to the readings, totaling approximately 4,000 words for the course.


All students completed the assigned readings and essays. Johnson notes the intellectual quality of analysis generated during all class discussions not only surpassed the typical rigor of undergraduate student discussion but even rivaled the best of doctoral seminars that the instructor has encountered throughout his 25 year academic career in higher education. As a result of their fully engaged participation in the course and concerted effort, all students performed at the “A” level in this undergraduate humanities course. Although this was not a credit earning course, all students received a certificate of completion.