On Thursday, February 7th, at the Colgate History Department’s first History Conversations of the semester, Professor Andy Rotter spoke about his experience teaching at the Mohawk Correctional Facility this past fall. The room was packed with professors and students filling every corner of the classroom. Everyone was eager to hear about Professor Rotter’s unique experience and learn more about the Colgate program that allows professors to teach inmates.
Professor Rotter explained that the U.S. history course he taught was part of an Associate’s Degree program that the Mohawk Correctional Facility offers to inmates fitting certain criteria (such as having a high school diploma and good behavior during their incarceration). Colgate participates in the program through Herkimer County Community College (HCCC), alongside Hamilton College, and allows professors to teach their course at the prison in lieu of one of their normal Colgate courses. Professor Rotter spoke about how hard he pushed the inmates academically, assigning about a book a week and requiring three essays and three tests from his students. He also highlighted how hard the students worked in return, often going above and beyond. He even provided an anecdote, in which he found himself having to keep up with the inmates after he assigned excerpts from a book and the class came in bursting with questions, having read the entire thing. The students, Professor Rotter said, were interested in history because they didn’t see it as dead—they saw it as fun. “That’s a perfectly good reason to study history,” Professor Rotter said. Professor Rotter also noted that he felt both sad and relieved every time he left the facility after teaching, noting his ability to leave when his students lacked that freedom. He explained how he felt sad on the last day of class because he knew he would miss teaching there, and still does.
After Professor Rotter finished his talk, there was a Q&A about what he taught, what he learned and how the experience has shaped his perspective on history, the prison system, higher education and Colgate. An overarching theme of the lecture was the fact that Colgate is a privileged place and both the students and faculty left feeling lucky to be here, both receiving and contributing to higher education.
Article and photograph by Karrie Spychalski ’19.