Joshua Coene (3rd Quarter, 2007)

by Josh Barsch on August 20, 2010

3rd Quarter, 2007
Liberal Arts Scholarship Winner
Anna Marie Daley

“My research focuses on the history of prison expansion and changes in penal politics in the American state of Pennsylvania and the Australian state of New South Wales since the 1960s. I am interested in exploring the various ways common citizens, politicians, correctional staff, and inmates understood and explained the rapidly changing practices and purposes of punishment during this period and how it related to other events of the time. For the Australia part of my research I will be affiliated with the Faculty of Law and the University of New South Wales in Sydney. My hope is that my research will highlight how prison and punishment were central to the changes in state governance and economic reform during the last three decades while also stimulating new ideas about how to alter current practices.”

A Portion of Joshua’s Winning Essay:

Joshua Coene

A Short History of How a Liberal Arts Education Affected My Life

The liberal arts have profoundly affected my education, career, and how I view the world. I am currently a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying in Anthropology and History. My graduate program is a wonderful example of an advanced liberal arts education. It emphasizes interdisciplinary research and has many students working in vastly different areas of the world and time periods. I could not have imaged being part of this program when I embarked on my college education.

I grew up in a working class family, and most familiar career paths involved working in the steel mills or on the railroad. By the time I was finishing high school, it appeared that these opportunities were declining. Nevertheless, I did not thoroughly plan for college like many of my high school classmates. In some way, I still thought that those jobs would be there for me. I spent a year learning the hard way that they were not an option anymore.

I decided to pursue an education in history in School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. I had always been interested in history as a child and received good grades in it at school. I had a rather vague plan to become “a teacher.” It took the unique process of intellectual growth provided by a liberal arts program for this plan to become a reality. Pitt’s liberal arts program encouraged students to take classes from a variety of different fields of study. Like other liberal arts schools, they also required students to obtain a basic knowledge of several different academic disciplines and areas of the world.

This latter policy was a frequent topic of complaint among some students, but I saw it as an opportunity to explore disciplines that I had very little exposure to in high school. It introduced me to a wide variety of political theories and practices, different cultural systems and religious beliefs, as well as large scale processes, man-made and natural, which structure our lives. Without this initial period of guided exploration that my liberal arts program emphasized, I would have probably quit school.


It was a very different type of work than I was used to, involving a greater degree of self-motivation and intellectual discovery. The program I was in and the classes I took engaged me with many different ways of asking questions, understanding the world, and thinking about my experiences and those of other people as well.
This initial process contrasted with that of many other students I met in my first few semesters who were pursuing degrees in such fields as engineering, pharmacy, pre-med, and nursing. Their schedules were fixed for their first two years as they had to complete a series of required classes for their specific fields. I feel fortunate that I was able to broaden my studies in a way they could not.

Of course, I eventually had to specialize as well and decide on a major course of study. Yet, I wanted to retain some of the flexibility that I had experienced in my first few semesters. Fortunately, Pitt permitted students to craft broad interdisciplinary majors, which I did, combining history, anthropology, and political science in a triple-major.

While declaring a major field of study certainly narrowed the breadth of the topics I covered, the interdisciplinary nature of my major allowed me to pursue questions through several different academic traditions.
In my senior year, I prepared a History honors thesis about post-Civil War political conflicts North Carolina and Virginia leading up to the disfranchisement of large sections of the voting public in 1900, particularly African-Americans.

In this project, I explored the dynamic nature of race and racism as well as changing theories of representative government and practices of electoral reform and patronage, all of which contributed to the disfranchisement movement in these states. It was apparent from my research that law and specific types of punishment—the convict lease system—were used as much to re-institute forms of racial deference and ensure a supply of cheap labor after the collapse of slavery as they were to fight crime. Conviction and punishment also often meant that one lost the right to vote. Being convicted of petty theft, for instance, entailed automatic disfranchisement in both Virginia and North Carolina after the Civil War.

These policies provided a way to cull the pool of potential voters in states that had only reluctantly expanded the suffrage a few years before. These punishments were almost exclusively applied to African-Americans despite prevalence of theft by both whites and blacks in the aftermath of war and occupation by the federal army. These issues were actually a minor aspect of my thesis as there were many other causes for disfranchisement that worked through other methods.

Nevertheless, this history of felon disfranchisement brought me to think more about the criminal justice system and practices of punishment.
My research demonstrated the multiple and often conflicting goals of punishment that exceeded simple crime control functions. Yet, it was a lesson that I had really only just started to appreciate.

I experienced crime and punishment in several different ways outside the academy during my college years. I had several friends from high school who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to either jail or prison. I was also injured in an assault in my apartment near Pitt’s campus, which left me temporary disabled and unable to finish school.

These painful episodes were often extremely frustrating as they resisted clear resolutions and explanations. My attackers, for instance, were caught, but never prosecuted for reasons still unknown to me. While many of my friends seemed more disadvantaged and unlikely to return to a normal life after their release. Unfortunately, some of them were more inured to crime by their punishment. Balancing these two conflicting experiences was not easy, but it gave me a further confirmation that crime and punishment are never straightforward occurrences with unambiguous causes, purposes, and responses. It revealed the variety of the different actors and agendas involved in criminal justice institutions and policies.

I was able to think about these issues in this way partly because of the liberal arts education I had received up to that point. By the time I had recovered and completed my undergraduate degree, I decided to apply to graduate school to study how criminal justice policy is formulated, contested, and enacted.

At the University of Michigan, I am now studying the history of prison expansion as a social policy in the American state of Pennsylvania and the Australian state of New South Wales. My graduate program exposes me to topics far beyond my immediate research specialization, which has helped me address my work to a broader audience and develop an extensive basis of knowledge for teaching.

In addition to history and cultural anthropology, many students in my program also work with faculty in sociology, performance art, comparative literature, archeology, and social work among other departments. It is because of this openness to many different ways of thinking about history and society that I choose to examine how changes in punishment occurred in both the United States and Australia.

My comparative approach to the history of punishment emphasizes the importance of thinking about social problems and institutions from a variety of different perspectives and analytical traditions; a general method that has been the hallmark my liberal arts education since I started college. My project will examine changes over the last 40 years, tracing the development of large prison building programs and criminal justice reforms while highlighting differences and similarities between the two states. I plan to use diverse methodologies for this project, including archival research, ethnographic observation, and formal interviews with numerous actors involved in the criminal justice system in both states.

I incorporated some of the work I have already done for this project into several lectures for a class that I assist with at the University of Michigan. This course, titled the “History and Theory of Punishment,” explores changes in the different theories and goals of punishment over several hundred years. The readings for this course are an eclectic mix, drawing on classical political theory, philosophy, sociology, ancient literature, history, anthropology, and writings by prisoners. I’ve also used a variety of different films and recordings for this class from popular cinema to documentaries.

Teaching about punishment in this manner, has given me the opportunity to engage with the liberal arts in a way that, hopefully, inspires students to think critically about social problems, government, and society just as it has done for me.

After I finish my degree at Michigan, I plan to continue teaching about criminal justice and different practices of punishment in a liberal arts school at the university level. Topics as important as punishment should be debated and studied from a variety of different viewpoints and methodological traditions. The classes that I will develop will focus punishment in ways that may be unfamiliar to students in criminal justice programs or those focusing on a pre-law education.

My liberal arts background was essential for being able to think about these issues critically, and I hope to share this ability with students who may still be undecided about what they want to achieve in college. More importantly, I would like to teach in a liberal arts program to help invest students with the critical tools and practices that will help them understand complex social issues, and ultimately, make them better informed and more capable citizens.

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