English majors gain real-world experience via service learning, designing and facilitating book club discussions with inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. English majors publish their writing in Paha Review, Mount Mercy's literary magazine, and in Mount Mercy Times, the university newspaper.

Book Club at Anamosa State Penitentiary

In Fall 2008, Mount Mercy English professors Carol Tyx and Mary Vermillion started a service learning partnership with educators at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Every semester, Mount Mercy students plan and facilitate discussions of literary texts with prison inmates.

These Book Club sessions are integrated into a variety of classes that range from general education courses to Shakespeare to American literature surveys.

Book Club participants learn that how we respond to texts depends, in part, on who we are as readers. Reading a text with others who bring different assumptions and values to the reading enlarges participants’ understanding of the reading process. Book Club also invites participants to reflect on the purposes of literature, including its power to promote empathy and social justice.

For Anamosa participants, Book Club provides the opportunity to read more widely and to connect with people outside the prison.

For Mount Mercy students, Book Club dispels prison stereotypes and demonstrates the relevance of literature outside the classroom.

All participants experience the ways in which literature enriches their ethical framework and connects readers from differing backgrounds. All participants build confidence in their abilities to communicate and take meaningful risks. As they learn to collaborate, improvise, and interact with diverse groups of people, participants develop skills that are highly valued by today’s employers.

Billie Barker, Class of 2016, describes the fiftieth Book Club that Mount Mercy students have led at the Anamosa State Penitentiary in her short web article.

Educators who would like to start their own Book Clubs are invited to consult the following resources:

  • handout distributed the first day of class
  • packet that contains instructions and written assignments for Book Club participants in EN314 Law and Literature
  • handout that adapts this packet to a wide range of other literature courses
  • an article by Tyx and Vermillion, “Literature Goes to Prison: A Reciprocal Service Learning Project,” which appears in a 2015 anthology published by MLA, Service Learning and Literary Studies, edited by Laurie Grobman and Roberta Rosenberg

Here is what Book Club participants say about their experience:

MMU English majors go to jail and do not collect $200. Or more accurately, MMU English majors go to maximum-security prison and collect rare literary insights not available anywhere else on works from Shakespeare to Erdrich. 
—Billie Barker '16

The ASP discussion enabled me to work on my skills of asking thought-provoking questions and collaborating with others.
—Kristine Kouba ’12

I developed a sense of empathy for the prisoners and a desire to understand them. . . . It will help me in the future to better accept my students and the challenges they face, as well as the ideas they offer.
—Nevin Snyder ’13

Book Club . . . allows me to feel and stay connected to society.
—Michael, Anamosa Book Club participant  

During my early teenage years I was a shy and reserved person. . . . I gained the ability to express my views and thoughts with unfamiliar people and in group settings.
—Joseph, Anamosa Book Club participant 

They [the Anamosa participants] have learned to believe in themselves. The bars do not prevent them from learning and enriching their lives. Some of these participants have begun to check out other books form the library that are completely different from what they had chosen in the past. They challenge themselves . . .
—Mary Feeney-Wilfer, Education Coordinator at Anamosa State Penitentiary

Everyone, from every major, should participate in the Anamosa Book Club at least once while they are at Mount Mercy, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back a second, third, or even fourth time!
—Carroll Endicott ’11

. . . I feel a deeper connection to the texts we’ve studied and to my community.
—Ali Swanson ’12

My hope is that individuals who participate in this book club will work to change society’s views of prisoners so that we may one day all work together to stop crime and support both victim and criminal alike.
—Daniel Morgan ’12

By participating in the ASP book club, you can serve your community while helping to enrich the lives and minds of those who are often forgotten. 
—Rachel Dee Bailey ’12

My students hone their discussion skills, deepen their love of literature, and open their minds—all while helping a group of men who are hungry to learn.
—Mary Vermillion, Professor of English