In an Auburn neuroscience course, students’ desire to understand the world around them is manifest when the students want to learn about the mentally ill inmates living among them. During one class, VanAntwerp asked when we were going to discuss the neurobiological underpinnings of schizophrenia. “Clearly someone has read ahead,” we joked. Three weeks ahead, to be exact. This is common in Auburn, where students wait all week to attend class, eagerly anticipating the academic discussions that break up monotonous prison life. For many, school is a highlight of the week and serves as one of a few tenuous links to the world outside prison walls. Students in Auburn will read and reread assigned readings, often weeks in advance.
Their counterparts at Cornell, on the other hand, have endless outlets for intellectual and personal energy. Sometimes they expend much of their energy on pursuits other than coursework. This is not a criticism, just a fact. The typical college experience is much more than the academic work, and students at Cornell certainly appreciate the myriad nonacademic resources, opportunities, and social experiences available to them.
Students in Auburn have no such wealth of extracurricular opportunities. “If you aren’t given access to something in years and years, and then you suddenly get it, that can make for an incredibly intense experience,” says Scott.
Cornell students excel at learning and retaining vast amounts of new information. Being able to cram for tests, recall the smallest details, construct elaborate, finessed arguments, and draw conclusions between disparate points all become essential qualifications for many Cornell biology students. As one Cornell student said when asked about Introduction to Neuroscience: “I took the course as a requirement for my major. At the beginning, I just memorized the material, but by the end, it had turned into learning that I truly enjoyed.”
This attitude can be seen when studying the visual system. Packed with dizzying minutiae and intricacy, the visual system is one of the most complex topics covered in Introduction to Neuroscience. Cornell students tackle this material head-on. For them, it is just another complex topic in a difficult class. Many approach it systematically, plowing through details, learning concepts, and memorizing material for the next exam. For some, if they enjoy the material, that is great, but often, that isn’t the immediate goal.
Students in Auburn take a different approach, favoring the forest over the trees and taking pleasure in the subject before mastering it. Studying neuroscience helps inmates develop a deeper understanding of their own lives. Neuroscience “enables you to live a more thoughtful existence—being confined physically, but free mentally,” said O’Malley.
Another difference we saw between our Cornell and Auburn students is the expectations they had for themselves. Many Cornell students feel pressured to succeed, with the assumption that they would thrive and flourish because of their education. Not so for Auburn students: Many grew up with the expectation that they would not succeed, and their incarceration only reinforces that belief. To them, higher education is a new kind of experience, one that demands rigor yet expects success and provides a new chance for intellectual achievement.