Reimagining “Immersive” Dissertation and Activist Work in a Zoom World

Hello, I am Celena Todora—a fifth-year PhD candidate in the English Department (Composition Program) and a recipient of the Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship for the 2021-22 academic year. My dissertation, “Liberatory Education in Anti-Liberatory Spaces: Rhetorics of Freedom in Prison Education Activism,” examines my role as a scholar-activist working with two prison education initiatives coordinated by local abolitionist organization Let’s Get Free (LGF): Let’s Get Smart and Knotweed Salon. Let’s Get Smart (LGS) seeks to promote access to higher education in PA state prisons through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and Knotweed Salon is a correspondence-based political discussion group with participants on the inside and outside of the prison walls. Interviewing LGF activists and examining my role as a participant-observer working within these two projects, I explore how prison education activists frame their work as “liberatory,” ultimately aiming to contribute to the liberation of (non)incarcerated people, despite working between institutions that may impede these goals.

This summer I will complete my interviews and coding cycles with plans to continue writing in the fall. I anticipate completing my dissertation next spring. My ethnographic methods enable a number of multimodal formats for my dissertation, but it is of utmost importance to me that a facet of my work will benefit LGF, whether that be producing a short film exploring my work and conversations with activists, redesigning the LGS webpage, or participating in LGF’s annual art contest, which showcases art from free and incarcerated artists to raise community awareness about mass incarceration.

Taking on an “immersive” fellowship during a pandemic has been challenging yet inspirational in a time when I feel very much not immersed in the world around me. This has helped me rethink of ways to reimagine the concept of “immersion” for myself. Part of what drew me to my work is the allure of the inherently immersive nature of ethnography. My rosy-colored view of ethnography often recalled images of dialogue and collaborative projects (many ethnographers I admire have written about their experiences teaching in prisons or facilitated theater projects with incarcerated youth). However, as this fellowship commenced, I soon began to realize that ethnographic work during the pandemic feels very different from my imaginings. Somehow, meetings and interviews conducted over Zoom feel less immersive than their in-person counterparts. Biweekly LGS meetings over Zoom, facilitating a reading group on both sides of the walls via e-mail, collaborating grant writing in Google Docs—it all feels so much less “immersive” when I am sitting in a room alone staring at a screen. However, I soon found that although the “immersion” doesn’t look like I had pictured it, I have been struck by the surprising ways in which I have experienced my work as immersive.

Throughout my fellowship year, I immersed myself in my work in ways that would not have been possible if I had been teaching. I spent time revising my research design to better meet goals and constraints, building my relationship with LGF, working with the IRB office to gain approval, and drafting my first chapter. As my project changed a bit early on in my fellowship (which you can read about in my first blog post), my first task during this fellowship year was to revise and clarify my research design. First, I realized that my original plan (to comparatively investigate prison education activists’ experiences within community and Higher Ed in prison projects) was too broad and too ambitious of an endeavor. I realized that it is still possible to represent the methods and perspectives within the Higher Ed in prison trajectory through literature review, allowing me to focus my dataset on my addition to the conversation—community-based efforts. Around the time of these revisions, LGS began facing some roadblocks (which you can read about in more detail, again, in my first blog post), so I decided to work with Knotweed Salon in addition. While there are many methodological benefits of my work with Knotweed, I have also gained much personal enjoyment—choosing articles for the discussion, crafting questions, and getting to know some new activists, etc. Having the space to fully focus on my work enabled me to reimagine my dissertation structure in ways I may not have if I had less time. My committee members were invaluable in providing feedback on my methodology and drafting interview questions. It may not be what I pictured as “immersive,” but it has been immersive, nonetheless. Now I have gained IRB approval after numerous revisions (yay!) and am beginning my interviews shortly.

I am video recording my interviews (with the consent of interviewees) to create content that might have educational or advocacy benefits for the organization, including possible inclusion in one of LGF’s many filmmaking endeavors. Part of my dissertation will include video embedded within the text, illustrating how LGF frames liberation within their short films. I am also considering recording some of my own personal reflections about my work with LGS and Knotweed, which LGF can choose to utilize for promotional materials if they would like. I am excited to explore different possibilities for innovative modes of crafting a dissertation that might give back to LGF, the broader Pittsburgh abolitionist community, and Humanities Engage—all of whom I have been incredibly grateful to work with.


Celena Todora
May 2022
Learn about all the projects from the Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship