Loyola University Chicago

Modern Languages and Literatures


Retiring Modern Languages Professor Volunteers Time to Teach Prisoners

Retiring Modern Languages Professor Volunteers Time to Teach Prisoners

Loyola Professor Andrew McKenna is taking his teaching to a new classroom – one in Stateville Correctional Center to be specific.

The French professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures will retire from Loyola after teaching at the University for over 40 years, but will continue to volunteer his time at a maximum security prison teaching writing intensive and literature classes.

Dr. McKenna currently teaches two college-level courses to the prisoners in the facility, driving downstate once a week.

Dr. McKenna said he had been interested in teaching prisoners for quite some time, and credits philosopher René Girard and his mimetic theory of human violence for sparking his interest in the role of prisons in society.  He has done extensive research on the U.S. prison industrial complex, which he calls an “international scandal.”

Dr. McKenna has also published several articles on the value of teaching in prisons and is working with lobbying groups to advocate for structural change and publish the work of students within the prison system.

“We want people to stop seeing incarcerated men and woman as utterly different from us,” he said.

According to Dr. McKenna, although many of the men in his classes are long-term offenders who are unlikely to be released from prison, they enjoy his classes and produce impressive work.

“The men I teach are self-selecting,” Dr. McKenna said. “For them, these courses are a way they can get out of their cells, and their minds can escape from their bodies.”

He said the writing they do contributes immensely to their self-understanding. His students also read and interpret literature, with a focus on works produced by African-American authors.

“I see literature as an active means of agency and of truth,” Dr. McKenna said.

He brought his passion for literature to his classes at the University as well. Originally from the East Coast, Dr. McKenna moved to Illinois in 1970 to teach at Northwestern University before joining Loyola’s community several years later.

“I knew Loyola and the Jesuit community would be a congenial space to operate,” Dr. McKenna said.

During his time at Loyola, Dr. McKenna taught both French language and literature in translation, and also led a summer study abroad program in Southern France.

His colleague in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, David Pankratz, said students have always looked upon him with high regard.

“He has a reputation for being very encouraging and pushing students to do their best,” Mr. Pankratz said. “If you’re serious about French, he’s one of the best.”

Past retirement, Dr. McKenna plans to spend time with his children and grandchildren, travel with them in Europe, pursue further research and of course, continue teaching at Stateville. He also plans to teach two additional courses this fall at Loyola.

“It’s the best use of my time,” Dr. McKenna said. “I don’t golf, I don’t play bridge – what else am I going to do?”