Stacy Erickson-Pesetski teaches Shakespeare behind bars, volunteers at animal shelter

Erickson-Pesetski with a furry friend at Humane Fort Wayne animal shelter.

“It’s been since I started teaching at Manchester in 2007 that I really have become connected to Shakespeare, and much of that is because I’ve gotten to see how so many different people—English majors, Chemistry majors, colleagues, adults and kids in prison—can connect to the universal themes,” said Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, professor of English and associate dean of Academic Affairs.

Erickson-Pesetski was inspired to teach Shakespeare to men in prison by a documentary called Shakespeare Behind Bars, which focuses on a program in a Kentucky prison where incarcerated men study and perform Shakespeare plays. “I realized that the men in that film understood Shakespeare in a way that my students and I never would, through a deep understanding of topics like revenge and forgiveness and empathy,” Erickson-Pesetski said.

The film changed Erickson-Pesetski's life. “I started teaching the film and also connected with another local professor who had worked with the program,” she said. “That led to a trip with students to see a Shakespeare group at a Michigan prison, and then volunteering with a program at Pendleton Correctional Facility down near Indianapolis, and a 2015 sabbatical where I got to do all kinds of prison Shakespeare work.”

All this work led up to her five summers teaching a Shakespeare class at Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility, including this summer. She picked Logansport because she knew the warden of the facility. In the classes, the students read a whole play through the summer and at the end of the summer they complete creative projects.

The first two summers of volunteering to teach Shakespeare went well, according to Erickson-Pesetski, but her third year was slightly interrupted due to COVID-19 in the summer of 2020. In order to continue teaching the class, much like Manchester, it went virtual. The English teachers in the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility helped with technology by setting up the computers and scanning work to Erickson-Pesetski, and the students held their papers to the computer to allow her to see their work. For summer 2021, Erickson-Pesetski was allowed to go back to in-person classes.

Erickson-Pesetski noted that it is important to recognize that the young men she teaches choose to read Shakespeare for fun. “They don't get any credit for coming to the group, and they are doing it purely to learn something new or have a new experience,” she said.

This summer, her students are reading Hamlet, and bring their own unique perspectives to their understanding of the play. “Some have decided that Hamlet probably has depression, or maybe that he's addicted to drugs,” she said. “Others are connecting to the fact that he is trying to revenge his dad's death, or that he has a difficult relationship with his mother.”

“These are all things we can relate to as humans, but it's especially central to these teenage boys who have had some really difficult experiences at such a young age,” she continued. “I also get to see their creative sides as we read Shakespeare -- they draw pictures of characters or act things out.”

Erickson-Pesetski volunteers at prisons because she loves Shakespeare and wants to show the students something new. “It’s trying to help these kids find their way out of a life that has really been set up for them.”

“Racial disparity in youth incarceration has increased since 2001; Black youth are four times as likely as whites to be incarcerated,” Erickson-Pesetski noted of the demographics of her classes.

Stacy-with-coffee-mugErickson-Pesetski does other volunteer work as well. She has volunteered at the Humane Fort Wayne animal shelter for six years, from which she adopted her dog in 2014. There, she started off walking dogs and working adoption events, but now helps with anything – from approving applications to assisting with big fundraising events. Her favorite memory is from 2019, when she and a group of volunteers rescued 77 animals from an overcrowded shelter in Texas.

Her passion for volunteering comes from a deep feeling of empathy for those who are in positions where they cannot help themselves. “I just really want to try to make things a little brighter for people or animals who are in a position of suffering or who need a second chance in life,” she said. “The world hasn't necessarily been kind to those in prisons or animal shelters, and I want to show them that kindness does exist.”

Erickson-Pesetski cites being a runner as something that helps her “stay sane,” enjoying long runs on the trails near her home. “I’ll be training for my seventh marathon this summer… in between my time going to the prison to teach Shakespeare, of course.”

-Tiffany Williams ’22 and Chloe Leckrone 22