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Carmen Heider

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Carmen Heider stood behind the lectern and smiled broadly at the people gathered in front of her. Some were dressed in semi-formal attire; others were in matching blue-green prison apparel. On that day at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac, Wis., Heider, an associate communication professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, was celebrating her students’ success.
Carmen Heider

Carmen Heider, Ph.D.

Carmen Heider, Ph.D.
College of Letters and Science

by Noell Dickmann
Student Features Reporter


beyond the statistics

Carmen Heider stood behind the lectern and smiled broadly at the people gathered in front of her. Some were dressed in semi-formal attire; others were in matching blue-green prison apparel. On that day at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac, Wis., Heider, an associate communication professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, was celebrating her students’ success.

Half the class were known as “Inside” students, women incarcerated in Wisconsin’s largest female prison; the other half were UW Oshkosh students, known as “Outside” students. But behind the prison walls and in Heider’s eyes, they were all one and the same. Heider’s course is part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, a national program that brings together college students and incarcerated people to learn about each other and to dispel myths and stereotypes.

“I am honored and very proud to be a part of this,” Heider said of the Inside-Out program. She unabashedly proclaimed this class as her favorite teaching experience because of the confidence it instills in the “Inside” students and the lasting impact it has on the class as a whole. She introduced two students who were chosen by their fellow classmates to give remarks at the ceremony that signified the completion of the program.

Shartina, an “Inside” student, shared how her life has changed through taking this course under Heider’s direction. “I feel as though I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone, pushed to challenge my thinking,” Shartina said. “Inside-Out has equipped me with a broad base of knowledge, a motivation to live beyond the statistics... What is before me is far greater than what is behind me.”

Wade, a senior at UW Oshkosh, recounted how he was a little unsure about going to prison for a class and how quickly that apprehension went away. “As the weeks went on, Thursday was the new day to look forward to,” he said. He explained how the class gave the UW Oshkosh students a more accurate portrayal of incarcerated women than the stereotypes on TV, movies and in the general media. “Because of this class...those stereotypes are gone.”

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In this audio-only podcast, Carmen Heider tells why she teaches. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

Lessons Learned

Heider’s students at Taycheedah Correctional Institution won’t forget the lessons learned during the semester. At the closing ceremony, there was plenty of laughter and a palpable sense of camaraderie. The students knew the rules from Day 1–—no telling each other’s backstory, no sharing of crimes and misdemeanors, no last names. These restrictions allowed the students to feel free of the labels that unjustly define them.

While the students were friendly, there was a no hugging rule, even on the last day (though one “Outside” student managed to sneak in a few when no one was looking).
The “Outside” students said they gained a new perspective on the people behind the prison walls. The “Inside” students of the spring 2012 class said they felt encouraged and empowered.

“The most rewarding part about the class is to be able to feel like a human being,” said Enna, one “Inside” student.

Another “Inside” student echoed that sentiment. “It’s the one day a week I didn’t feel incarcerated,” Amy said. “I would be ecstatic the rest of the day after class.”

“Inside” student Ana noted Heider’s dedication - not just to the program, but to the content too. “She has this inner passion and fire,” she said. “She’s really devoted to what she does and that translates when she speaks.”

“Outside” student Nicole said she felt so inspired after completing the course with Heider that she decided to major in criminal justice. She hopes to some day work in a women’s prison.
Upon hearing those words, Heider beamed with pride. “This,” she said after the ceremony, “is why I do what I do.”

Since 2000, Heider has been teaching in the Department of Communication at UW Oshkosh. She is the author of numerous publications on women’s studies and rhetoric, and has received awards for her teaching including the 2005–2006 Wisconsin Teaching Fellow and the 2011 College of Letters and Science Community Engagement Award.

Tiny Town, Big World

Heider grew up in the town of Deshler, Neb. Her father was a livestock and crop farmer, her mother, a former elementary school teacher who left the profession to raise two daughters. The town’s population of about a thousand meant the farmer’s daughter was always finding ways to keep herself amused.

“I was outside a lot when I was little,” said Heider, who remembers building frog houses along a nearby creek and exploring the land with her dog. “My mom always said that I was good at entertaining myself.”
Heider learned at an early age that there was a big world outside her little hometown. She had the urge to see all of it–a trait inherited and nourished by her mother through family trips. She remembers one learning experience when she was about 10 years old, on a trip to Mesa Verde, Colo. The cliff dwellings of the Anasazi people there showed an entirely different way of life to Heider.

Every other year the family would travel to Colorado to see relatives; the years in between they would visit somewhere else, often national parks. “I think that sparked a lot of my curiosity,” Heider said. “Just learning about different things, seeing different things and realizing that not everybody lives the way we do in Deshler, Nebraska.”

Heider was a good student in high school, a social student, but a serious student nonetheless. She always enjoyed reading and analyzing different things, and she excelled in her English classes. One English teacher, Jeanne Weiner, introduced Heider to symbols through George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “I still have my notes from the class that I took with her,” she said. 

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In this audio-only podcast, Carmen Heider talks about after-dinner speaking, a forensics event she took part in throughout college. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

Hooked on Rhetoric

Her interest in symbols would further ignite into rhetoric when Heider became a student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, majoring in speech communication and journalism. An undergraduate course required her to read The Language of Oppression by Haig A. Bosmajian, and Heider was hooked on rhetoric ever since. “It changed the way I thought about words,” Heider said of the book.

Her eyes burn with excitement as she explains the topic of rhetoric, which she said has two parts. First, symbols such as language, images and names make up the world. Second, rhetoric is designed to understand how these symbols function, how we make sense of the world through them.
Heider also took part in forensics throughout college. She did informative speaking, persuasive speaking and communication analysis, but her best event was after-dinner speaking. “It was humorous speaking and I talked about my hometown, Deshler,” Heider said with a laugh.

For the after-dinner speech Heider often used the hometown newspaper, the Deshler Rustler, as fodder, especially a section that highlighted important events in the town’s history. One headline from the past read, “The wholesale grocery company received a cart of bananas on Wednesday and a cart of grapes on Saturday.” Another headline from 1986 read, “Just what is a wild boar?”

“The overall point was that small, rural towns actually can be interesting places to live,” Heider said.

After graduating from UN–Lincoln in 1987, Heider worked for a few years at a bank doing collections and at a newspaper creating advertisements. It was during this time that she realized she wasn’t really doing what she wanted. “I felt like I wasn’t learning enough,” she said. “I missed being in the classroom.”

Her longing to learn propelled Heider to apply at a new master’s program in speech communication at Texas A&M University. Right away she knew she had made the right move. “I loved being able to spend my time reading the articles that were required for the class, writing the papers and just learning about things in more depth,” said Heider, who earned her master’s degree in 1993.

Her renewed enjoyment of the classroom made her start thinking about pursuing a career in academia. “It just seemed like a good fit,” said Heider, who then went on to Pennsylvania State University for her doctorate in speech communication, which she received in 2000. Heider started teaching at UW Oshkosh the
same year.

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In this audio-only podcast, Carmen Heider reveals what she hopes students take away from her classes. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

Learning Abroad

Heider has been teaching at UW Oshkosh for more than a decade, but has yet to grow tired of it. She stays enthusiastic by not limiting the learning to the four walls of a classroom. She has led several study abroad trips to Greece and Tanzania. “We can learn inside the classroom, but I think we can learn a lot of things outside of the classroom too,” Heider said. “The travel experiences or going to a prison can be really phenomenal ways to learn the subject matter in less traditional ways.”

The Tanzania trip is a journey that takes her students more than 8,000 miles from home–away from running water, away from people who speak English, away from comfortable homes and people who wear shoes. In Tanzania, the students are thrown into a desert of poverty, where lions and tigers roam free, where houses are made of sticks, where people get their dinner by a bow-and-arrow and where naked, starving orphans are covered in flies.

Well, not quite. Such misconceptions are exactly why Heider brings her students to the East African country.

While Tanzania does have its problems, Heider said, UW Oshkosh students can see first-hand how the people address them despite a lack of resources. During the three-week study abroad program, students saw the Tanzanians practice AIDS education, engage in a grass-roots fair-trade movement and observed local women learning trades to become self-sufficient.

Heider recalls an especially touching moment during the January 2012 trip to Tanzania. During a session with a local group of women in a very poor area of the country, the study abroad group learned how to hand-weave baskets. Even though the two groups of people faced a challenge–the Tanzanian women did not speak English and the UW Oshkosh students did not speak the local language of Swahili–they found a way to communicate with each another. “It was magical,” Heider said. “We connected, and that was really powerful.”

Even Heider was caught up in the moment; she purposely over-paid for a hand-made necklace and through a translator told the seller, who tried to give her the change, to “just keep it.” The woman was beyond grateful. “The expression on her face was like she had won the lottery and it was 11,000 shillings, which is probably $8,” Heider said. “I will never forget that.”

Carmen Heider in Tanzania with UW Oshkosh instructor Liz Cannon, Ph.D., and a local student from Tanzania.

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In this audio-only podcast, Carmen Heider tells why she encourages students to study abroad. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

Expanding Worlds

Whether it’s traveling, researching or diving into stereotypes, exploration spreads to every aspect of Heider’s life. Her husband Paul Czisny, a self-employed attorney, shares her passion. In the summer the two head southwest for hiking expeditions.

From getting married in 2004 at Yellowstone National Park to hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, to the top of Mount Elbert (the highest point in Colorado), they can be found outdoors where the rocks are red and the mountain peaks scrape the sky.

While retirement is a ways off, they do share a dream of joining the Peace Corps together. “Being immersed in another culture for two years would be a powerful experience,” she said. “It would enrich my teaching and my research too.”

For now, Heider is happy researching, teaching and expanding her students’ worlds. “I hope I can help students step back and see things from multiple perspectives, and I hope that I can help students understand the importance of asking the “why” questions,” she said.

Heider has climbed part of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; she has seen the struggles of society both in America and abroad. She has seen the good and the bad, and all that is in between the two, and has learned that people everywhere are typically more similar than different.

She said it is critical that students leave her courses with a broader understanding of the role that language and symbols play in shaping identities and communities.

“I hope students learn that language has consequences, and that those who have the power to control language also have the power to direct our attention and actions in certain ways,” she said. “However, if we change the language, we can change how we think, and sometimes, how we act.”


research matters

by Carmen Heider, Ph.D.

My current research focuses on a book-length project based on the rhetorical analysis of 50 interviews I conducted with women in a maximum/medium security prison. My goal was to gain an understanding of how incarcerated women perceive their lives prior to incarceration, how they understand their experiences in prison, and how they think about their lives in the future, be it in prison or upon release. I also asked these women to share the messages that they would like to communicate to three different audiences: tax-paying citizens, individuals who work in the criminal justice system, and girls or women who might find themselves in circumstances similar to those that each of these women faced prior to her incarceration. I am exploring the themes, metaphors, and contradictions that emerge in their life narratives and their messages to various audiences. My hope is that this project creates a space for the voices of the incarcerated to be heard and to become more integrated into our public discourse on incarceration, which might then have an impact on reducing the number of women in prison. 

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