There’s an unusual but interesting, and highly collaborative, partnership between two New Mexico State University faculty members in two vastly different fields: literacy and criminal justice. But it’s a collaboration that may not have been possible if it weren’t for NMSU’s Teaching Academy, and the university’s support of interdisciplinary research.
Mary Fahrenbruck, an associate professor in the College of Health, Education and Social Transformation, began mentoring Saundra Trujillo, an assistant criminal justice professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, through a program offered by the Teaching Academy. The two began discussing young adult novels that include aspects of the criminal justice system, since Fahrenbruck studies children’s and young adult literature.
“I had been reading novels with a criminal aspect, and I always wondered how much of it is true,” Fahrenbruck said. “I didn’t have anybody to ask that question to, and I had been investigating authors to see how much research they had done. Then when I met Saundra at the Teaching Academy, we started talking about some of the things that we do and I mentioned the curiosity that I had.”
Before meeting Fahrenbruck, Trujillo had wondered how criminal justice students, particularly graduate students, could best learn how to apply the criminological theories they were learning in class. A research project was born.
Fahrenbruck and Trujillo, with the help of an undergraduate research assistant, began a study late last year on how students could learn from young adult novels, and the criminal justice issues addressed in those novels. So far, their study has revolved around four books – “Illegal” by Francisco X. Stork, “Juvie” by Steve Watkins, “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds, and “Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, a group of five teens who were convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case and later exonerated.
The study will continue through late 2023 and eventually include additional young adult novels with aspects of criminal justice embedded in the plot and undergraduate students. Fahrenbruck said she’d also like to expand the study to include more research questions regarding children’s literature, and there are plans to include high school students, who are the target audience for young adult novels.
“What we’re finding so far is that graduate students are able to better apply the criminological theory they’re learning in class to the real-world situations in the novels,” Trujillo said. “Some students are very technical about what is in the novels, and others are very emotionally connected to the novels and take a little bit of a different perspective in their applications.”
There have been previous research studies focusing on the accuracy of crime and criminal justice portrayed in television shows and movies, but none have targeted young adult novels, Trujillo said.
“I thought for sure, when we first started, that novels were going to be like TV or the movies, more fiction than not and applying theory won’t really pan out,” Trujillo said. “But the authors of these novels have done so much research, and some are based on very real-life experiences, so theory application works very well.”
Fahrenbruck said young adult novels may be more realistic because readers are able to take in more perspectives compared to TV shows or movies.
“We can actually see what the characters are thinking in a book. We can delve much more deeply into the novels,” Fahrenbruck said.
One example of this was seen when students discussed a portion of “Punching the Air” where the character attends his bond hearing in court.
“There’s a snippet in there that talks about bonding out, and the students grabbed onto that information about the difficulties people face before a judge and posting bond money. They had this really rich, in-depth conversation,” Fahrenbruck said.
Trujillo added, “I get so excited when I see those kinds of discussions because they’re very much in line with the theory and empirical work that they’re learning.”