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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Jay Borchert

Jay was just awarded the prestigious Mellon American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Fellowship, an award given to graduate students in the humanities and related social sciences in the last year of Ph.D. dissertation writing.

As a 5th year doctoral candidate, Jay has been hanging around the Rackham Building for years, starting with his experience in the 2009 Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) as an undergraduate student at DePaul. Jay found SROP at U-M to be a pivotal program in charting his academic direction. He says, “Grad school is so complicated, and when I came to Ann Arbor I already had a good relationship with my mentors here, SROP established that. It was an extremely valuable experience – the Kaplan funding for GRE prep really helped us to succeed. It is amazing that Rackham was able to do that for us.”

“U-M’s SROP program is set apart from other peer institutions in that Michigan is not simply paying lip service to underrepresented students. At the end of the day U-M tries to recruit these SROP students and makes sure that the students admitted to SROP are ones they think can gain admission to graduate study in Ann Arbor. Many from my SROP cohort came here, and the others went on to graduate school elsewhere, showing that Rackham is picking top students.”

As a Rackham Merit Fellow, Jay then attended the Summer Institute (SI) before starting official classes as a graduate student in 2010. He says, “SI was a hugely valuable experience. There is so much privilege built in to grad school – to be able to pick up and move and restart your life is difficult for most people. SI helps with that transition. We had training over the summer, a chance to get settled and to secure our footing in Ann Arbor, to work with mentors and establish friendships outside of our departments. The value of SI is immense. It levels the playing field. All of this improves dissertation completion rates, time to degree and fosters community and socialization among graduate students.”

Jay’s dissertation research focuses on the logics of punishment and mass incarceration in the United States. He explains, “The U.S. locks up more people than any other country in the world. Studies show that societies that incarcerate more people are characterized by greater inequality and thus have more social problems. Many social damages are associated with mass incarceration, but we are not asking the questions that examine why we continue to incarcerate citizens and damage communities. I wanted to know what makes prisons seem like a logical response over time. I’m interested in trying to untangle the task of punishment from the politics of punishment in order to help people brainstorm innovative ways to deal with crime that do not involve incarceration and its high economic and social costs.”

He works with prison officials, who find an opportunity in his work to talk about the political minefield surrounding their industry. “The humanity of prisoners and the costs of prisons is lost in tough on crime politics,” he says. Jay has a new research project working with 2 state prison systems in which he’ll study the way guards, wardens and prison staff understand incarceration and the role prisons play in their community. He elaborates, “People speak about the school to prison pipeline. However, for prisons to function there must also be a pipeline to prison work. How and why do prison staff understand prison work and their role in punishing citizens? Correctional officer jobs are high turnover jobs generally, and there is an underlying need by the local community to maintain a steady prison population to preserve local jobs. The rise of private prisons exacerbates the situation by insinuating a market demand for prisoners even when crime rates are falling. That the problem is so vast is the saddest part for me. But, I am hopeful that a new group of scholars can do research to make change happen and improve outcomes.”

Jay originally planned to study health disparities and social inequality in marginalized communities. Through SROP he got involved in the Michigan Study of Life After Prison, and realized that he had a contribution to make in the field. “There was a deficit of new research on prisons and prisoners. I realized where there were gaps in the research and set out to fill some of those gaps.”

“Professionally, through being a U-M student, I’ve been granted a lot of opportunities that have helped me create a solid research trajectory, establish my identity as a junior scholar, develop a network of contacts nationwide, and lay the path for developing my career. This was central to developing my identity and my research focus. I’m not sure this would have happened if I hadn’t come to U-M,” he continues.

He talks about some of the things U-M is doing right: “U-M should be immensely proud of the access to healthcare provided to graduate students – it is truly top notch. It’s also an important social and political message of support to our community.”

Most of all, it’s the connections he’s been able to make with students, faculty and staff that matter the most to him here. “Grad school is immensely difficult, but there are characteristics of Ann Arbor that make it less hard. Ann Arbor is walkable. It’s nice to walk the streets and see people I know. I can run into my barber and he’ll ask me about my research or we’ll talk about his outdoor trekking.” This year he won’t have the opportunity for much of that, as he’ll be a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at UC Berkeley, expanding his horizons while writing his dissertation.