. . . of Surveillance of the University of Surveillance of the . . .

Dipping back into the archive once more, this time to the “Media in Transition 8” conference held at MIT in 2013. I began this talk with a “joke” intro that (shamelessly) I have used more than once. Partly, because it almost always gets a good laugh. But mostly because, in this case, it was definitely true. This was not a fragment of a work in progress, or an early take on an issue that I expected to pursue in more depth later. The paper below really is the start and end of this “project.” But then not everything worth writing needs to be a 25-page journal article or a 300-page book, yes?

Meanwhile, in the decade (give or take a few weeks) since I gave this paper, the world hasn’t exactly changed in ways that have rendered the issues below moot. Quite the contrary. It’s even more common (and, sadly, even more “normal”) than before that universities expect instructors to keep tabs on their students’ wellbeing. :(

This is a piece of a much smaller project . . .

Surveillance is an increasingly prominent and important issue for scholars of many stripes. And it should be. What I’m concerned with here today, however, is a curious shortage of self-reflexivity in this discourse about the active roles that we play, often on a daily basis, as agents of surveillance. This shortfall isn’t because the range of scholarly work on surveillance is somehow too narrow in terms of what it covers. Quite the contrary, it covers a lot of ground. Sometimes it even does so very close to home indeed. More about the breadth of ground covered shortly. What I think this work doesn’t do as much as it could — and should — is to look in the mirror at our own practices as scholars and educators.

  • Digital media scholars have had a lot to say about the ways that the likes of Facebook and Google and Amazon have made fortunes by collating massive amounts of data on all of us, and then packaged and sold that data to marketers, or (in some cases) delivered that information up to government officials.
  • Critical media scholars have had a lot to say about the ways that reality TV has helped to train viewers to accept (and even embrace) invasive forms of surveillance as a normal (and even a desirable) feature of contemporary life.
  • Scholarly analyses of the war on terror have pointed to ways that governments (here and elsewhere around the globe) have been happy to toss aside civil liberties and personal privacy, to roll out security cameras and tracking systems on a massive scale, all in the interests of homeland security and keeping us safe.
  • Scholars of labor have analyzed the ways that employers of all stripes have embraced the notion that the “health of the company” depends on keeping tabs on the private lives of workers, up and down the pay scale, through a variety of invasive tactics, from drug tests to monitoring employee’s personal Facebook and Twitter accounts.
  • Recent critical scholarship on the changing state of the university has brought some of these issues back home to the places where we work, especially with respect to the ways that faculty (from the lowliest adjunct to the most senior full professors) are increasingly required to be accountable for where we are, what we’re doing, and how productive we are.
  • And while I’m not aware of any scholarship to date on this topic, it’s become increasingly common to see/read “scandalous” mainstream news stories about “controversial” classroom activities — cf. the instructor in Florida who was publicly excoriated for asking students to step on pieces of paper with Jesus’ name on them: a journalistic trend that suggests that, in our capacity as educators, we are increasingly the unwilling and unwitting objects of surveillance from both mainstream media and various officials of the state.

I don’t want to dismiss or minimize any of the work I’ve just mentioned — not by any means — and we could no doubt add many other examples to this list. I think, however, that taken as a whole, it has a curious (and ironic) blind spot. Put simply, while such scholarship typically understands surveillance to be ubiquitous and unsettling, it also routinely sees the principal agents and beneficiaries of surveillance as other people and institutions: the state, the mainstream media, corporate employers, the military, etc. Insofar as this collective body of work is self-reflexive enough to look at the university, this discourse primarily understands scholars — i.e., people like us — as objects and victims of surveillance.

Which, of course, we are. But what I want to suggest in the time remaining to me is that we — i.e., professional scholars and educators — are also active, significant, and often all-too-willing agents in the surveillance game. We aren’t simply a vocal, critically savvy part of “the watched” segment of the population. We are also among “the watchers,” and we’re working awfully hard to help build a culture of surveillance, even as we decry the growth of such a culture. Let me point to a few general ways that we perform this type of labor.

First, common, ordinary research practices assume (and often even require) that scholars will actively take on “Big Brother”-like roles with respect to the people and communities at the core of their research projects. Again, some of this is very old and probably unavoidable. Studying what other people do, especially outside of laboratory and experimental settings, has always involved a certain amount of invasive behavior on the part of researchers. But two issues disturb me here anyway.

One such issue is the curious way that self-reflexivity actually does play a role here, insofar as the push for more ethical research practices — especially, though not exclusively, when it comes to researching online communities of various sorts — seems to coincide a bit too neatly with the realization on the part of communities of researchers that they/we could actually be the objects of such investigations (especially, though not exclusively, with respect to journalism), rather than the investigators. “We want to do this to other people, but don’t you dare do it to us…”

The other issue here has to do with what seems to be the prevailing philosophy around IRB practices. The ostensible safeguard in place to protect research subjects from harm arising from the projects in which they are involved is, as many people before me have suggested, not really about protecting research subjects from harm, as much as it is about protecting universities from expensive and/or embarrassing lawsuits. IRB processes aren’t typically designed so as to minimize the degree to which scholarly research becomes another form of surveillance — and if they actually accomplish that task from time to time, it’s probably more of a happy side effect than anything else.

Second, institutionalized pedagogy (even its most radical and/or critical variants) typically requires instructors to monitor the activities of their students. Some of this, of course, is inherent to the task — practices of grading and credentialing require us to track and verify that the work we’re evaluating has been performed by the appropriate students and completed in a timely fashion — though, even here, the use of technologies such as ID scanners to monitor attendance and massive online paper databases (such as turnitin.com) to combat plagiarism help to produce campus climates built around suspicion and mistrust, rather than openness and communality.

Think about something as “simple” as a basic course Moodle site, for instance. The use logs for such sites accessible to instructors provide an astonishing wealth of data on which students have accessed which portions of the site when and for how long and in what ways. I find it more disturbing than thrilling that I could routinely walk into class every day with advance knowledge about the likelihood that any particular student has done that day’s reading, solely based on a quick consultation of those use logs. “I saw you last night and I know what you didn’t do…”

Still within the realm of pedagogy, while there’s a long history of colleges and universities being positioned as a kind of surrogate parent for the undergraduates who attend them, the prevailing expectations for this sort of monitoring of students’ lives used to be relatively diffuse, and largely limited to the administrative and service wings of the institution. These days, however, instructors of all ranks are increasingly being “asked” to monitor an ever-expanding range of social and mental health issues that have heretofore not been a routine part of ordinary teacher-student interactions. We are barraged with bulletins and reminders as to what we should do if we notice — with the strong implication being that it is our responsibility to notice — that our students are showing signs of moodiness, or depression, or anxiety, or alcoholism, or drug use, or eating disorders, or antisocial behavior. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the ostensible rationales for such monitoring — I’m not keen on having my students commit suicide, after all — but I find it highly problematic that the institution places a large part of burden for such surveillance on instructors who (on the whole) have no formal training relevant to the task.

Third (or perhaps second-and-a-half, insofar as this is related to pedagogy), we can reflect on the wide variety of blogs, and tumblr sites, and memes devoted to instructors “flipping the script” on sites like RateYourProfessor.com: i.e., the defunct, yet still popular, “Rate Your Students”; its spinoff “College Misery”; “Shit My Students Write”; “Office Hours Are Over”; etc. Some of these are, to be clear, amazingly fun — and funny — and I can certainly understand them as a common (and even healthy) form of communal venting and catharsis around the ordinary (and not so ordinary) trials and tribulations of teaching . . .

. . . That said, these sites also serve as a sort of public shaming of “bad” student practices. And while such shaming is almost always done anonymously (all the way around) — so no one is calling out, say, Chris Johnson by name for some egregiously stupid bit of plagiarism — I want to suggest that the public performance of such venting nonetheless demonstrates the ways that many (most?) of us are actively (and even eagerly) invested in building a culture where otherwise private and personal struggles might be presented for public ridicule and commentary. While I laugh a lot when I read entries to “Shit My Students Write,” I always do so with a bit of discomfort. I imagine submitting some of the undergraduate prose “gems” that have come my way to the site . . . and then realizing that, while such gems might be anonymous to most of the world, they’d certainly be recognizable to the students who wrote them. And when I think of that, I recognize that the other task performed by such sites is one intensely invested in a type of surveillance. We are all watching you. Write like this, act like this, talk like this, and we will let the world know.

I’m not sure I have answers or solutions to the general issue here. I suspect that we can’t simply un-make a society increasingly invested in surveillance overnight. And the university has become an institution that actively works, on multiple fronts, to instill a sense of ordinariness around being tracked and monitored, so that all of us — our students as well as ourselves — come to accept and understand the “need” to live as a persistent focus of surveillance practices. I do think, however, that we need to be better about recognizing our own roles in perpetuating such practices.

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