Surveillance & Obedience


In preparation for my SXSW presentation this weekend, I’ve been drawing images for my talk “The End of Reading in the USA.”  Part of my presentation will point to the oppression students feel in the English classroom, especially when it comes to “required” reading.

When I was preparing for the graduate class I’m teaching tonight, I was reading Peter Elbow’s “In Defense of Private Writing.”  In part, he argues that teachers of writing should allow students to engage in personal writing that no one will read in order “to try to make sure their words fit themselves and their own experience of things.”  And then this:

Do we really want to make writing part of the project that Foucault calls the panopticon: the pervasive “surveillance” of us and our consciousness by others with institutional power? …  As teachers with authority, we can nudge students into spaces where–though they cannot get away from culture–they can operate under less supervision.  We can provide them with some crucial time-outs from their experience of the unending oversight and testing of their minds that constitutes schooling.  When students write privately, they often notice how much they write for us anyway–and this noticing can give them a bit more awareness of their situation and bit more space for choice and agency.

Both of these occasions for oppressive surveillance (school-based reading and writing) remind me of the assessment practices that are now taking hold in schools and taking over teaching across the country.  Assessment is another form of the panopticonic voyeurism unleashed by state governments intent on framing education as a one-size-fits-all industry that must produce student success no matter what the student brings to the equation.  The causes of not-learning or failure are not really a concern in the state-run panopticon (just as the reasons for poverty and crime are not a concern in the state pen); the panopticon only wants obedience.   And in schools, the state gets that obedience through various forms of technology, most notably in grading rubrics.

See this related link.