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Teaching Thursday: The Panopticon and Online Teaching

Crossposted to Teaching Thursday

In a blog post a few months back dedicated to the topic of online teaching, I mentioned an observation by Mick Beltz, a regular contributor to Teaching Thursday. He suggested that teaching online captured some of the essential characteristics of M. Foucault’s panopticon as outlined in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this metaphor, Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s vision of the panopticon to describe modern society. The panopticon is an architectural form, most famously used for prisons, where an observer stationed at a central point can see into a series of cells. The people in these cells can always see the observation post (although they do not know whether they are being observed), but cannot see into any of the other cells. In this way they are together, yet isolated from one another In practical application, this means that a warden can observe the behavior of all the inmates almost simultaneously while the inmate cannot observe each other’s behavior.

For Foucault, the pressure of constant observations implied specifically in the panoticon, but functioning elsewhere formed the ideal environment for maintaining the kind of discipline introduced in the prison, the factory, and even the modern school. For Foucault, this kind of internalized discipline produced by the fear of being constantly observed, ensured that society maintained a degree of conformity sufficient to keep the engines of capitalism moving. The panopticon and its culture of observation were part of Foucault’s analysis of discipline in modern times and part of a greater goal of the modern state to produce “docile” bodies .

The parallel between the panopticon as a physical building and the experience of teaching (and presumably taking) an online course are quite striking. First the observer, in this case the faculty member, can observe student behavior through a comprehensive array of statistics as well as submitted work. The individual student, on the other hand, has almost no view of the faculty member, except for when their work is evaluated. At the same time, they have only limited abilities to observe the work of other students and rarely would know when another student is being particular successful in the class or struggling. In a classroom setting, of course, students can interact freely with one another both before and after class and encode their behavior in ways that make it difficult for a faculty member to observe, much less understand. Even during class, verbal and non-verbal cues from the blatant — like laughter at a particularly innane comment by a fellow student — or subtle, like glances at one another or eye-rolling or even the frustrated figiting that occurs when a class runs over, provide clear modes of communication between students. Moreover, students can use these techniques to force a dialog with even a reluctant faculty member. The classroom dynamic presents a formidable and almost irresistible check on unfettered faculty authority.

The removal of this opportunity for spontaneous, collective action certainly removes a key aspect of the faculty-student dialog from the classroom setting. Moreover, the realization that one is being constantly observed initiates and conditions the student for a world where companies like Google see everything from your mundane search patterns to your house to your financial, personal, and religious identities. The conditioning of students to be observed in an online environment prepares them for a world where companies and governments constantly gather information and construct identities for individuals which are so subtle, varied, and complex that they exceed the individual’s ability to understand or realize them.

The impact of this environment on teaching as a profession is significant. While the “teacherly” gaze has always been one of any number of treasured weapon in the teacher’s arsenal (able, when deployed successfully, to bring to order even the most disruptive student), it now has the potential to become the single most powerful tool for conditioning behavior. We can observe when a student comes online, how long they stay for, what they look at, as well as the what they produce. With only a little exaggeration, we can say that the student study habits, reading behavior, and analytical practices are de-mystified and can be placed in direct correlation to student performance on evaluated work. In effect, the barrier that has long separated the mystical process of learning from the work of evaluation has come down.

The advantage, then, of online education is that it conditions students to become the docile bodies in our information age and to accept our individuality as a commodity in the information economy. The documented life is the commodified life.

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Categories: Teaching
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