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digital rhetoric pandemic Teaching

Chekhov’s panopticon

Apparently 80% of the professors at my university forced online in March had never taught an online course before. Now they have been seasoned, left to marinate all summer, and, I am assuming, are ready to be grilled.

I’m sure you know Chekhov’s gun. With that in mind, there are two approaches to understanding Chekhov’s panopticon: the first comes from the digitally remediated lecture hall; the second comes from the media infrastructures/procedural rhetorics of online technologies. That said, the basic problem, a la Chekhov, is that if we start with panoptic tools in the scene, they will almost certainly be deployed by Act 3.

The important thing to understand about the lecture hall is that it was always already a panoptic technology. Amphitheater seating is a clear shout-out to Bentham. Laptop policies, clicker technologies, and attendance-taking all fit into that. In the smaller writing classes familiar to my rhetoric/composition colleagues, these policies plus plagiarism detection software have be de rigueur for many years. There are so many ways–from the coordination of course schedules to the placement of seats, black/white boards, lecterns, and projectors–that we have organized to surveil and regulate students in the F2F environment.

Let’s just think briefly about the history of the academic lecture as a sociotechnical, medial, material, and institutional practice. I suppose we could trace its evolution from the Greek agora and/or from religious practice. There’s some debate over the degree to which silent reading was a thing in Classical Greece or Rome or in the early medieval era. A couple things do seem to be clear though. First, that the lack of spacing in manuscripts from those eras would have made silent reading difficult, and second that reading aloud was a common practice. In short, it is reasonable to assert that lecturing as a pedagogical practice arose from a practice of reading texts aloud, and indeed, as is still sometimes the case today, lecturers read aloud their lectures.

Historically, into the 19th century, the lecture was paired with the oral examination. One might accurately imagine the “stand and deliver” method that is still employed (if you can believe it), where the professor selects students and demands answers to questions before their peers. Yeah… good times. While we maintain that hazing/surveilling ritual, we also now employ standardized tests. Of course standardized tests are a means of surveillance. With testing the professor encounters the same challenges as the prison guard: namely, what happens behind one’s back? Thus the need for the panopticon. In the lecture hall over the decades, we’ve developed strategies to mitigate the limits of professorial surveillance.

Tl;dr. We have an antiquated solution to a problem of teaching many students, which is called the lecture course. While it is a solution of sorts, it creates its own problems with evaluations, exams, and teaching. Then the pandemic comes along. We just import this already mediocre solution to teaching to an online context and bring with it all the problems it had before which we now need to solve in a new media ecology.

“Fortunately,” the solution is there before us in the extensive capacity of digital media to surveil its users. Yay!

The integrated surveillance capacity of digital media technologies is the other half of the equation. Obviously, computers do not function without recording your keystrokes, mouse movements/clicks, etc. Every action, every movement before the active camera eye, and every sound within reach of the active microphone is quantified and recorded. As such, it is made ripe for surveillance. We can counter this with various cryptographic means, but that’s always a tug and pull.

So by now most faculty have become familiar, if not enamored, with the many panoptic possibilities of digital pedagogy from the Respondus lock down browser (to prevent cheating on exams) and requiring students to appear on camera in Zoom to plagiarism detection software and the various user-tracking statistics of course management systems. Of course we’ve largely become accustomed to such surveillance in our digital lives. I am on FB. I use Gmail. I shop on Amazon. I stream programs from Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, etc. I listen to music on Spotify. I have an iPhone. I buy just about everything with a Visa card, especially during the pandemic. Surveillance is sometimes billed as being for my protection/benefit (e.g., “that’s a nice credit rating you’ve got there; it’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”). Mostly though it’s pawned off as “improving my user experience.” We tell students similar stories about our panoptic digital pedagogies. Technologies that prevent cheating help to secure the value of their education. The Zoom camera helps keep students engaged in the conversation. All the user tracking in the CMS helps us to know when students are struggling and intervene.

For me, all of this really begs the question of whether it is possible to educate people without surveilling them. And here’s the short answer, which suggest a somewhat semantic response. Here’s the semantic/definitional part. For me (and Foucault, I would dare to say), surveillance describes a disproportional power relation: I see you, but you don’t see me. Learning, communication of any kind, requires exposure among participants, and you can’t understand ethical exposure without a concept of agency. Conceptually, agency is tricky business, and I’m not going to go into that terrain today, but basically upon the basis of agency, students and faculty need to be as free as possible to control our exposure to one another.

In short, to borrow from a famous phrase: no surveillance without representation.

What does this mean? Within the limits of our agency as faculty and students can we make collective, informed decisions about how we will surveil ourselves and/or be surveilled by others? Can we understand the degree to which our exposure to one another is beneficial and necessary for achieving the pedagogical goals of the course in which we have all agreed (more or less) to participate.

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