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The Point: Surveillance States


In which we consider the matter of why UMB’s administration would choose to propose new contract language on “academic freedom” and what questions this raises about cultures of surveillance. 

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgement.                      

--Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish 

Greetings, Colleagues: 

By now I hope you have taken a moment to read the update from the FSU Core Bargaining Team about last week’s bargaining session.  I felt fortunate to be a part of this by caucusing with our smart and committed core team, and by attending the main table negotiations as a silent member of the expanded team. If you have not yet had a chance to take part in a bargaining session I hope you will in the near future: it is remarkably educational, inspiring, and even—believe it or not!—fun.  While the team has done a fantastic job of outlining the major proposals made by the administration, they do not mention one “supposal” put on the table by the administration: I guess a “supposal” is something like a “trial balloon”—and (to quote the late drummer of the English rock band, the Who, speaking about a competing band) this one should go over like a lead zeppelin. 

Why, at this historical moment, does the administration want to make changes to Article 8 of the contract—formerly known as “Academic Freedom,” here yclept “Academic Freedom and Responsibility”?  There is a whole bunch of bait-and-switch in the proposal: the interim provost suggested at the bargaining session that the changes grow from concerns around political intimidation in the classroom; when pushed for evidence of suchlike she trotted out one example  of anti-Republican discourse in the classroom that, according to some veteran FSU members, was not making its first appearance at the table. But we are living in a moment when the real threats to academic freedom come not from the individual “bad” behavior of this or that “radical” professor, but from organized efforts—cf. Campus Reform and Canary Mission—to silence academics, often for the political work they do outside the classroom.  It is not hard to the administration’s “supposal” (per Michel Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish) as aimed at creating “docile bodies”—individuals who will perform constant acts of self-surveillance.  As we have all learned to say in the past half year, now is actually a crucial time to “unmute” ourselves. 

Perhaps even more troubling than the marshalling of thin anecdotal evidence to support major contract changes (if your one example is itself old enough to go to school…) is how the merest hint of bad classroom behavior is operationalized in a much broader way. To wit: in section 8.3 the administration would like to add language that will require that faculty members “comport themselves with integrity, dignity, and respect in all professional contexts.” Perhaps I can index my discomfort with this totalizing language by simply quoting the great Les McCann and Eddie Harris song which calls out powerful people who insist they can “teach us what they think is right”: integrity, dignity, and respect “compared to what?”  We spent more time hearing about this proposal than any other that administration brought; more time on this, that is, than on the question of 0% raises for three years or workload increases!  Maybe the bureaucratic fog thrown up by this ill-fated attempt to limit academic freedom was itself the point—a tactical sleight-of-hand meant to call attention away from the main event which we now know to call Academe's Shock Doctrine

Confronting this administration “supposal” reminded me that we all need to keep thinking about and acting on our own surveillance activity.  As we approach midterm exam season we will once again have to think about our own classroom praxis: are you comfortable with the recently-adopted and invasive Respondus Monitor system which “uses a student webcam to record and analyze student exam sessions”? Even in the face of growing international concerns around such facial recognition technologies (FRT) with respect to privacy and security, and along vectors of gender, race, and neurotypicality? According to one watchdog group dozens of universities, from Harvard University to University of California, Berkeley, have already banned the use of facial recognition technologies on campus.  Teaching without these invigilators will mean some updating of longstanding classroom practices, but it’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel: plenty of our colleagues have been thinking and writing about how to move away from traditional modes of assessment. 

Regimes of surveillance, as Foucault explained almost 50 years ago, depend on a threshold number of us “normalizing” practices of observation and punishment that at one time would have seemed unthinkable.  But attending a bargaining session is truly an efficient way to push back on this and remind ourselves of the multifarious questions we must engage about how universities work, from our own professional and pedagogical practices to the still urgent issue of why we have campus police.   

This is your union: please tell us at how you think we all should confront ongoing issues surrounding the varieties of university surveillance. 


Jeffrey Melnick 

American Studies Department 

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee 

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