A chance meetup with a colleague, friend, mentor today led to a short conversation with him and another colleague about data, surveillance and caring for our students, and some follow-on thoughts which I’m scribbling here for posterity and future thinking. I made my brain squeak.
We were discussing our way around issues of surveillance and being seen within the institution, whether there can be forms of benign surveillance, and how the relationship between students and academics has changed with increasing scale and digital mediation (not unconnected). In particular we touched on the extent to which:
- Students might be comfortable with being seen by individual academic colleagues versus being seen by the institution.
- Digital has changed who can see.
- Students might increasingly start importing distrust into the institution based on prior digital surveillance experiences elsewhere.
We assume we start from a position of trust in Universities – but do we? Is Trust an old fashioned concept?
In my own experience I’ve encountered concerns from students about being visible to academics in ways that have surprised me – for example being anonymous in discussion forums so that teachers can’t identify you if you are asking “stupid questions” or getting it wrong. For me it speaks directly to the breakdown in the academic relationship that we were talking about. That’s exactly the sort of scenario in which a teacher ought to be able to reach out and intervene in ways that are supportive and helpful and which students would welcome.
We talked about the language of “cherising” our students in our draft new Strategic Plan, and whether relationships with students should be based on closer human connection. Fundamentally we talked about education as a route to socio-economic mobility (arguably little evidence to support it’s effectiveness) versus the wider definitions of wealth that investing in the education of a population might engender.
Edit: We also talked about the extent to which students always know what is best for them. I will come down strongly on the side of teachers as having useful knowledge and wisdom, but we also need to acknowledge that the education system now is not the one most of us were educated in.
Walking back up the road afterwords it got me thinking about how much being an effective part of a community involves seeing and being seen, and how we subject ourselves knowingly to certain forms of surveillance in order to achieve this. At a small scale – like the seminar I sat in today – I am totally comfortable with being seen, possibly even having my name ticked off on an attendance register. On a larger scale though – Facebook, Twitter etc my comfort level is very different.
Individuals quickly came to depend upon the new information and communication tools as necessary resources in the increasingly stressful, competitive, and stratified struggle for effective life. The new tools, networks, apps, platforms, and media thus became requirements for social participation. (Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization, Zuboff, S)
Liz McFall’s recent EFI talk about the extent to which our data-selves are really representative of our human selves took me back to the Data Drag project from MozFest last year and the idea more generally of data doubles:
“The theory of the Quantified Self is explored through a queer lens where data collection is considered as drag, that’s to say, the computational production of fictions of the self.” (John Philip Sage)
“The data double, however, goes beyond representation of our physical selves—it does not matter whether the double actually corresponds to the ‘real’ body. The data double constitutes an additional self, a ‘functional hybrid’…serving foremost the purpose of being useful to institutions, which allow or deny access to a multitude of domains (places, information, things) and discriminate between people.” (Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation, , Timan & Koops)
As a partial counterpoint to Zuboff I was also reminded of a paper I read on surveillance artworks – engaging the viewing subject directly in order to prompt more critique of surveillance. This feels like productive territory for exploring some of these issues, flipping “being seen” into something less psychically numbing.*
“Contemporary ways of being seen undoubtedly possess objectifying and controlling valences, but they may also afford new forms of connection and ethical responsibility among strangers.”
“By fostering ambiguity and decentring the viewing subject, critical surveillance art can capitalize on the anxiety of viewers to motivate questions that might lead to greater awareness of surveillance systems, protocols and power dynamics. Works that use participation to make viewers uncomfortable can guide moments of self-reflexivity about one’s relationship – and obligation – to others within surveillance networks.”
At the end of thinking about this I’m left feeling a bit bewildered, and now wondering whether in the rush to use data to see our students more clearly at scale, we’ve instead actively prompted being seen critically by our students.
* Which is a reminder to get back onto whether we could have a Glass Room exhibition at Edinburgh sometime.