Thinking about rule enforcement, surveillance, and discipline

This Friday we will be engaging with the work of Michel Foucault. You can find the food for thought question for this unit here. The question asks you to provide an example of a how you are (or have been) the subject of disciplinary power.

Foucault’s work on discipline – a form of power that operates through mechanisms of hierarchical observation – is one of the key theoretical perspectives that has shaped contemporary surveillance studies. While the field has moved beyond Foucault’s original work in this area, his account of the panoptic society remains essential reading for those interested in the role and function of surveillance.

As I was preparing this week’s food for thought question, I came across this article from today’s Toronto Star: York University prof enlists student snitches to battle digital distraction.

The article offers an excellent – and for us, highly relevant – example of disciplinary power operating through a surveillant assemblage. An excerpt:

When professor Henry Kim noticed a student this week paying more attention to his laptop than the class discussion, he asked another student to check out the suspect’s screen.

Twitter.

Busted.

The business professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business quietly asked the tweeter to leave for the rest of the 90-minute class for breaking the pledge his students must take not to use laptops for anything but class work.

And it meant using another new pledge this frustrated teacher had students take this fall; to spy on a classmate’s screen, if asked, and report truthfully what they see.

By recruiting this new breed of screen snitches, Kim hopes to make digital distraction so socially awkward that students will close forbidden windows — Facebook, email, Sikh field hockey matches — and plug into class.

“It’s not meant to be punitive — it’s almost like a thought experiment, and the whole point is to create a new social norm in my class,” said Kim, “where using the laptop in distracting ways is embarrassing not just for you, but for other students who may be asked to report on you.”

I would be most interested in your impressions of this article, and Prof. Kim’s approach. If you want, you can use this as the example case for your food for thought post – rather than writing about a disciplinary mechanism that you have been subject to, you can respond to this mechanism and discuss how it fits with Foucault’s work on discipline.

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