Teaching Thursday: The Scale-Up Classroom and Docile Minds

Last week, I re-read (perhaps for the 20th or 200th time) sections of M. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Kostis Kourelis recent reflections on Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González’s installation Doing Time / Depth of Surface. This text is most famous for his analysis of the panopticon. The Panopticon in an architecture form most used in prisons in which all inmates were visible from a central guard position, but the inmates could not determine whether they were being watched. For Foucault, the panopticon presented a metaphor for the way in which modern societies sought to normalize their citizens and to produce docile bodies more susceptible to the requirements of capitalism. He saw similarities in the design of the prison, schools, hospitals, and factories.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short essay on the role of the panopticism in online teaching with my buddy Michael Beltz. In these essays we argued that most online learning systems (e.g. Blackboard) allowed the instructor to have a panoptic view of the students engagement with the course material and assignments. We noted the irony that as the student as individual became less visible because of distance, the student as learner became more visible through their digital trail through the course. Like the panopticon the window onto student learning was one-way. We could see all the students, but they could not see us. Finally, we noted that this arrangement worked well to produce members of an increasingly observed society where workplace efficiency could be managed down the keystroke, our tastes as consumers managed through online bread crumbs left by every transaction or page view, and powerful observers like Google produced for us new identities by continuously mining our emails, calendars, phones, and reading habits.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a proposal to teach and introductory level history class in the Scale-Up classroom. The design principle behind the Scale-Up classroom is that students in large classes are organized to face one another around circular tables in groups rather than the front of the classroom and the professor as in most large, lecture style classes. In effect, the students avert their gaze from the professor and focus it instead on their peers.

This practice parallels recent calls to flip or invert the traditional lecture and make the students more fully engaged in their own learning. In these situations, the faculty member becomes the observer and shaper of the learning processes. By observing and molding the “intermediate processes” or the work of so-called “invisible learning” we gain greater access to student habits of mind.

In the most sophisticated Scale-Up classrooms, students not only work together with one another under the gaze of the professor, they do this in digitally mediated environments. Unlike the online environment where students are disembodied assemblages of keystrokes, page views, and texts, the Scale-Up classroom allows the professor to observe the human production of digitally mediated practices. Observing practices combined with gentle correctives at the level of process rather than outcome, allows the power of the faculty member to extend their power over the classroom and into the intermediate processes of student learning and, ultimately, creativity.

By shaping the production of practice (or as Bourdieu would call it habitus) of learning, observation becomes involved in creating the kind of process-oriented, docile minds required for late capitalism where the dynamic and opportunistic economy requires a workforce short on expertise and long on flexibility.

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