Student Panopticons (and the potential of the serious)

A professor of mine once said, “If you’re going to go with Foucault, you’ve got to go all the way.”

Last night a friend and I were reviewing our life as undergrad students, discussing certain influential classes, and the complex dynamics of student-professor relations. I give her, Natasha Plenert, credit for the initial idea of “student panopticons” here. And now I shall try to push this idea out.

She suggested that there are sometimes (and this is quite a rare phenomenon) students who are like panopticons in the university.  These students are marked by a number of characteristics but emphatically so by a certain kind of seriousness.  This seriousness is not somber, humourless, cold, or resolute.  Rather, it is open, receptive, impressionable, critical, honest, and impelled.  The student panopticon is a diligent worker, a thorough reader and researcher, and deeply perceptive and sensitive to the meaning and/or implications of claims people make, thoughts that are proposed.  In the classroom, these students question generalizations and crassly put statements by pushing for clarity, nuance, and examples.  These students can be thought of as panopticons because in effect they function like a self-policing system for professors.  They essentially accomplish this by taking their professors more seriously than the professors take themselves.

 By pushing the suggestive thoughts of their professors through, by “going all the way” (with Foucault) so to speak, professors realize that they cannot simply get away with saying whatever they want.  In effect then, the professors begin to “police” themselves, to take more care in how they put things, to think about what it is they are actually thinking, suggesting, claiming.

Unlike a panopticon, however, this student “power” is in no way sovereign power.  It does not seek control, it does not seek domination.  In fact, it does not even seek the self-policing of professors which can be its effect! The student-panopticon functions on openness and receptivity to the potential of ideas that are put forward.  By taking the ideas presented in a class seriously, even (and especially) when they are perhaps generalized or caricatured, the student-panopticon works to push out, to think through, to imagine the potential of such an idea (whether good or bad, and this can become evident quite quickly. When generalizations are pushed out, tested, they are often revealed as precisely that).  Rather than a subversive power, the power of the student-panopticon is one of “more”, one of following thought through, of going all the way.  It is not a voice of critical dissent, or a counter to the professor.  Rather, it is a voice of serious affirmation, the Nietzschean “let us try it!”  It is the voice of serious potential; the potential of taking seriously ones thought, ones work. The student-panopticon turns out not to be an adversary, but an important kind of friend.

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6 comments on “Student Panopticons (and the potential of the serious)

  1. I like the creative premise here. But by saying that one student may act like a panopticon, an essential part of panopticonism (if it may be so called) is left out. In Jeremy Bentham’s original concept, the panopticon becomes a physical incarnation of the Greek words “to observe all (pan-opticon). The “all,” I think, goes both ways – ie. all sets of eyes are used to see all (hence the particular construction of the Panopticon building). The gaze in the Panopticon prison seems categorically different than the gaze of one expert private eye, although the end result (that of always feeling watched) might be the same.
    So it might be more proper to say that students, as a body, are the panopticon that causes professors to police themselves (or is it the dialogic nature of seminar classes?). As for that particularly astute student you mention – perhaps you have stumbled upon an entirely new concept, an almost “anti-panopticon,” where the gaze of one person–a friend–brings about personal improvement.

    • Kampen says:

      The reason I emphasize the singluarity of the student-panopticon rather than the student body is because most students, at least at the undergrad level, don’t take their professors or themselves all that seriously. I think that you are also right in pointing out the difference between the prison gaze and the expert private eye – I was focussing more on the end result, the effect of self-policing. As for your final comment on the friend, it is also a particular kind of friendship and not simply any friend. It is the one characterized by openness, receptivity, a critical eye, and a voice that pushes through, “goes all the way” with thought, ideas, what have you. I should also maybe just note that the ideas that are followed through on can still be accepted or rejected, but judgement is never made a priori.

  2. Yes, good point; at the undergrad level, the majority of students certainly don’t bring this kind of constructive gaze on a regular basis. Truly blessed is the instructor who finds such a student panopticon as this 🙂

    • Kampen says:

      I’m kind of hoping that some professor types will respond. I would be interested in their thoughts on this. I know they are “out there” somewhere…

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