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.