Tagged surveillance

A young person, in shadow and profile, gazes at their own video feed as they take a class online from home, faced with a webcam.


We are now nearing the two-year mark of a global pandemic that has had such a profound effect on every aspect of our lives. As students, educators, administrators, and researchers, we have had to adapt our academic practice in ways that blurred the lines between our public personas and our private lives. We have had to learn about and embrace various forms of technology in order to enable remote teaching, learning, and collaborations, all with little control over the scale and extent of the invasiveness made possible by these technologies. It is at this crucial conjuncture that we offer this Themed Issue of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy on surveillance and educational technologies.

As we said in the call for papers for this issue: “The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a magnifying glass, revealing all the ways our systems are broken.” Indeed, social fault lines have not only been exposed and exacerbated in the harsh light of the pandemic response, but even more so through the ways many institutions chose to ignore it while hoping to continue with some version of business as usual. But, just as a magnifying glass reveals faults, it shows us opportunities for repair: we cannot simply fix what is broken, but also must work toward eliminating systems that are not “broken” but working as designed—to the detriment of marginalized and vulnerable populations. Thus, while we develop counternarratives and critiques, we can also draw on more expansive visions of abolition, which demand “that we change one thing, which is everything” (Gilmore 2018).

Bluntly, many of these surveillance systems and computational tools shouldn’t exist. While the emergency circumstances under which people and institutions have adopted them during the pandemic make such developments somewhat understandable, now that we have a better understanding of the concrete consequences in our pedagogy and in our students’ lives, we really have no justification to continue using these tools in these ways. We must change not only the punitive technology we use, but the educational mindset and broader world that rationalizes it.

This issue is not the first, nor will it be the last, collection of such critical work, but as we spend more time within this pandemic paradigm, we are accumulating clearer and stronger evidence and narratives of the harms surveillance-oriented educational technology brings, making it much less understandable for justice-oriented educators to excuse their use. The pandemic has crucially highlighted the need for consent, compassion, and care, and one of the striking things about many of the pieces in this issue is that they are self-reflective rather than analytical. Many of the authors situate themselves in a fraught system of monitoring and punishment and analyze or question their roles in bringing potentially harmful surveillance to bear on others, especially the students they are meant to nurture. It’s also notable how many of these projects address remote proctoring and Learning Management Systems (LMSs). For many institutions, the pandemic supercharged the already pervasive use of LMSs and proctoring systems in the transition to remote instruction. As the uptake of these tools and protocols increased, so did the outcry around the invasiveness and consequences of their use. Consider these pieces both as scholarly research, and as a call to action for justice, within and beyond education.

In “Toward Abolishing Online Proctoring: Counter-Narratives, Deep Change, and Pedagogies of Educational Dignity,” Charles Logan invokes Audrey Watters’ notion of the “edtech imaginary” as a way of exploring how remote-proctoring companies develop powerful narratives about the necessity and usefulness of their products, and how we might establish counternarratives that move us closer to the abolition of these discriminatory technologies and their effects.

In “Back Doors, Trap Doors, and Fourth-Party Deals: How You End up with Harmful Academic Surveillance Technology on Your Campus without Even Knowing,” Autumm Caines and Sarah Silverman alert us to the dangers and complications of allowing fourth-party vendors access to institutional data through backdoors created by third-party relationships. With Proctorio as the primary example, they unpack these relationships in an accessible and clear way, while outlining the different kinds of fourth-party partnerships that institutions might unknowingly find themselves in. Caines and Silverman also lay out a harm index, a useful framework to measure the levels and scale of harms that remote proctoring services can cause. The authors include an example of their collaborative autoethnographic reflection, which provides a glimpse into the tedious but necessary steps needed to thwart corporate control over faculty and student data.

Jessica Kester and Joel Schneier’s “Soft Surveillance: Social Media Filter Bubbles as an Invitation to Critical Digital Literacies” discusses having students engage with the surveillance-derived filter bubbles of their own social media feeds in order to develop critical digital literacies—a way for students to “critically look at their digital practices through their own digital practices.”

In “Resisting Surveillance, Practicing/Imagining the End of Grading,” Marianne Madoré, Anna Zeemont, Joaly Burgos, Jane Guskin, Hailey Lam, and Andréa Stella assert that grading systems are an element of larger systems of surveillance at educational institutions and that grading is incompatible with antiracist pedagogies. They offer a variety of experiences where they either individually or collectively operated against or outside the schema of grading, and push us to “reimagine the purpose of schooling” in light of these struggles.

For Issue 20, we also wanted to create space to explore issues around educational surveillance that wasn’t constrained by the formality of more traditional journal articles, so we invited submissions to our Views from the Field section. We are very pleased to present five thought-provoking pieces that critically engage with the experience of being surveilled by educational technology and the potential consequences of this surveillance on our collective wellbeing.

We start off with “Why Don’t You Trust Us?”, a compelling piece from undergraduate student Sinéad Doyle, who generously shares her own experience of being subjected to additional surveillance during the pandemic and how this sort of invasive surveillance can blur the lines between public and private in counterproductive ways. Lance Eaton’s “The New LMS Rule: Transparency Working Both Ways” imagines what it would look like if we turned the tables and gave students the same level of access to instructor activity on LMSs as these platforms give instructors to student activity, noting the power imbalances built into conventional LMSs. In “Pedagogy and the Expansion of Surveillance at the City University of New York,” Marc Kagan continues the exploration of the potentially insidious nature of LMSs by pointing out the dangers of allowing unfettered and unregulated administrative access to online courses, highlighting the potential role of labor organizations in challenging this threat. “Black Mirror Pedagogy: Dystopian Stories for Technoskeptical Imaginations,” by Daniel G. Krutka, Autumm Caines, Marie K. Heath, and K. Bret Staudt Willet, provides a way to help students interrogate their own techno-optimism through the use of Black Mirror-inspired speculative-fiction narrative building. And finally, Chris Miciek’s creative text, “Field Notes from the Education to Employment Pipeline: A Career Development Perspective,” gives us a bird’s-eye view history of the contested imbrication of education and labor-market requirements, highlighting the historical and ongoing processes wherein students are inured to the use of technological surveillance in readiness for workplace surveillance.

In addition to the pieces on surveillance in education, we are pleased to include two general-interest articles before we pause publication for our migration to a new publishing platform.

The first, “Authoring an Open-Source Game for a Faculty Open Educational Resources Workshop: A Case Study” by Katherine Foshko Tsan, is an excellent piece on using Twine, an open-source interactive narrative building tool, for faculty development focused on OER. This piece highlights how using these sorts of narrative tools can be a compelling way to engage with faculty while opening new space for them to learn about OER.

Our second general-interest article, “Poetry in Your Pocket: Streaming Playlists and the Pedagogy of Poetic Interpretation” by Stephen Grandchamp, shares how the use of Spotify playlists made poetry more accessible to students and helped to recontextualize poetry in a more contemporary setting. This approach helped students understand and participate in the shifting meaning and significance of poetry, and gives hope for those of us who find interpreting poetry a little intimidating.

We want to acknowledge the patient and incredible work that managing editor, Patrick DeDauw, and editorial assistant, Chanta Palmer, have done to keep us on track and wrangle the many moving pieces that needed to come together to produce this issue. Our deep gratitude to the members of the JITP editorial collective for all their behind-the-scenes work and support. We also want to acknowledge the reviewers who took time out of their busy schedules to provide valuable feedback to our authors and note that it has been a privilege to be able to work with the authors to bring you Issue 20. We are deeply grateful that we were all able to come together during this pandemic to give shape and space to this important conversation, and we hope you will join us in doing what we can to ensure an equitable and surveillance-free educational future.


Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2018. “Making Abolition Geography in California’s Central Valley.” Interview with Léopold Lambert. The Funambulist 21. https://thefunambulist.net/magazine/21-space-activism/interview-making-abolition-geography-california-central-valley-ruth-wilson-gilmore.

About the Editors

Chris Gilliard is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center. His ideas have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, and Vice Magazine. He is a member of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry Scholars Council, and a member of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project community advisory board.

sava saheli singh is an independent researcher who just completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the eQuality Project and the AI + Society Initiative, both at the University of Ottawa. She created the award-winning Screening Surveillance, a series of short, near-future speculative fiction films. This public education and knowledge translation project calls attention to the potential human consequences of big data surveillance. She co-produced the first three films as a postdoctoral fellow with the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and is currently in post-production on the fourth film in the series which she also co-wrote and co-produced. sava received her PhD from New York University’s Educational Communication and Technology program. As an interdisciplinary scholar, her current research interests include educational surveillance; digital labour and surveillance capitalism; restorative justice and abolition; speculative fiction; and critically examining the effects of technology and techno-utopianism on society.

A faceless figure taking a picture is reflected in the convex lens of the camera they're photographing.

Toward Abolishing Online Proctoring: Counter-Narratives, Deep Change, and Pedagogies of Educational Dignity


A future with ubiquitous academic surveillance is not sealed, not yet. In this essay, I discuss how online proctoring companies sell their technology with stories inspired by the edtech imaginary. Higher education institutions, in turn, often repeat these narratives, as evidenced by the ways institutions frame the technology as neutral, convenient tools for facilitating assessments. I propose a possible path toward abolishing online proctoring by authoring counter-narratives. I identify two spaces for constructing counter-narratives. First, we can apply a cognitive perspective to policy implementation to shift individual educators’ understanding of online proctoring through dissonance-producing institutional resources. Second, we can build collective partnerships between administrators, staff, faculty, and students to achieve deep change in our assessment practices. This potential path forward is guided by dual commitments: to reject online proctoring and the intersectional harms endured by students forced to use the technology; and to uproot the underlying pedagogies of policing and punishment that support online proctoring and replace them with pedagogies of educational dignity. I end my essay with a call to adopt an abolitionist approach to ridding education of online proctoring. By exercising abolitionist principles of refusal and care, along with a rejection of reform as an acceptable middle ground, we can move closer to creating the kinds of learning environments and relationships that cultivate students’ educational dignity.

The story of online proctoring is difficult to disentangle from surveillance and policing. Companies with names like Honorlock and Respondus Monitor conjure images of a patriarchal panopticon. Then there’s Proctortrack’s origin story. The chief technology officer for Verificient Technologies, the company that developed Proctortrack, arrived at the idea for the online proctoring technology after working on a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) project that included searching video footage for facial expressions deemed abnormal (Singer 2015). A version of the TSA’s security theater, online proctoring is further evidence of Sasha Costanza-Chock’s observation that “The same cisnormative, racist, and ableist approach that is used to train the models of the millimeter wave scanners [used by the TSA] is now being used to develop AI in nearly every domain” (2020, 5). I worry that the mechanized dehumanization experienced by individuals from nondominant groups at airport security is now being normalized in education due to online proctoring.

The attempts to make prejudiced technology prosaic are facilitated by online proctoring companies and their commitment to an edtech imaginary and its powerful storytelling. Audrey Watters describes the edtech imaginary as a collection of “stories we invent to explain the necessity of technology, the promises of technology; the stories we use to describe how we got here and where we are headed” (2020). Read the statements from online proctoring CEOs and the claims made by companies on their websites, and you can see the edtech imaginary at work. Online proctoring is supposedly necessary because, in the words of ProctorU’s CEO, without it, cheating will increase and pose “a severe threat to all higher education’” (Feathers and Rose 2020). The hollowness of the edtech imaginary is further illustrated in the diminishing story sold by Proctorio. Beginning in January 2019, the company promised institutions their “software eliminates human error [and] bias” (Proctorio 2019). The company’s homepage declared their software’s impressive capability until April 2021. On April 19, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission warned companies not to claim their algorithms can erase bias (Jillson 2021). Within days Proctorio’s promise of unbiased technology shrank to “Our software attempts to remove human bias and error” (Proctorio 2021). Visit the company website today, and you will find the edited sentence has disappeared. The edtech imaginary features many such revisionist narrators.

I want to consider the other elements of the edtech imaginary described by Watters: how we got here and where we might go. I’m trying to understand how institutions and people in power too often come to believe edtech’s glossy narratives about the past, present, and future. I’m also searching for the sites where we can share our counter-narratives. Alongside counter-narratives, I’m seeking ways we might uproot the pedagogies of policing and punishment that make online proctoring possible and replace them with pedagogies of educational dignity.

Educational dignity is critical for enacting a just present and future (Espinoza and Vossoughi 2014; Espinoza et al. 2020). Educational dignity is “the multifaceted sense of a person’s value generated via substantive intra- and inter-personal learning experiences that recognize and cultivate one’s mind, humanity, and potential” (Espinoza et al. 2020, 326). Online proctoring and its shallow definitions of learning are incompatible with educational dignity because of the technology’s hostility toward every individual forced beneath a webcam’s glare. The technology can harden internalized oppression, especially for nondominant students (Bali 2021), through its built-in racism and ableism. Further, online proctoring positions educators as police officers and students as criminals, straining inter-personal learning experiences. Online proctoring, I should note, is not the sole source of negative intra-personal and inter-personal learning experiences. Acknowledging its encoded opposition to educational dignity, however, can encourage us to view its abolishment as a part of a larger project to help educators develop and practice pedagogies of educational dignity.

I turn now to possible ways of conducting that larger project. I will review the institutionalization of online proctoring; describe the importance of how institutional resources frame online proctoring; offer a case for how to create deep change in the ways educators understand online proctoring and its alternatives; and conclude with a call to take an abolitionist approach to ridding online proctoring from education.

A future with ubiquitous academic surveillance is not sealed, not yet.

How Did We Get Here?

The critiques of online proctoring are numerous. Online proctoring replicates inadequate assessment methods (Leafstadt 2017). Online proctoring can exacerbate a student’s anxiety, particularly a student with high anxiety (Woldeab and Brothen 2019), which in turn can have a negative impact on students’ ability to demonstrate their learning (Eyler 2018). Online proctoring technology is racist (Feathers 2021; Swauger 2020); ableist (Brown 2020; Zhu 2021); and it invades students’ privacy (Cahn et al. 2020; Germain 2020). Put another way, online proctoring not only reinforces ineffective, harmful pedagogies; it’s also a deeply unethical technology.

Joining these critiques are the thousands of students who have documented and shared their experiences with online proctoring:

I know that I’m going to have to try a couple times before the camera recognizes me…I have a light beaming into my eyes for the entire exam…That’s hard when you’re actively trying not to look away, which could make it look like you’re cheating…[The software] is just not accurate. So I don’t know if it’s seeing things that aren’t there because of the pigment of my skin.
—Femi Yemi-Ese, student at the University of Texas at Austin (quoted in Caplan-Bricker 2021)

I’ve despised using this software…. On one occasion, I was “flagged” for movement and obscuring my eyes. I have trichotillomania triggered by my anxiety, which is why my hand was near my face. Explaining this to my professor was nightmarish.
—Bea, student at Tarrant County College (quoted in Retta 2020)

It’s really cruel to have students come to class and expect to learn, and then treat them, essentially, like criminals and make them install programs that look for all their information and force them to give tours of their home.
—Anonymous, student at the University of Washington (quoted in Hipolito 2020)

The chorus of student criticism has apparently not done enough to slow institutions and faculty from deploying the technology against students. For example, Proctorio’s CEO claimed his company helped to proctor 25 million exams at 1,000 institutions in 2020 (Harwell 2020).

To help to explain the growth of such an apparently toxic technology, it’s important to note that institutional use of online proctoring predates the coronavirus pandemic. The existing institutional knowledge and resource infrastructure, combined with the coronavirus pandemic’s demands for quick and cheap solutions to complex teaching and learning problems, meant online proctoring could take root farther and faster than might otherwise have been the case. The upheaval also presented educational technology companies an opportunity to activate the edtech imaginary and present themselves as partners ready and able to assist institutions’ pivot to remote emergency teaching. In some cases, non-online proctoring companies joined together with online proctoring companies, marketing their wares directly to educators for free (Top Hat 2020). The companies’ beneficence can be understood as an attempt to deepen their connections to institutions as well as to circumscribe what we imagine when we envision online learning and its possibilities.

Once a technology becomes well-established at an institution, it can be difficult to uproot (Arthur 1994). As a consequence of the pandemic, institutions have made substantial financial investments in online proctoring technology. The University of California at Santa Cruz, for instance, spent $200,000 for online proctoring in 2020–2021, and the institution’s leadership plans to continue to fund online proctoring (Harwood 2021). In addition to the monetary cost, institutions and their employees incurred a labor cost, too. Staff members had to learn how to use and support the technology. Faculty who decided to use the technology learned enough to do so, or they may have relied on staff and graduate students to troubleshoot technical problems, which meant any staff member or graduate student called upon to troubleshoot must have known how to fix the problems, and if not, they may have turned to the companies themselves for help. And finally, students, who rarely have a say in the matter, learned how to use the technology if they wanted to pass a class.

The money and labor sunk into online proctoring moves the institution, its employees, and its students further down the online proctoring path in a process of increasing returns (Pierson 2000) and software sedimentation (Weller 2020) so that change is difficult to contemplate let alone implement. As we’ve seen, the edtech imaginary is invested in software sedimentation. In response to criticism, online proctoring CEOs have promised friendlier interfaces and faster loading times (Deighton 2021), design “upgrades” presumably meant to make online proctoring more acceptable and ready for further sedimentation.

Another sedimentation tactic used by online proctoring’s defenders is to argue students have long been surveilled (Global Silicon Valley 2021). Since surveilling students is not new, these advocates observe, then contemporary warnings about academic surveillance are unfair. I read this argument as an attempt to make online proctoring more palatable—and thus more profitable—by conflating the technology with in-person proctoring. However, online proctoring is invasive in ways in-person proctoring is not (Fitzgerald 2021).

An in-person proctor does not demand to view a student’s bedroom. An in-person proctor is not an unflinching gaze trained to interpret students’ behavior through the singular lens of suspicion. When online proctoring executives and other adherents of online proctoring collapse the differences between in-person and online proctoring, they are reaching into the edtech imaginary. The story that emerges is a history of assessment practices meant to make their technology appear to be an uncontroversial extension of how students have always completed homework, quizzes, and tests. Do not trust online proctoring companies to be credible narrators. Their business depends on selling a specific tale of how we got here and where we should be going, and if nothing else, their public relations version of education history should be met with profound skepticism.

Elsewhere, online proctoring has been equated with older online learning technologies like “poorly recorded video lectures [and] inactive LMS discussion boards” (Selwyn et al. 2021, 13). I am concerned about the ways the edtech imaginary is succeeding to shape the discourse and frame online proctoring as a misunderstood, humdrum technology. I do not want racist, ableist academic surveillance to be a practice educators and students shrug off as an unfortunate but necessary part of learning. I do agree with Selwyn et al. (2021) that online proctoring demands we “develop counter-narratives that push back against the imagining of public education as simply a ‘tech issue’” (14). Where and how these counter-narratives emerge is an urgent question.

From Neutrality to Dissonance

Before exploring online proctoring counter-narratives, I want to consider how higher education institutions normalize online proctoring. Of 100 randomly selected US and Canadian college and university websites chosen from a sample of 2,155, “none took a critical stance toward proctoring tools or addressed the ethics of student surveillance” (Kimmons and Veletsianos 2021). Official institutional policy appears to treat online proctoring tools as neutral educational technology. The finding is perhaps unsurprising. While exceptions do exist (e.g., “Proctoring and Equity” from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Bloomington), institutions that have invested money and labor into bringing online proctoring to campus may be hesitant or unwilling to criticize the same technology on public-facing websites. Neutrality is therefore a strategic choice. And because education is politics (Nieto 1999; Shor & Freire 1987), neutrality is a political choice too, one that aligns institutions with online proctoring companies.

Disrupting this neutrality becomes even more difficult because educators and institutions, perhaps unaware of the technology’s harms, often provide students with guiding language written by the online proctoring companies themselves. For example, Respondus Monitor offers instructors a template titled “Using LockDown Browser and a Webcam for Online Exams,” which instructors can copy and paste into a syllabus (Respondus n.d.). The syllabus template suggests to students that they “[t]ake the exam in a well-lit room and avoid backlighting, such as sitting with your back to a window” (Respondus n.d.). Missing from this recommendation and others like it is the reason why students must be in a well-lit room, sometimes having to resort to shining a bright light directly into their faces (Chin 2021): because many online proctoring companies use facial recognition technology. Not only do these technologies struggle to detect dark skin (Simonite 2019), they are built using biased datasets, leading to racialization and dehumanization (Stevens and Keyes 2021).

Online proctoring companies also shape the perception of their harmful technology at the institutional level. Just as individual educators might depend on the companies for ways to describe to students how to use the technology, so too do institutional how-to resources and websites. Institutional support pages are too often little more than hyperlinks to help guides and video tutorials created by the companies. In addition, an institutional resource page might repackage a company’s recommendations to students, such as one example when the Respondus Monitor syllabus language about lighting reappears on an institutional resource page warning students, “You may need to add more lighting to your workspace when using Respondus Monitor to ensure the program can recognize your face during the assessment” (Northwestern University n.d.). Once more, the reason why students need to add more lighting is glaringly absent. Online proctoring companies can continue to control the narrative about their technology as long as institutional resource pages are indistinguishable from the frequently asked questions websites produced by online proctoring companies. Thus, online proctoring companies have succeeded in making their technology appear benign by attempting to collapse the distinct differences between in-person and online proctoring. Companies have also benefited from instructors and institutions who frame the technology as neutral, often parroting company copy on syllabi and how-to webpages.

Taking lessons from a cognitive approach to learning and policy implementation can help explain why changing people’s understanding about online proctoring might be especially hard when the technology is presented in such a way that its functionality appears both commonplace and unambiguously advantageous.

We draw on prior knowledge and existing beliefs when interpreting new information (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). A problem arises because “New ideas either are understood as familiar ones, without sufficient attention to aspects that diverge from the familiar, or are integrated without restructuring of existing knowledge and beliefs, resulting in piecemeal changes in existing practice” (Spillane et al. 2002, 398). What does this mean for educators encountering online proctoring for the first (or fifth) time? When neutral or positive language masks the technology’s harms, then online proctoring can appear not to be so much a new idea but instead a logical, if imperfect, extension of an educator’s existing beliefs and practices.

That online proctoring can either be an outgrowth of, or seem an outgrowth of, existing beliefs and practices is evidence of a larger problem: the beliefs and practices themselves. Pedagogies of policing and punishment are the soil sustaining online proctoring. It’s not enough to weed out online proctoring. Instead, what we could use is a controlled burn.

To light a fire that removes online proctoring from higher education, start by revising institutional websites and resources to explicitly name and describe online proctoring’s harms. These revisions—these counter-narratives—need to produce cognitive dissonance in educators in order to disrupt the narrative of online proctoring as a necessary, innocuous technology. This dissonance can force educators to confront both the technology itself and the underlying beliefs about learning that help educators rationalize deploying academic surveillance against their students. A goal is to help educators “recognize an existing model as problematic and, then, to focus resources and support on attempts to make sense of the novel idea, restructuring existing beliefs and knowledge” (Spillane et al. 2002, 418). In other words, sparking a shift in a person’s thinking begins with illuminating the ways online proctoring is a problem both as a technical solution and as a pedagogical practice. A dissonance-producing institutional resource about online proctoring might look like Figure 1:

A hypothetical institution webpage introduces educators to online proctoring. The upper left of the page contains a quote from an anonymous student that reads: “‘It’s really cruel to have students come to class and expect to learn, and then treat them, essentially, like criminals and make them install programs that look for all their information and force them to give tours of their home.’” The upper right of the page contains an image of a camera's lens. The middle of the page contains the words: “Online proctoring is racist, ableist, and privacy-invading.” Beneath these words, appears a quote which reads: “‘If we understand teaching as consisting primarily of social relationships and as a political commitment rather than a technical activity, then it is unquestionable that what educators need to pay most attention to are their own growth and transformation and the lives, realities and dreams of their students.’ - Sonia Nieto”. Beneath the quote from Sonia Nieto appears the words: “How might we abandon pedagogies of policing and commit to pedagogies of educational dignity for ourselves and our students?” followed by a bullet-pointed list with the items: “Embrace a more holistic view of learning. Develop authentic assessments. Adopt ungrading practices. Foster partnerships between administrators, staff, faculty, and students.” At the page's bottom, two sentences read: “Read more about the harms of online proctoring and how to transition away from the technology.” and “Make an appointment with the Center for Teaching and Learning, an instructional designer, and/or an educational technologist.” The word “References” is at the bottom of the page, followed by two references. The first citation is: Hipolito, Matthew. 2020. “‘Going Through Your Things’: Remote Proctoring Software ‘Demeaning’ and ‘Cruel,’ Students Say.” The Daily, October 29, 2020. https://www.dailyuw.com/news/article_8b14f13e-197a-11eb-8730-c7459eeb446a.html. The second citation is: Nieto, Sonia. 1999. The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities. New York: Teachers College Press.
Figure 1. A hypothetical institutional webpage that uses a critical framing when introducing educators to online proctoring.

I recognize it’s unlikely the above resource will be adopted by institutions of higher education across the land. So I have another suggestion. Before providing a reader with installation directions and other troubleshooting tips, which is what many institutional resources do, the resource could prompt an educator to reflect on the technology and its effects by asking:

  • Do you believe students with dark skin should have to shine a bright light on their faces to be recognized as having a face by the online proctoring technology?
  • Do you believe diabetic students should be too afraid to check their blood sugar levels or eat a snack for fear of being labeled suspicious by the online proctoring technology?
  • Do you believe students should allow a stranger to have remote access to their personal computer?
  • Would you want to show a stranger your office or bedroom before an exam begins or while taking an exam?
  • Is your pedagogy founded on distrust, policing, and punishment?

Institutional resources about online proctoring may appear to play a seemingly small role in the larger conversation about the technology and its impacts on teaching and learning. However, understanding the resources as a vehicle the edtech imaginary uses to influence teaching and teachers themselves emphasizes the need to attend to how the resources frame online proctoring. Institutional resources about online proctoring can be understood as a policy technology—a technology about technology, if you will—or a means designed to implement policy. Other policy technologies include curricula and assessments (Spillane et al. 2019). The problem with institutional resources adopting a neutral or positive framing of online proctoring is thus twofold. First, as previously discussed, uncritical resources can produce, reinforce, and normalize academic surveillance and pedagogies of distrust, policing, and punishment by being assimilated into educators’ preexisting beliefs and practices.

A second damaging consequence exists. When an educator’s pedagogy is pushed toward policing and punishment, practices enabled in part by uncritical resources, their sense of themselves as a teacher risks being corrupted. Here Stephen Ball’s observation that “we do not do policy, policy does us” (2015, 307) helps to articulate why focusing on the resources’ language is so important. Because if our pedagogy is an outgrowth of our identities as educators, and policy shapes our sense of self, then a pedagogy of punishment wants us to become punishers. The policy “does us” by defining who we can be as teachers and who our students can be as learners. Recall a student forced to submit to online proctoring felt like a criminal because the technology positions students as inherently suspicious. And if a policy of online proctoring transforms students into criminals, then it turns teachers into police officers—and cops, I believe, should be banned from campuses.

A Story of Reform

Overcoming online proctoring and the pedagogies that maintain its use might begin with the individual, but we improve the chances of abolishing the technology when we join together to unlearn harmful pedagogies and replace them with pedagogies of educational dignity. To grow pedagogies of educational dignity, we can couple a cognitive approach to policy implementation with a stance toward learning as a fundamentally social experience (Lave and Wenger 1991; Vygotsky 1978). Many educators concerned about online proctoring have realized the social nature of learning by organizing events to learn with and from one another. Examples of collective meaning making include the Teach-In #AgainstSurveillance (Gray 2020) and the #AnnotateEdTech events (Logan and Caines 2021). These online gatherings, while vital for building community and solidarity, may nonetheless struggle to bring about the systemic change at institutions many of us seek.

To accomplish change at scale—a favorite word, I know, of the edtech imaginary—the movement against online proctoring can address the depth of educators’ beliefs and practices; the sustainability of changes over time; the spread of changes throughout an institution; and a shift in ownership over the new ideas from external to internal sources (Coburn 2003). Remember that changing an individual’s understanding requires resources and support (Spillane et al. 2002). Combine these additional resources and support with the elements for achieving deep change at scale (Coburn 2003), and the project of ridding online proctoring from campuses appears daunting.

Nonetheless, we can turn to the efforts of a coalition of administrators and staff at the University of Michigan-Dearborn for an example of institutional change at scale. In March 2020, the University shifted to remote emergency teaching. At the same time, the Office of the Provost and deans decided to publicly oppose online proctoring, and though the administrators did not ban the technology, they did strongly recommend faculty not use it (Silverman et al. 2021). In the months that followed, the staff at the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources (the Hub) worked to implement the reform through a combination of depth, sustainability, spread, and shift (Coburn 2003). See Table 1 for how the University tried to accomplish the different dimensions of reform implementation.

Dimension of Reform Implementation How Administrators and the Hub’s Staff at the University of Michigan-Dearborn Tried to Accomplish the Dimension of Reform Implementation

Changes to educators’ beliefs, educators’ interactions with students, and educators’ pedagogies.

  • provided individual consultations to faculty new to online teaching.
  • assisted faculty to develop authentic assessments.
  • hosted a virtual guest speaker, an expert in authentic assessments with a speciality in the STEM disciplines.
  • organized multiple faculty development programs throughout the year.

A long-term commitment to nurturing educators’ development over time.

  • hired two additional instructional designers on two-year contracts.
  • hired graders to aid faculty in high-enrollment courses to grade and provide feedback on more time-intensive authentic assessments.

The diffusion of reform-related pedagogical principles within a course, department, and institution.

  • provided individual or group email responses from the Hub, the Office of Digital Education, and the Office of the Provost with a consistent message that the decision to avoid online proctoring was due to student privacy and equity concerns.
  • Silverman et al. (2021) acknowledge communications with faculty “could have been better wrapped into a cohesive, campus-wide message” (121) to improve spread.

Ownership of the reform transitions from an external reform to an internal reform with authority for maintaining the change left to groups and individuals.

  • Silverman et al. (2021) recommend designing experiences to “develop a shared critical digital literacy between instructors and students by discussing the ethical problems associated with remote proctoring and building a shared understanding of academic integrity in the digital age” (126).
Table 1. Applying Coburn’s (2003) concept of scale to the University of Michigan-Deaborn’s approach to shifting educators’ beliefs and practices regarding online proctoring.

We need counter-narratives. However, a strategy for abolishing online proctoring built only on counter-narratives risks ceding the terms of the debate to those set by the online proctoring companies. For this reason, we also need stories that aren’t defined solely in opposition to the likes of online proctoring CEOs and the edtech imaginary they’re entranced by. The coalition against online proctoring that emerged at the University of Michigan-Dearborn is an instructive example of one such alternative narrative, a story of how we might achieve deep change by developing a partnership organization founded on relationships (Logan 2020). What started as co-authoring a counter-narrative about online proctoring at the University became, over time, a new narrative about partnerships between administrators, staff, faculty, and students to develop equitable, authentic assessments.[1]

The example set by the University of Michigan-Dearborn demonstrates that when administrators offer support and financial resources to reimagine teaching and learning, trusting staff and faculty along the way, resistance to and refusal of online proctoring can generate a community that rejects pedagogies of policing and embraces people and our immutable educational dignity.

Where Might We Go from Here?

The future of online proctoring is still being written. Appealing to institutions’ and students’ fears, online proctoring CEOs tell their tales of worthless coronavirus diplomas (Harwell 2020) tarnishing an institution’s brand and raising questions about a student’s employability. The narrative belongs to the larger playbook drawn up by the corporate education movement and its vision of learning as human capital development (Williamson 2017). I believe learning cannot be reduced to a datapoint to be quantified, a credential to be protected at all costs.

Online proctoring companies possess a paltry view of education that produces and reinforces pedagogies of punishment. When confronted with the intersectional damages inflicted upon students by their technology, online proctoring companies insist their products are necessary, claiming the technology is an engine of equity (Norris 2021). Yet as Chris Gilliard argues, “A better remote proctoring system isn’t on the way—it can’t be—because they are all built on the same faulty and invasive ideas…about pedagogy, surveillance, and control” (@hypervisible, April 6, 2021).

Online proctoring is not like in-person proctoring. Online proctoring is not like a badly lit lecture video or an underused discussion board. Online proctoring is a manifestation of what Ruha Benjamin calls the New Jim Code, or “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era” (2019, 5–6). When institutions and educators frame online proctoring with market-based stories and their boogeymen, they risk being duped by online proctoring companies and their unreliable narrators selling dubious promises of objectivity and equity as evidence the technology works. In contrast, when the story of online proctoring is framed as the instantiation of the New Jim Code and its racist, ableist surveillance, then those who experience the technology’s inequities—students—emerge as trustworthy narrators with heartbreaking accounts of the humiliations they’ve had to endure. Their stories should be part of the evidence we use as we seek to rid online proctoring from schools.

Including online proctoring as part of the New Jim Code offers another possibility: that of the abolitionist imaginary. Abolitionist practices, suggested sava saheli singh (Pasquini 2021), can be a generative source of imagination, politics, organizing, and action in the struggle against online proctoring and other problematic educational technologies. Abolitionism’s emphasis on refusal alongside care and collectivity (Kaba 2021), for example, is essential if we are to develop pedagogies of educational dignity.

In addition, the fight against online proctoring takes on greater urgency when we understand online proctoring as the latest example of white supremaist surveillance technologies designed and deployed to police and punish. Like previous racializing information technologies used to surveil and control people (Browne 2015), online proctoring’s harms are experienced disproportionately by Black people as well as other nondominant populations. This longview of online proctoring is vital, for as Bettina Love notes, “An ahistorical understanding of oppression leads folx to believe that quick fixes to the system, such as more surveillance, more testing, and more punishment, will solve the issues of injustice and inequality” (2019, 92). It also means adopting the abolitionist stance that reform, even at the scale accomplished by the University of Michigan-Dearborn, cannot be where the story of online proctoring ends.

If the story of online proctoring is to end in freedom, we can start by telling counter-narratives and fashioning new narratives altogether. I am hopeful these stories will include accounts of honest institutional resources and websites. Of administrators who abandon online proctoring, despite paying for its false promises, and invest instead in providing support and funding for faculty and staff to develop authentic assessments. And I am hopeful we will share stories of lasting partnerships between educators and students, coalitions that accomplish deep change and grow pedagogies of educational dignity.


[1] An emphasis on authentic assessment is an essential element for building pedagogies of educational dignity. Authentic assessments are characterized by self-reflection and collaboration with others (Conrad and Openo 2018). Prioritizing self-reflection and embracing individuals’ genuine, complex selves can support educational dignity through intra-personal learning. Authentic assessment can also help students experience educational dignity through its frequent use of learning with and from other people, a crucial design choice upon which educational dignity relies (Espinoza et al. 2020).


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About the Author

Charles Logan is a PhD student in learning sciences at Northwestern University. A former high school English teacher and university educational technologist, his research interests include critical digital pedagogy, co-authoring counter-narratives to oppose sociotechnical and edtech imaginaries, and designing learning experiences to support educational dignity. He is on Twitter @charleswlogan.

Image of John Green's filter bubble (John Green is the host of "Social Media: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information") that contains his image and a variety of his interests and identity markers surrounding him: soccer, pizza, Harry Potter, coffee, family, a cross, etc.

Soft Surveillance: Social Media Filter Bubbles as an Invitation to Critical Digital Literacies


This webtext presents the rationale, scaffolding, and instructions for an assignment intended for First-Year Writing (FYW) students: the Filter Bubble Narrative. We pose this assignment in response to Lyon’s (2017) call to analyze “soft surveillance” situations and Gilliard’s (2019) challenge to critically analyze platform-perpetuated surveillance norms with students. We suggest that social media is a particularly productive space to focus student attention on soft surveillance given social media’s ubiquitous presence in society and in students’ lives. Moreover, through their social media use, FYW students have developed an array of digital literacies (Selfe and Hawisher 2004) as prosumers (Beck 2017) that are so engrained in their everyday existences that they haven’t held them up for critical scrutiny (Vie 2008). Through Pariser’s (2012) concept of the “filter bubble,” students engage in scaffolded activities to visualize the effects of algorithmic surveillance and to trace and reassemble the data-driven identities that social media platforms have constructed for them based on their own user data. The final deliverable is a multimodal narrative through which students critically examine and lay claim to their own data in ways that may inform their future use of social media and open opportunities to confront soft surveillance.

David Lyon (2017) argued that we live in a surveillance culture, a way of living under continual watch “that everyday citizens comply with—willingly and wittingly, or not” (825). Lyon (2006) previously stressed that such a pervasively visible cultural existence extends beyond notions of the “surveillance state” and the “panopticon” to forms of seemingly “soft and subtle” surveillance that produce “docile bodies” (4). Drawing upon the work of Gary Marx (2003; 2015), Lyon (2017) argued that such “soft surveillance” is seemingly less invasive and may involve individuals willingly surrendering data, perhaps through “public displays of vulnerability” (832) that are common online via cookies, internet services providers (ISPs), and social media sites. Contemporary surveillance culture is therefore less out there and more everywhere, less spy guys and big brother and much more participatory and data-driven.

In higher education, scholars like Hyslop-Margison and Rochester (2016) and Collier and Ross (2020) have argued that surveillance has always existed through “data collection, assessment, and evaluation, shaping the intellectual work, and tracking the bodies and activities of students and teachers” (Collier and Ross 2020, 276). However, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and contributed to the ways that academic activity is surveilled via proprietary learning management systems and audio/video conferencing software that track clicks and log-ins while simultaneously hoarding student/user data (Atteneder and Collini-Nocker 2020). Responding to and potentially resisting such prevalent surveillance, no matter how soft, therefore requires “a careful, critical, and cultural analysis of surveillance situations” (Lyon 2017, 836). However, as Gilliard’s (2019) “Privacy’s not an abstraction” stressed, “precisely because ideas about privacy have been undermined by tech platforms like Facebook and Google, it is sometimes difficult to have these discussions with students” (para. 16). We will argue that social media news feeds are just the kind of surveillance situations that need critical attention, in writing classrooms, in service of students’ critical digital literacies.

Critical Digital Literacies in the Age of Algorithmic Surveillance

Along with many other scholars writing about technology and classroom practice before us (Selber 2003; Selfe 1999; Takayoshi and Huot 2003; Vie 2008), we suggest that critical is a keyword for theory as well as for application in our networked, digital age, and one that does not emerge fortuitously from incorporating the latest digital technologies in classrooms. In fact, by incorporating technologies into our classrooms, we are often contributing to surveillance culture, as Collier and Ross (2020) note. A critical orientation, we argue, can help.

In “Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition,” Jesse Stommel (2014) defined critical pedagogy “as an approach to teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners (implicitly and explicitly critiquing oppressive power structures)” (para. 4). Critical digital pedagogy, he argued, stems from this foundation, but localizes the impact of instructor and student attention to the “nature and effects” of digital spaces and tools (Stommel 2014, para. 14). In adapting the aims of critical pedagogy to the digital, what emerges is a clear distinction between doing the digital in instrumental fashion (e.g., to develop X skill) and doing the digital critically (e.g., to transform one’s being through X). A critical digital literacies approach to surveillance might suggest:

a willingness to speculate that some of the surveillance roles we have come to accept could be otherwise, along with an acknowledgment that we are implicated in what Lyon terms ‘surveillance culture’ (2017) in education. What can we do with that knowledge, and what culture shifts can we collectively provoke? (Collier and Ross 2020, 276)

As Selber (2004) and Noble (2018) have argued, digital technologies and platforms are made by humans that have their own biases and intentions, and those same biases and intentions may become part of the architecture of the technology itself—regardless of intentions or visibility. Other scholars, like Haas (1996) and O’Hara et al. (2002) therefore cautioned against perpetuating what is often called “The Technology Myth,” by calling teacher-scholars to look critically “at the technology itself” instead of through it (Haas 1996, xi). Without a critical perspective, students and instructors may fail to question the politics, ideologies, and rhetorical effects of their digital tools, spaces, and skills, what Selber (2004) defined as critical literacy in a digital age. We argue that there may be no better space to engage students in critical digital practice than the online spaces they visit daily, often multiple times per hour: social media news feeds.

Social Media News Feeds as a Space for Critical Digital Practice

In a report for Pew Research Center titled “Social Media Outpaces Print Newspapers in the U.S. as a News Source,” Elisa Shearer (2018) revealed that 18-to-29-year-olds are four times as likely to go to social media for news compared to those aged 65 and older. Social media applications, which are frequently accessed via mobile devices, are therefore incredibly popular with college-age students (Lutkewitte 2016) and should be seen for what they are: “technology gateways”, or the primary places where users practice digital literacies (Selfe and Hawisher 2004, 84). However, as Vie (2008) argued, even frequent users may still need to further develop “critical technological literacy skills” (10) since “comfort with technology does not imply … they can understand and critique technology’s societal effects” (12). In order to open up awareness and areas of resistance, we suggest students should be introduced to, and offered opportunities to interrogate, the ways in which their self-selected, or curricularly-mandated, technologies surveil them. Here, we aim to focus their attention on the ways they are softly surveilled via algorithms operating behind the scenes of their social media platforms. Specifically, Gilliard (2019) cautioned that “the logic of digital platforms … treats people’s data as raw material to be extracted” and put to use by individuals for a variety of purposes—malicious, benign, and in-between. Moreover, Beck (2017) argued that it has become normative for social media applications, and the companies that control them, to employ algorithmic surveillance to track all user data and personalize experiences based on that data. Indeed, these seemingly invisible mechanisms further “soften” attitudes toward surveillance that may result in sharing personal details so publicly on social media (Marx 2015; Lyon 2017).

One consequence of algorithmic surveillance on social media is what Pariser (2012) has coined the “filter bubble.” Filter bubbles are created through algorithmic content curation, which reverberates users’ pre-existing beliefs, tastes, and attitudes back to them on their own feeds, which isolates users from diverse viewpoints and content (Nguyen et al. 2014, 677). For example, YouTube recommends videos we might like, Facebook feeds us advertisements for apparel that is just our style, and Google rank-orders search results—all based on our own user data. In many ways, the ideas and information we consume are “dictated and imposed on us” by algorithms that limit our access to information and constrain our agency (Frank et al. 2019, Synopsis section). After all, as Beck (2017) argued, these filter bubbles that are curated by algorithmic surveillance constitute an “invisible digital identity” about individuals (45). And as Hayles (1999) argued, our identities are hybridized and may be seen as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction,” (Hayles 1999, 3). This suggests that an individual’s online activity and interaction with other digital actors in online spaces, which results in an algorithmic curation of a unique filter bubble, is a material instantiation of their embodied identity(ies).

We therefore maintain that turning students’ attention to their own filter bubbles on social media, a space where they may have already developed an array of literacies, means they can attempt to reconcile the distinction between their digital literacies and critical digital literacies as part of reassembling their data with their body. Indeed, the difference between digital literacies and critical digital literacies are particularly problematic in social media spaces. After all, social media are themselves sites of converging roles and agencies, where users are both producer and consumer (Beck 2017) and, as Jenkins (2006) suggested, sites “where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways” (2). We therefore ask, as William Hart-Davidson did in his foreword to the 2017 edited collection, Social Media/Social Writing: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies, “What if we took it [SM] seriously?” (xiii). What if instructors acted intentionally to shift students from instrumental users and information consumers to thinking critically about social media? What opportunities for agency might be revealed through concerted and critical attention to how they are algorithmically surveilled and reconstituted?

As Rheingold (2012) suggested, students who know what the tools are doing and “know what to do with the tools at hand stand a better chance of resisting enclosure” (218). For us, a critical digital pedagogy that fosters critical digital literacies is the antidote to the “enclosure” Rheingold references and a way to more holistically and critically understand agency online. Noble’s (2018) term algorithmic oppression also offers insight into the deleterious effects of unchecked algorithmic curation where, in the case of Google search, in particular, “technology ecosystems… are structuring narratives about Black women and girls” in ways that deepen inequality and reinforce harmful stereotypes (33). Jenkins (2006), too, noted that in networked systems “not all participants are created equal” (3) and that corporations have more power than individual consumers (3).

How can students therefore develop the critical literacies to resist or subvert the market-driven forces that seek to disempower and make their algorithmic identities invisible? Beck (2017) suggested that writing classrooms are a valuable space to try to do so, as “[o]ften times writing courses provide students with the means to consider possibilities for positive change to policy, procedure, and values—all with the power to enact such change through writing” (38). In other words, working with students to trace their online footprint and activities that contribute to the curation of their filter bubbles may offer the opportunity for students to critically look at their digital practices through their own digital practices. Though our interventions will be imperfect, amidst corporate-controlled, algorithmic agents, Hayles (1999) and Latour (2007) have nevertheless stressed that our informational lives are materially part of our identity, and that we do have opportunities for transforming our networked agency. Though “our lives, relationships, memories, fantasies, desires also flow across media channels” (Jenkins 2006, 17), creating data that gets funneled through algorithms for corporate or partisan profit, we can intervene. More importantly, perhaps, so can our students.

One place to begin is to reunite our digital fingerprints and our bodies through narrative, through storytelling. Hayles (1999) argued for “us[ing] the resources of narrative itself, particularly its resistance to various forms of abstraction and disembodiment” (22). We agree and have developed the Filter Bubble Narrative assignment sequence to put theory into practice. We use the term narrative in a capacious sense that recognizes the agency and positionality a writer has to arrange events or data, to tell a story, and the connective, reflective tissue that makes narrative a structure for meaning-making and future action. By investigating and storifying the effects of algorithmic curation and soft surveillance, we defragment our identity and construct a hybrid, a Haylesian posthuman assembled from a Latourian tracing. In short, through the Filter Bubble Narrative assignment sequence, we hope to offer students opportunities to act to create an embodied, expansive identity, one that is both designable and pre-designed as an interaction between humans and algorithms.

In order to encourage students to critically interrogate these filter bubbles and therefore how they’re algorithmically surveilled online, this webtext presents a scaffolded assignment, the Filter Bubble Narrative, as an example of how instructors and students might put soft surveillance under a microscope. However, unlike the hotly debated Kate Klonick assignment that involved gathering data from non-consenting research subjects conversing in public places (see Klonick’s New York Times Op-Ed “A ‘Creepy’ Assignment: Pay Attention to What Strangers Reveal in Public”), our assignment and its scaffolding invites students to investigate the technologies that they already use and that surveil them, “willingly and wittingly, or not’” (Lyon 2017, 825). We think this practice is superior to “reproducing the conditions of privacy violations” that Hutchinson and Gilliard argue against and that are enacted in assignments that involve others, especially without their knowing consent (as cited in Gilliard 2019, para. 9). However, we recognize that some students may not use social media at all, and we do not support the mandatory creation of social media accounts for academic purposes. Therefore, alternative assignments should be made available, as needed.

The Filter Bubble Narrative Assignment Sequence

Taken together, the assignment sequence aims to develop students’ critical digital literacies surrounding surveillance by creating opportunities for students to pay attention to the invisible algorithms that surveil them and personalize the information and advertising they see on their social media feeds, ultimately creating filter bubbles. Students will also be encouraged to investigate opportunities for agency within their filter bubbles through narrative and technical interventions like disabling geolocation within apps, adjusting privacy settings, and seeking out divergent points of view, among other strategies.

The assignment sequence culminates in a multimodal writing assignment, the Filter Bubble Narrative (see Appendix A). The choice to call this project a filter bubble narrative is meant to create some intertextuality between existing first-year writing (FYW) courses that may ask students to write literacy narratives, a common FYW narrative genre included in many of our colleagues’ courses and textbooks. Doing so will hopefully allow instructors to find familiar ground from which to intentionally modify more traditional assignments and to intentionally develop their critical digital pedagogies as well as their students’ critical digital literacies.

Given the widespread move to online and hybrid modes of instruction in higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we intentionally designed our Filter Bubble unit for online delivery via discussion boards, though this is not strictly necessary. And though we outline a multi-week sequence of low-stakes assignments as scaffolding for the Filter Bubble Narrative, we also anticipate that instructors will modify the timeline and assignments to suit local teaching and learning contexts. Finally, in addition to fostering critical digital literacies, these assignments take into consideration the WPA’s (2014) Outcomes Statement for First-Year Writing, the guidelines Scott Warnock (2009) outlines in Teaching Writing Online, and a variety of scholarly voices that recognize opportunities for multimodal composition are essential to developing twenty-first–century literacies (Alexander and Rhodes 2014; Cope, Kalantzis and the New London Group 2000; Palmeri 2012; Yeh 2018).

Scaffolding the filter bubble narrative

During the first week of the Filter Bubble unit, students first read Genesea M. Carter and Aurora Matzke’s (2017) chapter “The More Digital Technology the Better” in the open textbook Bad Ideas About Writing and then submit a low-stakes summary/response entry in their digital writing journals. Additionally, students watch the preview episode (5:12) of Crash Course Navigating Digital Information hosted by John Green on YouTube (CrashCourse 2018). This ten-video course was created in partnership with MediaWise, The Poynter Institute, and The Stanford History Education Group. Then, students engage in an asynchronous discussion board structured by the following questions:

(Q1.) John Green from Crash Course suggests that we each experience the internet a little differently, that content is “personalized and customized” for us. What do you make of that? How is the information that you consume online personalized for you? Do you see this personalization as a form of surveillance? Or not?

(Q2.) Co-authors Genesea M. Carter and Murora Matzke define digital literacy as “students’ ability to understand and use digital devices and information streams effectively and ethically” (321). Let’s interrogate that definition a bit, making it more particular. What constitutes “effective” and/or “ethical” understanding and use?

After answering the prescribed questions, students conclude their post with their own question about the video or chapter for their classmates to answer, as replying to two or more students is a requirement for most discussion boards.

During the second week, students watch the social media episode (16:51) of the Crash Course Navigating Digital Information series. (CrashCourse 2019) After watching, students submit a low-stakes mapping activity in their digital writing journals where they map what’s in their bubble by taking screenshots of the news stories, advertisements, and top-level posts they encounter in their social media feeds. Then, students engage in an asynchronous discussion board structured by the following questions:

(Q1.) Given what you found from investigating the kinds of news stories, advertisements, and top-level posts in your social media feeds, what parts of your identity are in your filter bubble? Where do you see your interests? For example, Jessica sees a lot of ads for ethically made children’s clothing, Rothy’s sustainably made shoes, and YouTube Master Classes about writing. It seems that her filter bubble is constructed in part from her identity as an environmentalist and writing professor. Joel, on the other hand, sees ads for Star Wars merchandise and solar panel incentive programs, suggesting his filter bubble is constructed from his identity as a Star Wars fan and homeowner that needs a new roof.

(Q2.) What parts of your identity, if any, are not represented in your filter bubble?

(Q3.) How do you feel about what’s there, what’s not, and how that personalization came to be? How is your identity represented similarly or differently across digital sites and physical places?

As mentioned previously, students conclude their post with their own question about the video or discussion board topic for their classmates to answer.

In the first half of the third week, students read the Filter Bubble Narrative assignment sheet (see Appendix A) and engage in a first thoughts discussion, a practice adapted from Ben Graydon at Daytona State College. Here, students respond to one or more of the following questions after reading the Filter Bubble Narrative assignment sheet:

(Q1.) Connect the writing task described in the project instructions with one or more of your past writing experiences. When have you written something like this in the past? How was this previous piece of writing similar or different?

(Q2.) Ask a question or questions about the project instructions. Is there anything that doesn’t make sense? That you would like your instructor and classmates to help you better understand?

(Q3.) Describe your current plans for this project. How are you going to get started (explain your ideas to a friend, make an outline, just start writing, etc.)? What previously completed class activities and content might you draw on as you compose this project? What upcoming activities might help you compose this project?

In the second half of the third week, students begin knitting together the story of their filter bubble. Additionally, they engage in an asynchronous discussion board structured by the following question:

(Q1.) What can you do to take a more active role in constructing your identity and “ethically” and “effectively” (Carter and Matzke 2017, 321) navigating your information feeds?

As mentioned previously, students conclude their post with their own question, but for this discussion board topic we offer this alternative:

(Q2.) If you’d like recommendations from your classmates about steps you can take within your apps and/or feeds and pages that might diversify or productively challenge your current information landscape, let us know. If you’d rather we not send you recommendations, that’s okay, too. Go ahead and ask any other topic-related question you’ve got.

The fourth week is spent composing a full-length draft of the Filter Bubble Narrative, which students submit to a peer review discussion board for peer feedback and to an assignment folder for instructor feedback at the beginning of the fifth week.

While peer review is in-progress and the instructor reviews drafts, during the fifth week, students submit a low-stakes reflection in their digital writing journals that investigates how their ideas about digital literacy have changed (or not), especially in relation to the definition provided by Carter and Matzke (2017) about effective and ethical use of digital technologies (321), as well as what they’ve learned about themselves, surveillance, and about writing multimodality.

Limitations & risks

We acknowledge that the Filter Bubble Narrative comes with certain limitations and risks. First, while we suggest that this assignment and its scaffolding may offer potential pathways for students to develop critical digital literacies that may result in further awareness and even resistance to forms of soft surveillance, we are also aware that those practices may be ultimately out of reach. After all, as various scholars discussed above have noted (see Beck 2017; Gilliard 2019; Noble 2018), social media platforms frequently take action to purposefully obscure their very mechanisms for surveillance, which is part of the process of softening resistance (Lyon 2006; 2017; Marx 2003; 2015). Without careful critical attention to such processes, instructors and students may be misled to see this assignment as a transaction of skills necessary to resist all forms of soft surveillance. While students may become more aware of and deliberate about how they perceive or interact with their filter bubble, this does not render the surveillors and their surveillance inert.

Second, some students may be unable or unwilling to draw on their own social media use for this assignment. As we mentioned in an earlier section, not all students engage with social media and others may have broader concerns with privacy. After all, part of the assignment and its scaffolding, as described above, ask students to disclose information about their own social media use—information they may wish to keep private from their teacher and instructors. Students therefore should be reminded that they do not have to disclose any information they do not wish to and guided through alternative assignment designs (e.g., fictionalizing their filter bubble contents).


We’ve offered the Filter Bubble unit as one way to smooth the journey from an instructor’s critical digital pedagogy to students’ critical digital literacies. Instead of sketching this assignment for Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy readers, we wanted to offer a student-directed deliverable, an assignment sheet (see Appendix A), as a way to recognize that “documents do things,” as Judith Enriquez (2020) argued in “The Documents We Teach By.” These things that documents do are many and varied. Our teaching materials are a material representation of our teaching and learning values and of our identities as critical digital pedagogues. And, perhaps most importantly, they have rhetorical effects on our students. Thus, It’s important that we offer student-centered instantiations of critical digital pedagogy along with scholarly-ish prose aimed at other teacher-scholars. Moreover, as students engage with this assignment we hope to be able to offer information about its efficacy in regard to critical digital literacies. Further, student reflections about this assignment are needed and forthcoming, as are notes about alterations we’ll make based on student-instructor collaborations.

In closing, just as we must look at technologies instead of through them in order to perceive soft surveillance and engender critical digital literacies, we must do the same with our teaching documents (Enriquez 2020). We hope that our Filter Bubble Narrative deliverable is a teaching and learning document that instructors can critically look at in order to consider ways to work together with students to reassemble a richer and more critical understanding of online identities within our algorithmically curated social media news feeds. Beyond understanding, we also hope that teachers and students will act to mitigate soft surveillance and filter bubble effects and to become ethical agents with (and even developers of) algorithmic technologies.


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Appendix: Filter Bubble Narrative Assignment Sheet


In “Social Media: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information,” host John Green says filter bubbles mean “we are surrounded by voices we already know and [are] unable to hear from those we don’t” (8:36). We can also think of filter bubbles as echo chambers that reverberate our existing beliefs, tastes, and attitudes.

Let’s read just a bit more about filter bubbles on Wikipedia, which is a solid site for general, introductory information about almost anything. Please skim this article now: Wikipedia on Filter bubbles.

Next, please watch the following TED talk by Eli Pariser, who invented the term “filter bubble”: Beware Online Filter Bubbles. It’s about 9 minutes long.

Whaddya think? Pariser defines the term “filter bubble” like this: “your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out” (4:06). Additionally, Pariser offers a visual depiction of filter bubbles (at 4:33). Here, the media corporations around the circle are curating, or selecting, what information you encounter on your social media feeds. You see only what’s inside as you passively scroll and click. You’re in a filter bubble. This is in contrast to all the information that you could see on the Web, as represented by the colorful circles that lie outside of the algorithms’ restrictive membrane. Since your filter bubble is unique to you, and created based on your clicking, buying, and browsing data, we might say that it represents part of who you are, part of your identity, both online and offline.

For example, when John Green illustrates his otherwise invisible filter bubble (12:15), we see a particular collection of activities, topics, beliefs, and values; we see parts of his identity (See Figure 1 below).

Image of John Green's filter bubble (John Green is the host of "Social Media: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information") that contains his image and a variety of his interests and identity markers surrounding him: soccer, pizza, Harry Potter, coffee, family, a cross, etc.
Figure 1. Illustration of John Green’s filter bubble. Source: “Social Media: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information” hosted by John Green.

The algorithms running behind Green’s social media feeds personalize his online experience so that the advertising, news stories, and shared content Green encounters hold his attention, a valuable commodity for advertisers and groups or corporations pushing particular angles. I wonder, what’s in your filter bubble? And how does what’s in there represent who you are, your identity, both online and off?

Further, what might you do, as Eli Pariser and John Green both mention in their respective videos, to affect what’s in your bubble in ways that help you move toward your best future self, the aspirational version of yourself (5:12), instead of in ways that reinforce your “more impulsive, present selves” (5:15)? The goal of this project is to investigate and tell the story of your filter bubble as a representation of your identity and to reflect (and maybe act) upon what you find.

Assignment Guidelines

Your Filter Bubble Narrative should tell the story of your filter bubble as a reflection of your identity, both online and off. In composing this story, you should

  • Describe what’s in your filter bubble and how that’s connected to your interests, values, and beliefs on and offline (or not);
  • Discuss how you feel about algorithmic personalization, in general, and your specific filter bubble as a representation of your identity;
  • Sketch out what, if anything, you might do in the future to affect what’s in your filter bubble and/or how you might “ethically” and “effectively” (Carter and Matzke 2017, 321) navigate what’s in there using the strategies Green and Pariser discuss in their videos, as well other strategies you use or have heard about.

You’ll need to make this story multimodal, which means that in addition to alphabetic writing, you should use at least one other mode of communication. For example, you might communicate using images, video, and/or sound. You can create these texts yourself or use (and cite) items from the Web or elsewhere. Please include at least 500 words of written text and at least 3 visual or audio elements. As for the audience and genre, you have some flexibility here. You might want to write your piece for an undergraduate publication like Young Scholars in Writing or Stylus, UCF’s journal of first-year writing. Alternatively, you might write for Medium, a web-based publishing platform where your piece might be tagged #technology #digitalliteracy #self. Or maybe you’re thinking of starting your own blog and this could be your first entry. In any case, you want to consider the audience your publication site addresses (beyond your classmate and me) as you compose.

About the Authors

Jessica Kester is a Professor of English in the School of Humanities and Communication and the Quanta-Honors College at Daytona State College (DSC). She also co-founded and coordinated a Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines program (WAC/WID) at DSC from 2013 until 2019. Her work has previously appeared in Across the Disciplines and Currents in Teaching and Learning.

Joel Schneier is a Lecturer and Composition Coordinator at the University of Central Florida in the Department of Writing & Rhetoric. He earned a PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media from North Carolina State University in 2019. His research focuses on the intersections of digital literacies, mobile communication, writing, and sociolinguistics, and he has published in Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, New Media & Society, and Mobile Media & Communication, among others.

This photograph shows several students from behind, collaborating on the DHSI privacy plan by writing on a chalkboard.

Finding Fault with Foucault: Teaching Surveillance in the Digital Humanities


This article outlines the risks posed by Foucauldian logics and provides alternative pedagogical strategies grounded in a culture of care. Failing to address surveillance culture through this critical framework exacerbates its effects by encouraging its continuation and intensification. Modern surveillance tools make it challenging, if not impossible, to pinpoint the characteristic(s) against which the tool has been programmed to discriminate. The treatment of such automated surveillance decisions as impossible to question has enabled the further entrenchment of inequality and injustice. As such, scholars, activists, and the public need to band together to fight against unethical surveillance practices; one effective way is by providing our students with the tools needed to critique the surveillance machine and to envision more equitable futures. Teaching them to question Foucault, and thereby the premises of Western surveillance, is vital to this process.

“Where are the digital humanists critiquing the growing surveillance state?” 
       —Michael Widner, 2013

Citing events such as Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and the passing of the PATRIOT Act in the US Congress, Widner argues that digital humanists are doing little to nothing to intervene in the ever-increasing infringements on privacy in the Western world. His argument, however, is framed around a specific type of DH—male-dominated, highly computational scholarship that emulates the data mining projects of organizations such as the NSA. For critical digital humanists, surveillance is a site where issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality intersect with our digital lives. Works such as Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018), Miriam Posner’s “See No Evil” (2018), and  Jacqueline Wernimont’s Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (2018) reveal a growing concern with surveillance, with groups such as SurvDH and the Digital Library Federation’s Technologies of Surveillance working group providing outlets for digital humanists to explore these topics in more depth. Similarly, rhetoric and composition scholars are developing new work on the effects of surveillance in the university by examining how digital composition tools, data-sharing platforms, social media networks, and learning management tools place our students’ data at risk. Although these fields have distinct approaches, they articulate the ethical concerns raised by surveillance culture’s pervasive invasion into our classrooms and our lives.

Since 2016, I have taught four courses focused on surveillance and data ethics. Two were geared towards undergrads—one in a women’s and gender studies department at a large public university and one in an American studies department at an elite, small private college. The other two iterations were taught at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, BC, a program that provides graduate students, faculty members, librarians, and technologists a chance to learn about a key theory or methodology within the digital humanities. While the course has seen slight variations over time, its overarching goal has always been to interrogate the ethical issues of state, corporate, and social surveillance mechanisms. To that end, I included texts written largely by women and BIPOC to demonstrate the ways in which surveillance culture exacerbates ongoing discrimination against marginalized groups. Some of these texts include Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015), Kim Tallbear’s Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (2013), and Shoshana Amielle Magnet’s When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race and the Technology of Identity (2011).

While my goal has always been to advocate for decolonial and anti-colonial approaches to surveillance, the first iteration of the course began with a discussion of Foucault’s panopticism. At the time, I argued that Foucault provides a foundation for understanding the structures of Western surveillance, which, once understood, can be applied to the U.S. imperial enterprise and can shape our analysis of events such as the Standing Rock protests or the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Although I sought to demonstrate the inequities of the surveillance machine, structuring the course in this way elided many of the flaws within Foucault’s argument. Perhaps most damaging is Foucault’s (1995) assertion that surveillance, by virtue of being everywhere, affects everyone similarly. He states, “Bentham dreamt of transforming into a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time. The panoptic arrangement provides the formula for this generalization” (Foucault 1995, 209). In other words, the panopticon is designed to penetrate all communities, spaces, and cultures; causing many to ask, “If the panopticon is everywhere, then aren’t we all the equal victims of its repressive machinations?”

Students are incredibly responsive to this argument. They love to expound upon how their homes, schools, sports teams, and extra-curricular activities are all part of the system that Foucault describes, and who can blame them? It helps to clarify the basic tenets of Foucault’s argument, and it gets them excited about surveillance and privacy issues. Yet, it is only now after many years that I realize the extreme disservice this has done to my students. By allowing them to conflate varied surveillance mechanisms and contexts, I failed to implement a culture of care in the classroom. At that moment, I did not explicitly affirm the central premise of the course—surveillance is a tool of state and corporate oppression that has disproportionate consequences for women and people of color. This had one of two possible consequences: it either overstated the severity of their experiences or downplayed real (and unspoken) traumas. Conversations on surveillance tend to be problematic because much of the canon encourages readers to believe in two false premises—that all surveillance is equal and that surveillance is inescapable. These premises are not only dangerous for readers of Foucault, but also for our culture at large. As the foundational theory surrounding Western surveillance culture, Foucault’s views have pervaded our daily lives, making us docile when we experience monitoring from our co-workers, classmates, employers, retailers, and devices and reinforcing colonialist hierarchies of power and marginalization.

 This image depicts a chalkboard with the question, “What is surveillance?” written in the top left. Below this are a variety of answers written in multiple people’s handwriting.
Figure 1. Classroom explorations of surveillance.

To push back against these misconceptions, it is crucial that we present students with different perspectives on surveillance, privacy, and power. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) note in their groundbreaking work, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” language is a powerful tool by which to address inequalities pervasive within surveillance culture and inherent to the colonial enterprise. They note:

One trend we have noticed, with growing apprehension, is the ease with which the language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which decenter settler perspectives. Decolonization, which we assert is a distinct project from other civil and human rights–based social justice projects, is far too often subsumed into the directives of these projects, with no regard for how decolonization wants something different than those forms of justice. (2)

By adopting the language of decolonialism into our social justice initiatives, settler scholars (myself included) are allowed to ignore the long histories of settler colonialism that have shaped our perceptions of justice, allyship, and activism both inside and outside the academy. Our reliance upon teaching surveillance theory through Foucauldian principles similarly is flawed, as his discussion of surveillance negates the settler enterprise by eliding it entirely.

One of the ways Foucauldian logic contributes to this elision is through its choice of analogies. Instead of structuring his core discussion of surveillance around strategies of conquest and colonialism, Foucault references a seventeenth-century document that outlines procedures for towns affected by the plague. According to these rules, citizens are coerced to acquiesce to surveillance upon pain of death. By describing surveillance through this metaphor, Foucault (1995) explicitly misrepresents the harm wrought by state surveillance and ultimately enables its continuation. His discussion of panopticism begins as follows:

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. (195)

Without context, his narrative is one of conquest—citizens are cut off from neighboring communities, their resources are destroyed or placed under foreign control, and individuals are forced to acquiesce to this system upon pain of death. These characteristics are not relegated to one particular colonial experience, but are inherent to processes of conquest. Moreover, Foucault would have been familiar with the processes of colonialism. In The History of Sexuality, he asserts that the rise of repression occurred in the seventeenth century, but his argument focuses on the cultural repression of sexuality. He fails to mention that the seventeenth century also marks the peak of the African slave trade, the expansion of Spanish missions, and the founding of Jamestown. Each of these events is a key component of settler culture’s colonial enterprise.

Indigenous peoples across the globe were subjected to the surveillance systems embedded within the conquest apparatus. In the United States, the conquest of indigenous peoples occurred in many forms—through the development of reservations, the allotment of land, and the use of residential schools. Similarly, indigenous resources were killed off to ensure that each nation’s way of life was no longer sustainable. One of the most common misconceptions is that all indigenous peoples were treated similarly during these processes, but this is patently untrue. Some indigenous nations, such as the Miami and Delaware, lost their federal status, meaning that their economies, customs, cultures, and homelands were stripped from them entirely. The Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota’s economies were toppled by the killing of the buffalo in the Great Plains; however, many other communities faced similar economic devastation. The Osage, who maintained mineral rights over their federally appointed lands in Oklahoma, garnered great wealth during the oil boom; however, they were only allowed to access these profits through their government-appointed guardians, each of whom was white. As such, few Osage received the money owed to them for use of their land; instead, the federal government developed a system that systematically stripped them of their economic well-being. Although many indigenous nations filed lawsuits against the United States government, noting the particularly cruel and discriminatory nature of many federal laws pertaining to indigenous peoples, the vast majority of these systems are still in place. Those who have rebelled against this mistreatment via force have been sentenced to death. Similar processes were implemented in the United States colonies, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Marshall Islands and Hawai’i. In each case, the islands were cut off from neighboring communities and forced to acquiesce to U.S. rule upon pain of death. Military bases were established across the islands, and indigenous ways of life were subsumed by industries beneficial to the colonial enterprise, particularly sugar and coffee. In some cases, such as in Puerto Rico, multiple waves of colonial rule sought to eradicate indigenous communities and identities.

So, why is it important to discuss indigenous peoples in the context of the panopticon? Indigenous peoples have been subjected to the harshest forms of surveillance, yet they appear nowhere in Foucault’s analysis or in the work of his intellectual descendents. Andrea Smith (2015) notes that “the manner in which Foucaldian analyses of the state tend to temporally situate biopower during the era of the modern state disappears the biopolitics of settler colonialism and transantlantic slavery” (23).[1] In other words, many scholars of surveillance, either implicitly or explicitly, erase the ways in which the formation of the state was dependent upon the subjugation of indigenous and black bodies.

To counteract these texts, scholars such as Simone Browne, Virginia Eubanks, Shoshana Amielle Magnet, and Safiya Noble theorize about the relationship between surveillance and colonialism by demonstrating the ways in which marginalized peoples often experience the greatest consequences of surveillance culture. Browne (2015) notes that “When particular surveillance technologies, in their development and design, leave out some subjects and communities for optimum usage, this leaves open the possibility of reproducing existing inequalities (162–3). At other times, communities are more explicitly targeted by surveillance culture for speaking out against the colonial machine. Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan (2018) note that “Indigenous activists are policed using the powers and resources of the national security apparatus, demonstrating the extensive reach of the ‘war on terror’ into the traditional domain of colonial governance.” Groups such as #BlackLivesMatter and the protesters at Standing Rock have faced similar scrutiny, with critics using the rhetoric of terrorism to incite their critiques of what bell hooks terms “imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy” (1984, xv). To address this marginalization, Browne (2015) offers up the framework of “dark sousveillance” which “speaks not only to observing those in authority (the slave patroller or the plantation overseer, for instance) but also to the use of a keen and experiential insight of plantations surveillance in order to resist it” (22). She then extends this framework to contemporary physical and digital environments that continue to discriminate against black bodies. Looking at historical sites of surveillance and resistance can help us develop strategies for countering discrimination in the modern world.

This image lists the biographical information students located about Joyce Semmler displayed on a dry erase board.
Figure 2. Learning about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movement by remembering the life and death of Joyce Semmler.

Analysis, however, is not enough. We must imagine possibilities for pedagogy and activism that operate outside of surveillance culture. We can only do so if we interrogate the second false premise offered by Foucault’s model: the panopticon is inescapable. According to his analysis, citizens of the modern world always operate within the realm of surveillance, and individuals can only move from one controlled environment into another. This view normalizes surveillance culture in unhealthy and unethical ways; by claiming that surveillance is inescapable, we tacitly agree that corporations, predators, and the state do not need our consent or our approval to monitor us. According to Smith (2015), “reliance on state surveillance prevents us from seeing other possibilities for ending violence, such as through communal organization that might be able to address violence more effectively” (36). Although numerous alternatives to surveillance culture exist, most seem to rely on a sense of communal ties. Foucault himself posits the antithesis of the panopticon to be carnival—a celebration in which citizens are free from surveillance, monitoring, and order. While living in a permanent state of celebration may not be conducive to the functioning of society, adopting an explicit set of communal values does subvert surveillance culture by resisting individualization, isolation, resource allocation, and assimilation. Organizations dedicated to studying the ethics of surveillance, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, provide a series of best practices—consent, revocation, decentralization, and protection. By giving individuals the opportunity to control when and how they are surveilled, and by protecting the information they choose to provide, they suggest that we can develop a culture that values human health and well-being over power and profits. But how do we implement these strategies in our classrooms? Below, I outline a number of strategies I have used to counteract Foucauldian logics and to emphasize the injustice created by surveillance culture.

Start with something other than Foucault

Consider what voices you are centering and what effects this has on your pedagogy. All subsequent iterations of this course have begun with settler colonialism. By examining the surveillance mechanisms deployed against indigenous peoples—relocation, allotment, assimilation, and erasure to name a few—students begin to understand the varied contexts in which humans experience surveillance. Course readings include excerpts from Tommy Orange’s There There (2018), Sandy Grande’s introduction to Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought (2015), and Andrea Smith’s article “Not-Seeing: State Surveillance, Settler Colonialism, and Gender Violence” (2015).

In class, I demonstrate the undue surveillance experienced by indigenous peoples by talking through problematic laws such as the Dawes Act (1887), the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), and the Indian Relocation Act (1956). During the discussion, I tape off sections of the floor to depict the ways in which indigenous lands were systematically privatized, stolen, and/or devalued for the sake of settler profit. Seeing the classroom broken into pieces, with each one subject to unique rules and governance, helps students gain an understanding of settler surveillance and the ways it was used to destabilize, destroy, and decimate indigenous communities across the United States. This framework also provides opportunities for challenging Western knowledge systems. One way to do so is by highlighting organizations that resist surveillance by upholding indigenous values and data practices. The Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that “builds on Indigenous traditions of data gathering and knowledge transfer to create, disseminate, and put into action research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people,” is one such example. Their model challenges many forms of settler culture; in particular, they collect data on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and share it with organizations fighting against the mistreatment of indigenous women. Additionally, they refuse to share their data with settler enterprises—including police, academic researchers, and colonial governments. They even go so far as to refuse funding from settler agencies, ensuring that they retain sovereignty over all elements of their work. As such, the Sovereign Bodies Institute serves as a powerful model for engaging in anti-surveillance work that is communally-engaged, socially-conscious, and intentionally indigenous.

There are many other valuable pedagogical strategies to consider. Simone Browne’s work interrogates the trafficking of enslaved peoples, noting that many surveillance mechanisms were deployed to control the movements, bodies, wealth, and opportunities for black bodies. Her work, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015) pairs well with texts such as Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018) and Shoshana Amielle Magnet’s When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race and the Technology of Identity (2011). Each explores the ways in which surveillance technology disproportionately targets black bodies and provides useful strategies for subversion and resistance.

Skip Foucault entirely

I have taught four iterations of this course, two as undergraduate seminars and two as special topics courses at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), which is geared toward graduate students, librarians, faculty members, and technologists. In most of these cases, Foucault has been unnecessary for the function of the course. Undergraduates are well aware of the omniscience of the surveillance machine and are happy to engage with other theories or examples. Professionals in the field, on the other hand, have often read Foucault already and are interested in analyses that move beyond his arguments. In either case, Foucault is unnecessary and may even hinder students’ ability to engage in meaningful critiques of surveillance culture.

Conduct surveillance self-assessments

One strategy surveillance specialists use to assess their physical and digital vulnerabilities is threat modeling, a technique that helps to identify, analyze, and prioritize security risks. In Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (2015), Julia Angwin uses threat modeling to assess her own security practices. Using her work as a model, I ask students to think through how their positionality, employment, family, peer group, shopping habits, and social media all influence their participation in surveillance culture. This helps students untangle the numerous and overlapping modes of surveillance woven into their day-to-day experiences as well as to identify often overlooked components of their privacy practices.

Discuss more than digital surveillance

Scholars such as Safiya Noble and Cathy O’Neil note that the biases within digital systems are often obscured or invisible. One reason algorithms are so harmful is that they discriminate along many vectors simultaneously. Algorithms can weigh factors including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, income, education, and age within a single formula, making it difficult to determine the source of their biases. To help students understand the function of these networks more clearly, it can be beneficial to point out their operation in the physical world. Often, physical surveillance is designed around one or two vectors, which can be traced through data collection, observation, and/or analysis. Our world is rife with examples—the disproportionate policing of black and brown bodies, the undue violence experienced by protestors and dissidents, the illegal detainment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the harassment experienced by othered bodies at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints. Once students begin to understand these forms of surveillance, they can more easily apply this knowledge to our digital systems.

Implement an ethic of care

When teaching surveillance related topics, remember that your students may experience anxiety or trauma around certain topics. Do not ask students to expound upon invasions to their own privacy unless they offer them up freely. Talk to them about stress-management techniques and mental health resources in addition to privacy practices.

Similarly, be sure not to place others at risk for the sake of learning. In March 2019, the following privacy assignment went viral on Twitter:

This image depicts an assignment developed by Kate Klonick, an Assistant Professor at St. John's University Law School, which asks students to observe and identify members of the community using surveillance strategies.
Figure 3. Learning how surveillance pedagogies can place vulnerable communities at risk.
Numerous individuals expounded on the creativity of this assignment, and the professor was even featured in NPR.[2] What Klonick failed to consider; however, were the ways in which this assignment infringes upon the privacy of others and disproportionately polices bodies deemed to be divergent and/or diverse. Picture yourself walking into a coffee shop. Who do you expect to be there? What do they look like? Who would be out of place? What do they look like? In a culture dominated by Western thought, many are likely to be perceived as “out of place” in public spaces, including people of color, the itinerant, and the differently abled. Klonick’s assignment therefore invites increased scrutiny of people who are already policed in public spaces. Instead of serving as innovative pedagogy, this assignment reinforces the discriminatory practices baked into all aspects of surveillance culture. Countering harmful surveillance practices is harder than it sounds. Discriminatory practices are so ingrained in our behaviors that it takes careful and intentional planning to design assignments that are built upon an ethic of care. We must constantly assess and re-assess the risks our pedagogies pose to our students and update our methodologies as the affordances of surveillance mechanisms grow and change.

Imagine different possible futures

One of the greatest tools we have for resisting surveillance culture is speculative thinking. By imagining new possible futures we allow ourselves to think outside the restrictive structures of modern society, such as capitalism, colonialism, or consumerism. In fact, futurisms have long been a tool of critical race scholars working at the intersections of race and technology. Grace Dillion (2012), who coined the term “indigenous futurisms,” notes that this technique “can create estranged worlds of the future in which the writer can foreground … the intersection of indigenous nations with other sovereignties, race, technology, and power” (11). In the same way, futuristic thinking can provide our students with a means of escaping the oppressive elements of surveillance culture and imagining new strategies for resisting its machinations.

This photograph shows several students from behind, collaborating on the DHSI privacy plan by writing on a chalkboard.
Figure 4. Students developing the ideal privacy plan for DHSI. This process encouraged students to speculate about new possibilities for responding to surveillance culture.

We must give our students the tools to speculate about such futures. Teaching them to question Foucault, and thereby the premises of Western surveillance, is vital to this process. As Kari Kraus (2018) notes, speculative thinking requires that we segment existing structures into their component parts: “Without the ability to segment an everyday object into its constituent parts, each of which can be manipulated independently of the others, Morse could never have conceived of his invention, let alone built it. Fault lines yield the fragments that artists, inventors, designers, writers, and conservators use to make, unmake, and remake the world” (163). One of the ways we can start to break surveillance culture into fragments is by challenging the primacy of Foucault. We must fight against the false premises presented in Foucault’s argument or risk becoming complacent to the inequalities proliferated by surveillance culture. Failing to address the harms of surveillance in our communities only exacerbates their effects by encouraging their continuation and intensification. Modern surveillance tools make it challenging, if not impossible, to pinpoint the characteristic(s) against which the tool has been programmed to discriminate. Cathy O’Neil (2016) notes that “Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer” (8). As such, scholars, activists, and the public need to band together to fight against unethical surveillance practices; one effective way is by providing our students with the tools needed to critique the surveillance machine and to envision more equitable futures.


[1] To quote Sandy Grande in her book Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, “I would feel remiss if I did not mention the controversy regarding Smith’s claim to indigenous identity. As someone who is neither a citizen of Cherokee nation, nor her relation, I don’t see it as my place to comment on her identity but I am compelled to speak to the impact of the controversy on the field of Native studies” (10). Smith’s scholarship, particularly on indigenous feminisms, has been widely cited by indigenous and non-indigenous scholars alike. The challenges faced by indigenous communities, and especially indigenous women, ring true regardless of Smith’s identity.
[2] The feature can be found here https://www.npr.org/2019/03/10/702028545/googling-strangers-one-professors-lesson-on-privacy-in-public-spaces.


Angwin, Julia. 2014. Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. New York: St. Martin’s.

Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Crosby, Andrew and Jeffrey Monaghan. 2018. Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Books.

Dillion, Grace L. 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Eubanks, Virginia. 2018. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. London, St. Martin’s Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Reissue edition. New York: Vintage Books.

———. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Grande, Sandy. 2015. Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. 10th ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.

Kraus, Kari. 2018. “Finding Fault Lines: Approach to Speculative Design.” The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. London and New York: Routledge, 162–73.

Magnet, Shoshana Amielle. 2011. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity. Durham: Duke University Press.

“New ‘Technologies of Surveillance’ Group,” Digital Library Federation, accessed 15 May 2019, https://www.diglib.org/technologies-surveillance-dlf-group/.

Noble, Safiya. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

O’Neil, Cathy. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Crown.

Smith, Andrea. 2015. “Not-Seeing: State Surveillance, Settler Colonialism, and Gender Violence.” In Feminist Surveillance Studies, edited by Rachel E. Dubrofsky and Shoshana Amielle Magnet. Durham: Duke University Press, 21–38.

Sovereign Bodies Institute, accessed 28 September 2019, https://www.sovereign-bodies.org/.

SurvDH, accessed 15 May 2019, cboyles.msu.domains/suvdh.

Tuck, Eve and K Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1: 1–40.

Widner, Michael. “The Digital Humanists’ (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State,” accessed 28 September 2019, https://outline.com/TSMafb.

About the Author

Christina Boyles is an Assistant Professor of Culturally Engaged Digital Humanities at Michigan State University. Her research explores the relationship between disaster, social justice, and the environment. She is the director of the María Memory Bank, a project that works with community organizations in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean to collect and preserve stories about Hurricane María. Her published work appears in Digital Humanities Quarterly, Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in the Digital Humanities, American Quarterly, Studies in American Indian Literatures, The Southern Literary Journal, The South Central Review, and Plath Profiles.

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