Surveillance and University Life: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain

Centuries ago, learned masters wandered across continents and taught students where they could and them. Around the 13th century the masters began to stay put and allow students to come to them. The university has never been a place where anonymity was possible, let alone cultivated. e university model has always required that at least the teacher’s name be known. Teachers had to be entrepreneurial in order to attract students and earn a living. The modern university has existed since the 19th century and since that time has required the collection of an ever increasing amount of details regarding students and professors. People working, living, or passing through the university are known at an ever increasing level of detail and the institution’s effective functioning is ever more dependent on such knowledge to attract donors, students, and build facilities worthy of large prestigious grants.

Graduate students and professors in particular must increasingly make evaluations regarding how to cultivate a professional and public identity in order to gain access to symbolic rewards and promotion through the academic ranks. Authorities that determine careers identify a strong scholar by the number of their publications and citations, but also by their recognition beyond scholarly spheres. is means telling stories regarding one’s biography and the struggles one has over come to reach the heights of the ivory tower. It also requires being registered for numerous data tracking sites to disambiguate oneself from other scholars with similar names so that one can be counted more easily in terms of downloads, citations, and translations of one’s work (e.g., Mendeley, Researchgate,, Orcid, Researcher ID, Google Scholar). Scholars must be engaged in disseminating their work to new audiences, cultivating citations, invitations to talks, and appearances in the media. If one wishes to be successful in academia one must master one’s digital double for promotional purposes and bend it to one’s will.

However, universities require information about students, staff, and faculty in order to report to governments, accreditation and ranking organizations. By virtue of being a student or employee of a university one’s activities are monitored, digitized, aggregated, reported, disseminated internally to department committees, deans and faculty committees, institutional analysis departments, marketing and communications departments, the provost’s office, and others. Externally student and faculty data are sent to provincial governments, data consortia, consulting firms, academic publishers, and ranking publishers. Such data is often monetized and sold back to universities. Such data make more staff and administrative personnel necessary to monitor the institution, build technologies to assist with warehousing the data, and to produce reports. These chains of data flows have consequences for how universities are allocated large research grants and symbolic capital, how deans and provosts allocate resources to particular departments, and how departments determine which students are worthy of awards. Along the way there are many judgments as to the value of each activity that every person has undertaken within a particular unit of time which culminate in a final assessment of one’s worth.

Life in such an environment incites the need for constant comparison. Which colleagues applied for what awards, did they win? Why didn’t I win? How many publications do I have compared to so and so, how many citations each? Do I have a national or international reputation? Is this corpus of work enough to earn me a tenure track job, to get tenure, to advance to associate professor status, full professor status? The comparisons expand beyond one’s own career, they incorporate colleagues’ departments and their universities in an unending concern with relative status.

These comparisons are driven by the need to build reputations, because reputation and the status it confers is the currency of academic cultural economies. No wonder so many graduate students and faculty have in inflated egos and yet suffer impostor syndrome. We are constantly told we are special, that we are excellent, and yet are never excellent enough. This narcissistic obsession with one’s own image and that of others creates much anxiety, but also the desire to continue to work towards more favourable comparisons. It is a cycle that does not recognize any limit and forgets the value and purpose of creative performance.

It’s hard to know what motivated the wandering masters and their students. I personally find it difficult to invest much in a system of cyclical ego-stroking and wonder about what value there might be in anonymity. In the past, one could not be regarded as having done a moral good if one spoke of it. Good could only be done anonymously. In the face of so many declarations of “look at me, look what I’ve accomplished” I find myself thinking heavily on whether we are doing any good. What can be said of those who have their work taken up, used and shared without having been credited for it? Is there any significance in having developed a concept, or approach to a problem that has had effects on how people think, organize, and act if one is not recognized for it? What is a person worth if their contributions have wide and significant effects, but they remain anonymous? The irony in writing this piece is telling. ◆

Gary Barron
Sociology PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta
Find Gary here and here


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