Reith and Logan: We Need a Pedagogy of Care, Not Punishment

Ally Reith and Charles Logan

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown educators and students into a rapid, dramatic shift to remote emergency teaching and learning. In addition to surfacing new challenges, this shift has deepened long-existing problems with our traditional academic practices. For example, the proliferation of online proctoring tools has accelerated, with many faculty opting to continue holding high-stakes exams online. Northwestern currently uses three online proctoring products: Respondus LockDown Browser, Respondus Monitor and Examity. LockDown Browser limits common actions like copying and pasting text whereas Monitor and Examity record students via webcam during assessments. Respondus’ and Examity’s proprietary algorithms flag what they’ve been trained to identify as “suspicious” behavior. These technologies position students as untrustworthy adversaries. As scholars of learning and teaching, we want to know: how exactly do high-stakes surveilled exams support meaningful learning, especially given the massive upheaval, loss, grief and trauma brought on by this last year? 

Respondus Lockdown Browser, Respondus Monitor, and Examity are racist, ableist trash technologies that invade students’ privacy and harm our well-being. But the problem extends far beyond technology. At the heart of the matter is pedagogy. These tools are rooted in an ideology of control and punishment. They are, in the words of abolitionist Sarah T. Hamid, technologies “bound up in the control, coercion, capture, and exile of entire categories of people.” 

Northwestern students are taking note and pushing back. We spoke to several students in private about their experiences. An undergraduate told us that they’d received an academic integrity violation simply for reading a question out loud. A graduate worker who is TAing a course expressed their concern that “a lot of [students] are still at home and don’t have stable internet connections, and [the professor] demands they keep their webcams on through the test, further straining the connection.” They highlighted the power imbalance innate to these technologies and high-stakes testing: “it seems like a common attitude amongst professors, they’re so quick to jump to punishment when they suspect cheating…the instructor seems to believe that if [exam or assignment submission] is even a minute late, [the students are] probably cheating.”

The inherent carcerality of surveillance educational technology stands in stark contrast to Northwestern’s stated commitment to “[strive] to be an instrument of change.” Alternatively, we advocate for a community-wide pedagogy of care, one that centers students as whole, complex humans surviving a pandemic and economic upheaval on top of the pervasive racism, classism, misogyny, trans- and queerphobia, and ableism within our communities.

 We view this moment as an opportunity to make a critical shift toward humanizing and just ways of teaching and learning. After a year of sustained powerful activism from groups like NU Community Not Cops (NUCNC), Students Organizing for Labor Rights (SOLR), Northwestern University Graduate Workers Union (NUGW), and CoalitionNU, it is clear how firmly rooted carcerality is and has always been in our University’s history and present. But, as we’ve learned from the leadership of undergraduate organizers, and in particular BIPOC and working class students, we can build power together. Together, we are louder, we are stronger, and we care for each other in the face of abandonment and violence from our institution. Northwestern’s deployment of Respondus and Examity is but one more illustration of the University’s commitment to carcerality and its insistence on students policing each other.

We recognize that meaningful change does not happen overnight, and that designing, implementing, and sustaining meaningful alternatives to high-stakes testing and assessment requires substantial material investment (which we imagine could reasonably be supported given NU’s reported $83.4 million 2020 surplus). Scholars of learning Dr. Shirin Vossoughi and Dr. Maxine McKinney de Royston make clear the urgency of reckoning with our pedagogical commitments: “We are failing students and educators by continuing to define learning through narrow tasks and standards while the world is on fire.” 

Transforming assessment demands significant time, creativity, and grace — especially against the backdrop of unending exhaustion that comes with teaching and learning during a pandemic. However, we want faculty to know the choice to force students to submit to Respondus or Examity is the choice to place policing over pedagogy and surveillance over safety. The longer we delay action, the more entangled these tools will become in our learning spaces, making it more difficult to free ourselves from their tentacles.

We may be freed before September. Northwestern’s contract with Respondus is up for renewal at the end of the summer quarter, 2021. And pressure is mounting: an undergraduate student recently filed a class action lawsuit against Northwestern claiming the University’s use of online proctoring technologies violates the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. 

We recognize that carceral technologies are not new, nor will they disappear should (when) Northwestern ends its contracts with Respondus and Examity. We must heed the warning of abolitionist educator Dr. Bettina L. Love: “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.” We urge Northwestern administrators and staff to reject the quick fixes promised by carceral technologies. We urge Northwestern faculty to reject pedagogies of punishment and control. We urge our fellow students and graduate workers to join us in demanding teaching and learning that honors all students’ dignity.

Ally Reith and Charles Logan are learning sciences Ph.D. students at Northwestern. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.