How Should We Behave in Class?

Jingyi Wan discusses AI monitoring students movement in Chinese classrooms, and how from a Foucauldian perspective, things might be even worse in the Western world of performing lecturers.

A classroom in a high school. A camera installed at the front facing the students. It’s connected to a host machine where behavior is recorded and analyzed. On the screen bodily gestures are translated into languages: “Listening 6”, “Reading 8”, “Raising hands 6”, “Sleeping 0”, “Playing with phones 0”, “Lying on the desk 0”. These linguistic and mathematical indicators are connected on the screen with students’ faces, as captured by the camera’s eye. The students are being physically monitored by an AI. 

As of 2020, this classroom scene has been simulated but not yet realized. The technique has already been made public in China and is deployed by Megvii – a Chinese technology company specializing in Artificial Intelligence, founded by three Tsinghua University graduates (清华 – arguably the best university in China). The company designed it’s behavior-monitoring program to offer a real-time structural analysis of data collected in class, including expressions, actions, concentration levels and decisions regarding where to sit.

Students’ bodily gestures are reduced to symbols of attentiveness, curiosity, enthusiasm, lethargy, or lack of diligence. An arbitrary equation seems to be imposed upon the complicated relationship between psychic action or non-action, and visible bodily gestures. Lying on the table for a few seconds presumably indicates sluggishness. Playing with phones signals disrespect and a failure to be focused. Raising your hands frequently denotes attentiveness and willingness to cooperate. 

In The Birth of Biopolitics Michel Foucault coins the concept of raison d’État and describes a strong state as having four main characteristics: it is sturdy, permanent, wealthy and indestructible (Foucault, 4). To achieve this the state needs not only to regulate the activities of its citizens but also to “take charge of activity at the most detailed, individual level” (Foucault, 7). It must control – at a granular level – the way its citizens move and behave.

“what is conventionally referred to as “puppy love” has long been seen as something that should be nipped in the bud by educational institutions in China”

For instance, what is conventionally referred to as “puppy love” has long been seen as something that should be nipped in the bud by educational institutions in China. If high school students are caught engaging with each other physically, they will be asked to go to the office and have “a cup of tea with the teacher”. If their physical interaction continues, the teacher will inform the parents about their child’s’ “misbehaviors”. Through this chain of surveillance, the sexuality and affection of the Chinese youth is internally regulated. Puppy love is portrayed as something unstable and capable of jeopardizing students’ academic performance. Later in the students’ lives, they are primed to perceive relationships as something volatile and inferior, something that can be easily sacrificed for the benefit of their professional career or ascension to a higher social stratum. The institutional shackle that appears to be removed when students leave high school in fact remains in place, perhaps for the rest of their lives. 

If the regulation of behaviour in Chinese classrooms is too obvious to ignore, the monitoring of movement in Western classrooms is hidden behind the disguise of seemingly-egalitarian discussion and is harder to identify. While the major performers in the Chinese example are the students, in a Western classroom, it is perhaps lecturers rather than students who are more often pressured to perform. 

“lecturers are inclined to rotate, which might arouse a sense of disorientation that can not be easily discerned.”

Spatially speaking, a reciprocal communication which lives up to the standards of democracy involves two bodies facing each other. Lecturers need to subtly adjust the directions of their bodies when shifting from one student to another. If one assumes that the lecturer is fixated upon one spot in the classroom and converts these slight shifts into angles, the agglomeration of all the degrees of the angles might be sufficient to form a circle, or at least a semi-circle or a quadrant. In other words, lecturers are inclined to rotate, which might arouse a sense of disorientation that can not be easily discerned. 

Since, within this space, each period of time can only be occupied by one speaking person, lecturers must divide the duration of the seminar equally (at least in principle) among the students. Their predilection for certain students must be repressed.

One paradox inherent in the apparent freedom of speech in a democratic in-class discussion is that a certain type of brutality is exerted upon those who have to respond, with their body and their words. This applies to both students and teachers. Teachers might feel pressurised to appear interested and invested in whatever is said by whichever student, while some students alternate between a precarious state in which they can’t even speak without withdrawing their hands into sleeves, and a confrontational fighting position in which they spontaneously shoot out verbal bullets. If the teacher or the student addressed does not respond, the communication would not be reciprocal. Without a certain form of reciprocity, democracy would be perceived as missing. 

“One of the circulating verbal indicators which signifies the performance of democracy is the word “interesting””

One of the circulating verbal indicators which signifies the performance of democracy is the word “interesting”. Nowadays in class, every student can be “interesting”, but an “interesting” object without anything added to it later on seems to divulge a kind of lethargy. Is it human to be interested and invested in everything? Can our limited psychic energy really afford to be distributed equally to everything? Is this interaction still democratic if there is only freedom of speech and action but not freedom of silence and non-action? 

“Although students in the West are allowed more room for “redundant” bodily gestures in class such as sighs or other indicators of impatience, they are not allowed much space outside the classroom.”

Although students in the West are allowed more room for “redundant” bodily gestures in class such as sighs or other indicators of impatience, they are not allowed much space outside the classroom. Let’s take the assignments usually assigned to students as an example: first, research proposal; second, the skeleton paper; then, the presentation before the finalization of the paper; and finally, the final paper. Before teachers officially start evaluating students’ papers, the papers have to be evaluated first by an online plagiarism detection system, such as Turnitin. The plagiarism detection system generates an originality report based on the information uploaded onto the internet. The official aim of such online plagiarism detection system is to encourage originality (it is an “originality report” rather than a plagiarism report).

However, students can perform originality by effectively paraphrasing a text, without generating any real originality. Originality is reduced to measurable difference from previous texts. A text, however, can be distinct from another without being original, just as Borges argued that it could be original without being distinct from another. This performance of originality should lead us to ask: can originality be periodically produced? Can originality be trained into us by systems that operate through monitoring and surveillance?

On the other hand, there is this question of what, if anything, could be generated if the institutional pressure is taken off = the shoulders of the students? What might Chinese students produce if not required to perform attentiveness, and what might Western students and scholars produce if not required to perform “originality”?


Jingyi Wan is currently an MA student of literary studies at The University of Amsterdam. She holds a BA in journalism and mass communication at Fudan University in Shanghai and an MA in English literature at The University of Amsterdam.

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