Oberlin Center for Convergence (StudiOC)

Surveillance, its Histories, Cultures, and Technologies

Social media hacking, data mining, CCTV cameras, TSA screenings, Facebook micro-targeting, and secret NSA programs. These contemporary trends challenge our beliefs about individual liberty and privacy in a democratic society.

Two women standing next to a long white and gray table. Photo.
Course instructors Danielle Skeehan and Wendy Kozol in the StudiOC large classroom.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Surveillance, its Histories, Cultures, and Technologies

Offered spring 2020

We can’t turn around today without bumping into surveillance technologies, to say nothing of the invisible gaze of governmental spying apparatuses. Yet long before algorithmic technologies or the drone was invented, bodies, images, and words have been tracked, sorted, profiled, and stored in databases. In colonial North America, for example, settler colonists used writing and print as surveillance technologies to document, track, enslave, and dispossess black and indigenous populations.

Today, NSA data collection practices continue to draw from long histories of militarized perception to generate ‘actionable’ security outcomes. In response, citizens have sought to invert the relationship between watcher and watched, seeking to challenge the surveillance state in creative ways.

Although no one is immune, the deployment of surveillance technologies has had vastly unequal impacts on marginalized and vulnerable communities. This learning community will provide students with an informed understanding of the historical and contemporary workings of surveillance. Across the courses, we will interrogate state surveillance practices like census taking and national drone spying, as well as cultural practices employed by citizens that seek to monitor the state.

Be engaging a broad array of sources—academic research, social theory, fiction, film, and social media—we will debate the role of the surveillance gaze in generating security, but also consider cultural activists who work to disrupt and reconfigure surveillance cultures.

ENGL 233 and CAST 312 are both required for enrollment in this learning community.


Course instructors for this learning community are Professor of Comparative American Studies Wendy Kozol and, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative American Studies Danielle Skeehan.

Danielle Skeehan, instructor

ENGL 244/244a Supervidere: Surveillance Cultures of the American Canon
Meets 1:30 pm, Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 4 credit hours; enrollment 25 and Selected Tuesday's 7-9pm

This course considers American surveillance cultures in historical contexts. Focusing on five sites of surveillance—colony, plantation, factory, prison, city—we explore how surveillance has shaped American culture and society from the colonial period through the 19th century. We will ask how literature represents acts of surveillance and also how writing serves as an early surveillance technology.  

Readings include Salem witch trial transcripts, captivity narratives, slave narratives, gothic tales, prison literature. We will pay particular attention to how this literary history has shaped the uneven power relations of the present.

Wendy Kozol, instructor

CAST 312: Cultures of Surveillance
Meets 3 pm, Tuesday and Thursday; 4 credit hours; enrollment 25

From CCTV to biometric scans, surveillance is an omnipresent force in the United States. Although no one is immune, the deployment of surveillance technologies has had vastly unequal and oppressive impacts on marginalized and vulnerable communities. In response, journalists, writers, and artists have produced creative responses to the surveillance state, often by using these same technologies to expose, denounce, embarrass or contest state actions.

Taking an intersectional approach, this course examines counter-surveillance practices by cultural activists who seek ways to stare back at the state and reimagine acts of looking.