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Big Brother to Big Data: Communication Studies students create glossary of terms on surveillance

Key Concepts in Survillence StudiesThe first-year students coming into Guy McHendry, PhD’s class on surveillance culture are met with a cascade of new ideas, new concepts, new vocabulary.

“So much so that it can be a little much for everyone, including me,” said McHendry, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, who taught the course this fall. “There’s quite a bit of jargon and some highly technical concepts. I know I’ll throw a lot at the students and I might not always put out a comprehensive definition.”

As students become more adept with the language in the critical issues class, which McHendry has taught each year since 2016 and titles “From Big Brother to Big Data: Surveillance Culture,” they often follow their interests into more nooks and crannies of academe and can sometimes get frustrated there in work that’s at the graduate level. This fall, as a testament to the students in the course who were taking on that challenging work, McHendry created an opportunity for students to dig deeper into the language and concepts of surveillance studies and to serve as the bringers of knowledge to future students and researchers in the discipline.

The result is an online, open-access glossary, Key Concepts in Surveillance Studies, that McHendry’s students wrote and he edited (and even illustrated), comprising 26 entries ranging from the prison surveillance model known as the Panopticon to cyberstalking to drone strikes to the labor-surveillance method known as Taylorism. The resource, he said, will prove invaluable in a discipline as nimble as surveillance studies, where the technology and resources change on an almost daily basis.

“It’s a way for them to master the concepts and to learn the process of research and academic writing,” McHendry said. “They wrote, I edited, they made revisions and, in the end, 26 people wanted to be a part of this project that we can keep going and that now extends to future sessions of this class and future scholars. The question was how to get them good resources that are accessible and credible. While I’d love to sit and write it, it was clear they could take this on.”

McHendry came up with a list of 200 terms for the glossary and ended up with 50 students taking on the creation of entries for the resource. Half that number wanted to contribute to the first offering of the glossary. As the course covers a lot of ground in the ways and means of surveillance, McHendry said he’s certain there’s plenty of room for expansion.

“This class keeps me on my toes,” he said. “That speaks to the quality of our students, who really have taken it upon themselves to learn more about how surveillance works and to dig into the moral and justice-related issues that surround it. We don’t talk about it as right/wrong. We get a sense of the challenges posed by surveillance, the inequality that often occurs across racial and gender and income lines, and when we see that overlap of surveillance and injustice, we ask what does that call us to do as a Jesuit institution?”

Another challenge for students in the project was to create brief entries from often very complex topics.

“Students often fear the long paper, but it’s the short one they should fear,” McHendry said. “They learned how to be concise, how to get a handle on a difficult topic and provide as simple an explanation as possible, while still putting forward substantial information. This will have an impact for future scholars.”

The glossary is available online and in three formats — a format for e-readers, a full-text PDF and directly online.

McHendry said he hopes the resources goes far and wide to help other students and, given the seemingly inexhaustible possibilities for more entries, he’s invited other instructors in surveillance and security studies to offer more entries for the glossary.

“This kind of open-access resource has proven to be a great aid to students,” he said. “It reduces cost barriers and burdens for students and shows them that they, too, can join in these important conversations.”

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