Three Problems with Observation

New York, 2016

New York, 2016

The City University of New York

Once a semester, all non-tenured and non-certified members of CUNY’s teaching staff are observed at work and reports on their performance submitted to their departments (Agreement). This procedure gives teachers a chance to reflect, receive feedback, and grow.


But it’s also problematic. All too often observations become a rote bureaucratic formality.


Or worse, they leave those with the least formal teaching experience feeling picked on, helpless, and small.



An illustrated essay by Arinn Amer

Inspired by Erica Campbell

One: Faculty observations are hierarchical.


Paulo Freire saw the false dichotomy between teacher and student as one of the central problems with what he called the banking model of education: “The teacher teachers, and the students are taught. The teacher knows everything, and the student knows nothing.” The teacher’s authority rests on this fallacy (73). Because the observer in faculty observations is always a superior, this hierarchical teacher-student dynamic can map itself onto the observer and the observed. When a faculty observer enters an observation assuming that they have nothing to learn from the instructor, only corrective expert knowledge to impart, they re-enact the banking model of education. Neither the instructor nor the students participate. Instead, the individual who has spent the least time in that classroom is the authority tasked with evaluating it.


Two: Faculty observations are disciplinary.


Michel Foucault argued that assessment rituals like faculty observations are one of the ways disciplinary power functions. “The success of disciplinary power derives no doubt from the use of simple* instruments; hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement, and their combination in…the examination” (170). Like the exams also named for their scrutinizing function, faculty observations create norms by measuring departures from them. Instructors’ teaching is categorized on a spectrum from good to bad, instead of being merely permissible or prohibited. Their abilities are documented in HR forms—an example of Foucault’s “disciplinary writing”—so that they may be sorted according to future usefulness. Observations thus gather knowledge about individual teachers while producing knowledge about what good teaching is and should be.

*and cheap!


Three: Faculty observations are voyeuristic.


In a faculty observation, the observer is supposed to be a fly on the wall, invisibly bearing witness to a typical lesson. But as we know, observation changes the nature of the observed, and no such lesson exists. The assumption that seeing is equal to understanding treats teaching as a solitary event, a result instead of a process which includes inevitable struggle and failure alongside exemplary performance.

Process Result

How can we make faculty observations more helpful? Let’s relax hierarchical distinctions, so that both the observer and the observed become Freirian student-teachers.


Let’s undermine disciplinary surveillance, so that we can give and receive honest, open feedback.


Let’s continue to experiment with new methods for assessing, uplifting, and nurturing one another, so that we become better teachers and better students, living in a better world.



Agreement Between the City University of New York and the Professional Staff Congress. Article 18. New York: 2007. 34-36.

Campbell, Erica. “The Value of the Non-Evaluative: Rethinking Faculty Observation.” American Literature, American Learning. Futures Initiative, May 27, 2016. Web. July 1, 2016.

Foucault, Michel. “The Correct Means of Training.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 170-195.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary ed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2006.

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