Normalization in Higher Education

  • In traditional revolutionary theory (e.g. Marxism, radical feminism), power is understood as possessed by a centralized phenomenon, in these cases, capitalism and patriarchy. Foucault, however, conceptualized power as heterogenous; power does not come from a single source, but is exercised in multiplicitous ways at every level of society and in every institution, including the family, the medical establishment, the state, and the market. Foucault argues that “power relations at the microlevel of society make possible certain global effects of domination, such as class power and patriarchy” (Sawicki, 1991, p. 23).
  • Power is disseminated by disciplinary technologies—evaluative examinations and measures that classify individuals and groups as normal and abnormal, worthy of award or punishment. Such an evaluative procedure “measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the 'nature' of individuals” (Foucault, 1995, p. 183). He adds that “[t]he perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (Foucault, 1995, p. 183). It is at this point that I want to engage Foucault in the context of higher education.

In the institutional context of higher education is a palpable system of rank:

  • Graduate student
  • Adjunct instructor
  • Tenure-track assistant professor
  • Tenured associate professor
  • Tenured full professor
  • Full professor in an endowed chair position
  • Higher levels of administration, including Department Head, Dean, Vice Provost, Provost, and President

In order to conform to or exceed the requirements and get awards such as tenure, one must have a certain number of publications in sufficiently prestigious journals and, at some universities, a book published by a university press. Such demands, in addition to teaching and service to the university in the form of committee membership, entail a significant time commitment and sacrifices in one's personal life. As a result, it is especially difficult for academic women to have children while in graduate school or on the tenure track. Often, couples struggle to maintain long-distance marriages or long-term relationships because it is rare for them to get positions at the same institution or even the same region of the country. However, even if graduate students publish in journals, present papers at conferences, and finish their Ph.D.s in a timely manner, it is still a challenge for them to land tenure-track positions, and many take positions as adjunct faculty.