VDS Feature: Sarah Porter

Looking back on my time here, standing a few weeks from my graduation, I hold a couple things in mind: First, the academy is a disciplinary regime. Second, this time was a grace to my life.

Disciplinary Regime 1: Library, December 2012. Photo credit Brandy Daniels

My first point: Getting a master’s degree is hard. Graduate and professional schools are made to mold students into a standard ideology, a form of the self that serves the purpose of the institution or the nation. When I use the phrase “disciplinary regime,” I’m referencing a helpful concept in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Foucault examines the ways ubiquitous (and sometimes benevolent) institutions like prisons, schools, monasteries, and the military seek to implant a regulatory impulse in the very bodies of individuals by standardizing the use of time and space, developing a solid group identity, and frequent exercises or drills. Lots of groups can fall into this: fraternities and sororities, consumers of certain products (Apple, anyone?), rabid football fans. I am particularly impressed by two insights Foucault offers here: 1) the anxieties of wasted time, and 2) the conclusion that the mind follows the body’s training: both become docile, eager to please. Sound familiar?

VDS is definitely a disciplinary regime. Effects on my own body include:

  • The driving need to offer myself constantly to the School, as on an altar. Not everyone feels this way, but many of us do.
  • The driving need to offer myself not only to the School, but to the world. This stems from the pressure to be a prophet.
  • The voice in my head that says, “Read Moltmann while you eat dinner; finish McFague before bed; wake up especially early to decline Greek verbs,” and “Oh good, it’s Saturday! I can work for twelve uninterrupted hours today!”
  • The realization that I crave an A to impress my professor, not because it will actually add anything to my being-in-the-world.
  • My hair falling out. Needing glasses. An aching back. Twenty-five more pounds than I came in with.

Uncountable other effects, large and small.

Sounds depressing. You’re probably thinking, “This ridiculous theory-head took her chance to slam her School in her last public words on its blog.” Listen, I’m just glad I’m not at the Law School because there are ways in which even as VDS promulgates this regime, it often subverts it. The School slides a rough and disheartening task across the table to us. Then – a little bashfully, maybe – it slides across a couple of tools to make it less like a gauntlet and more like a marathon.

Disciplinary Regime 2: The beloved community is the space for resistance within the disciplinary regime.
  • Yoga on Fridays for free! Free therapy! Free flu shots! Free gym! Free writing tutor! Coffee hour and Al’s Pub! (Okay, they’re included in activity fees. But still!)
  • Molding us in the direction of justice, not profit.
  • Reacting to crisis and tragedy with a listening heart and good questions: “What can we do for you?” “Do you need an extension?” “How can we learn from this crisis to change our policies and add to our resources?” “How can we best accommodate your recent imprisonment for civil disobedience?” (That last one’s aimed at Darria Hudson and Lindsey Krinks, of course.)
  • Inviting critique and dialogue about itself and its policies.
  • The intentional cultivation of classes that will challenge and nurture the existing institution.
  • The formation of pockets of beloved community, exerting bold and honest resistance to the disciplinary even as it constitutes the disciplinary.
  • Uncountable other graces, large and small.

So, you see, even as VDS molds us in its own image, it also subverts that mission by giving us the room to slip out of its demands – indeed, encouraging us to slip out of its demands. VDS wavers often; some days it does better at regulating us than teaching us; some days it needs way more regulation in the paths of justice. But this is an important lesson I’ve learned from VDS: We will always navigate the tensions of being a cog and being a human – and the tensions of demanding cog-ness or inviting human-ness from others. The trick is to navigate them well.

Sarah Porter, MDiv3

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