“Teach Me How to Stay on Top of Things”: Navigating Ontological (In)Security and Optimistic Attachments


  • Heidi Zhang York University




digital learning, neo-liberalism, ontology, subjectivity, critical social work


The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted universities across the globe to shift to digital platforms. This shift has ensured the minimization of disruption by offering flexible, transparent, and accessible remote learning that aligns with the intensified “business-as-usual” neo-liberal structure of higher education. This ethos has led to renewed ontological shifts through the production of persons who sustain a neo-liberal project of world-making. Utilizing Foucauldian concepts of governmentality and subjectivity, I present an analysis of the reconfiguration of a neo-liberal normalcy, whereby the student-as-academic subject encounters an ontological insecurity that requires a (re)constitution of the self through mechanisms of risk assessment, surveillance, and self-responsibilization. Situated in my own experiences as a tutorial leader facilitating an undergraduate critical social work course during the pandemic, I consider how this constitution of the subject seems to be at odds with the commitments to social justice that are part of critical social work education. The article complicates students’ and instructors’ dual desires of achieving a critical understanding of social issues and of obtaining a coherent subjectivity to “stay on top” of their learning trajectories. I argue that, as bodies become oriented towards a political rationality of normalcy, security, and continuity, students increasingly deploy moral technologies that (re)invent the human as an optimistic enterprising subjectivity.

Author Biography

Heidi Zhang, York University

Heidi Zhang is currently a PhD student in the School of Social Work at York University, Toronto, Canada.