Community as Compliance vs. Community as Rebellion

by Angela Dunne

In her book, Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color, Lorgia García Peña speaks of the need to open space inside of our classrooms and institutions of higher education for rebellion. García Peña writes about her own experiences of violence and exclusion as an Afro-Dominican woman professor at Harvard university. She discusses how our universities are shaped by the silences and exclusions of people of color. Since our educational institutions are still spaces that inflict violence and discomfort, students and workers need spaces that empower them to rebel. She proposes community as the space for rebellion within the university. This made me think of my own work on learning communities and my ultimate discomfort with this model of curricular/institutional intervention comes from this sense that institutions attempt to create community through compliance and actually use the concept of community to discourage student rebellion and reinforce hierarchies. 

Compliance is a term that I borrow from Compliance Theory first developed by Sociologist Amitai Etzioni as an approach to organizational structures and how organizations manage members. In education, this term refers to the models of power that control student behavior toward acquiescence to classroom or institutional norms, rules, and policies. Learning communities employ curricular interventions that utilize peer-to-peer relationships through a cohort model and integrated course content to increase student academic success rates. As a faculty member who has taught in a learning community for several years, I have observed student dissatisfaction and disengagement in the classroom in response to the pressure to comply with community standards and norms. In Compliance Theory the type of power behind this forced compliance is called normative, and it works to control student behavior through shared values and symbolic rewards. However, when a student refuses to comply within the community, more coercive forms of force can come into play such as grade sanctions, separation from peers, or other punishments.

It is not only in learning community programs that we can see the concept of community come into play as a method of compliance. The use of community as compliance in higher education is ubiquitous and insidious. “Building community, though, is almost antithetical to academia” (p. 25) according to García Peña. There is a rapid uptake of community interventions in many areas of institutions of higher education such as academic programs, fellowships, and other institutional formations. I have been both a student and worker in higher education as faculty and as a graduate fellow. The language of community is something that I have experienced a lot in educational institutions; as an educator in a learning community program, as a member of a cohort in my own academic program, and as a member of a cohort in the Humanities Alliance fellowship. Although the implementation of community models into higher education seems like a move toward equity, I argue that the way the institution takes up the notion of community works to conceal the underlying ideologies of individualism and meritocracy.

I have found both benefits and drawbacks to being a part of these institutional communities. On one hand, administrators utilize the notion of institutional community to soften exclusionary practices, top-down decision-making, and austerity budgets. On the other I have found that solidarity with my peers and students has provided collective power to push back against these same complaints. When an administrator or someone in a managerial role considers themselves to be a part of the community, this makes the boundaries of power and control even more muddled. In the context of the neoliberal university, community can operate as an extractive practice that pools community resources such as diversity, support, and collective labor, to the benefit of the ‘fittest’ students rather than one that advances the members of the community as a whole. To the exploited, silenced, and mistreated students, the notion of community as forwarded by the institution asks them to push down the pain and discomfort of their experiences for the sake of keeping up appearances for the program or for the board of directors. They are made to feel that they must stay silent in order to keep the community operational and intact. There seems to be a need not to discuss the imbalances of power, foundationally based on race, gender, ability, sexuality, and class among the community, in order to keep moving forward. However, García Peña insists that we should see resistance, the rebellion of marginalized members as an opening, as an opportunity to listen and to look at what is wrong and where it hurts, where it doesn’t feel right. It is an opportunity to reflect on the practices and policies of our institutions to fight back against the “violences of exclusion” (p. XVI) and to build toward practices that “make us feel our power” (p. XVI). 

We must take care to build communities that center “the experiences of people who have been silenced and excluded” in our institutions and are open to resistance and rebellion (p. XVI). With the rapid uptake of ‘community’ interventions as a way to alleviate some of the harm done in traditional school experiences by way of elitism, white supremacy, ableism, and individualism. I it is imperative that we begin to critically investigate the notion of community as it is taken up by the institution rather than just take it for granted. Through revealing these contradictions in the institution’s attempts at implementing community, we are better able to see the opportunities for resistance and to understand the ways that authentic community is created and sustained.


  1. García Peña, L. (2022). Community as rebellion : a syllabus for surviving academia as a woman of color. Haymarket Books. Retrieved September 10 2022 from

  2. Etzioni, A. (1975). A comprehensive analysis of complex organizations (rev. ed.). New York, NY: Free Press. 

  3. Etzioni, A. (1997). Modern organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.