Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Power 2015 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Documents (Ethnography of the University 2015: Focus on Power)

What We can Learn from Documents


A section from the 2016-17 University of Toronto Viewbook


By Jennifer Su

Since we conducted our ethnography in a university setting, you may find that some of us do not spend much time talking about the difficulties in learning a new language, integrating ourselves into a family unit, or learning the particular cultural customs of the groups we studied. We did, however, have to immerse ourselves in bureaucracy and its shadows—namely, paperwork.

In some ways, a bureaucracy’s dependency on documents is a hindrance to ethnographic fieldwork. The ability of the university to transmit particular kinds of knowledge, and in turn, produce particular kinds of subjectivities, becomes a taken for granted fact when we look at such banal items like a mission statement, a meeting agenda, a medical note, even a Health & Wellness pamphlet. One could be sceptical of how much useful information could be extracted from documents that would have already been shaped by a variety of stakeholders, and in some cases, polished off by public relations officials and lawyers. Documents are not raw data; they are prepared pieces of information to be taken with a grain of salt.

One critique of bureaucracies is that they produce too much useless paperwork (and one could argue, useless paper-pushers). That would suggest that this act of documentation is a thorough one, existing at all levels of the bureaucracy’s operations. Quite simply, a university runs on paperwork—trails of information follow a student throughout their time here, until they receive the final piece of paper that proves their time well spent here. We are necessarily surrounded by documents and the practices of documentation by virtue of being part of a university.

Treated with the ethnographer’s lens, documents can become fascinating mines of data in which to apply methods such as discourse analysis. They can also be artefacts—things to be dug up, re-contextualized, and traced back to the typical formations of sovereign power, such as Governing Council, or to the more dispersed formations of power, such as the biopolitical control of the medical and psychological apparatuses that now hold the responsibility of each student’s “wellbeing”.

Documents are very much living, too, creating a point of entry through which to test the seams holding together this abstract notion of ‘power’, to see and experience how much a piece of paper or a PDF could travel and gain layers of significance across campus and over time.  

The following contributions look at all these ways in which documents can become both passive and active “fieldsites” for an ethnographer of the university to take advantage of.

Rogue Documents

By Sarom

In my research project, I think through documents in their various multimodal capacities: the TCard as a document, citizenship papers as documents and what it means to be “undocumented,” policy documents vs. regulations, FIPPA documents, informative posters and handouts, and emails as both document and archive. But here, I would like to discuss a rather mysterious – and eerie – case of a document-gone-wrong, or shall we say, rogue document.

When I first started this research project, for the second week of this course, I was rifling through online materials, namely Governing Council documents and cached webpages of the TCard website. By chance, I came across a PDF document on Google linked from St. Michael’s college’s website from 2010 that had all the current information about the new TCard requirements regarding proof of citizenship. From this, I deduced that the requirements themselves weren’t new but came to be newly enforced. After all, as quoted from this informative document, it clearly was geared toward “First time University of Toronto students, who have accepted their offer of admission for the fall 2010 academic session, can have their TCard made beginning June 1, 2010.” In the next few weeks when I had my first terse encounter with a student employee at the TCard Office, she confirmed my assumption by saying that college registrars had originally been tasked with the responsibility of verifying citizenship papers and that it had now been downloaded onto the TCard Office. She confirmed my speculations that the requirements in the regulation were not, in fact, new but rather newly enforced. Of course, I excitedly theorized and built on the implications of such an event in the following week (which means I rambled on and on about how interesting this shift was to everybody and anybody who would listen).

When I met with the St. Michael’s college registrar, however, things took a rather mysterious turn. At the very beginning of the interview, he told me that these new regulations were, in fact, new to St. George campus and that the prospect of them were only brought up a year and a half ago at an interdivisional registrar’s advisory meeting. I immediately showed him the PDF document linked and derived from their website to suggest otherwise. He was immensely surprised to say the least, not only because a five year old document eerily contained content from beyond its time but also because having this separate floating document linked to their website is “bad practice.” The document is not available or accessible through the St. Michael’s college website – it can only be found through a Google search. By guiding me through the TCard section on St. Mikes’ website, he demonstrated on his computer what “good practice” meant: hyperlinking. There was no direct information about the TCard on their website, only a series of hyperlinks that directed the browser out to the TCard Office’s information page. This was, he said, to “avoid duplicating information,” which is “bad practice” because there is a risk that in the process of duplication, information can be accidentally misrepresented, or in his words, “distorted.” A big part of my research project focuses precisely on different types and properties of distorting and contorting bends, stretches, folds, deformations: the torsions within the topologies of power[1].

The entire situation was so baffling that he asked me to send him an email with the PDF attached and the search terms that I used to find it so that he could contact the St. Mike’s web administrator and permanently “get rid of it.” After spending about twenty minutes on this strange situation, we moved on to begin the interview. The origins and formations of this rogue document, which admittedly does look antiquated with its unprofessional use of Comic Sans MS font and its slightly sloppy thrown-togetheredness, still remain as an eerie mystery.

[1] This kind of thinking is shaped and directed most prominently by Gilles Deleuze in The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1993), and further prompted by the work of Uno Kozo, who was introduced to me by Ken Kawashima.

 Bureaucratizing Success

By Jessica Broe-Vayda

The ‘Backpack2Briefcase’ (B2B) event that I attended concluded with a reminder for participants that if we complete the entire program, our participation could recorded on our transcripts. The presenter highlighted the value of this annotation: he argued that “the learning experience is never complete without reflection”, and participating in the transcript annotation program “promotes learning, participation, and reflection”. I found this argument puzzling; how would an annotation on my transcript help me learn, reflect, or demonstrate my participation in activities outside the classroom? I asked the presenter this question, and he replied suggesting that the transcript annotation “demonstrates competencies, and isn’t intended as a document that you will print off and share”. If sharing the annotation was not the purpose of the annotation in the first place, then what was? How has the university shifted our understanding of that important academic document – the transcript – to include broader participation in extracurricular activities? What role does this new hybrid document (academic + extracurricular) fill? How does it demonstrate competency without being shared more broadly with people looking for this information?

“Build your experience; tell your story” – this is the slogan used to promote University of Toronto’s ‘co-curricular record’ (CCR), the aforementioned program that organizes student activities and opportunities for participation, reframes them in terms of developing ‘competencies’, and indelibly inscribes evidence of participation onto student transcripts. But this slogan contradicts the information offered by the B2B presenter. Yes, his program intended for us to build our experience, but the resulting inscription on our transcripts through the CCR initiative was not meant to be shared. How then would it help us to tell our stories?

This problem nagged me as I dug for more information on the CCR. The website acts as an access-point for an extensive online database. This database organizes a distributed network of university-affiliated groups, one that continues to grow as more programming offered by disparate departments and groups offering student life programming are invited to align themselves with its specific method of program development and recognition.

While many programs may be eligible for CCR annotation, documentation on the CCR program itself is limited. The website provides little helpful data. It offers a brief history of the program, a FAQ, and evidence that suggests extracurricular participation is correlated with greater achievement later in life, yet these snippets seem insufficient, and unlikely to encourage participation. The website provides no contact information beyond a single email address; no office or individual publicly takes credit for its organization. For more extensive information, I had to dig through Student Life’s annual reports. These reports are relatively short, and they compress information into small, non-specific summary (bullet) points detailing Student Life’s general areas of focus, and the number of students who participate in a particular service (itemized in a colourful infographic[1]). Remarkably, the 2015-2016 annual report devoted one of its 17 pages to a celebration of the CCR program. But this too contained little information beyond a description of the extensive network of affiliated university units, the number of opportunities available, and the number of students who now have some sort of CCR annotation on their transcripts.

I see this transcript annotation serving two distinct but vital purposes for the university. Because students are expected to care about the marks that universities make on their transcripts regardless of whether they are shared or not, the CCR shifts the definition of ‘successful student’ to include extracurricular achievement and active reflection upon the process of becoming successful. Concurrently, it bureaucratizes and realigns the diversity of programs on campus, ensuring that departments and groups adhere to its prescribed guidelines. In short, it manages the actions and productive output of personnel on campus, including both students and university employees.

Robert’s Rules of Order

By Alexandre


A section from Robert’s Rules of Order

In the context of the AGM, it is important to recall that one needs to understand the rules of the democratic structure and how to navigate them. Simply attending a democratic event does not guarantee one’s ability to have their voice heard. Two powerful objects were used to undermine individuals’ ability to utilize and understand the rules and procedures of the meeting. The chair of the meeting held a book named “Robert’s rules of order.” The copy of the book which dictates the democratic rules for running the AGM has 716 pages.

A glossary sheet of basic parliamentary language was given at the entrance of each AGM and the chair introduced a condensed version of the rules at the beginning of every meeting. However, it represented a limited jargon insufficient to guide a newcomer on how to navigate the space. At the October 2015 AGM, Anna and I had problems following what was going on and what any of the language meant. I remember us writing words in our fieldnotes such as: “What is going on…?”. At the second AGM we attended in November 2015, we only understood the basic processes.

Moreover, some attendees also lacked the necessary knowledge to handle the votes or the procedures of the AGM. This problem was exemplified in various moments during the meeting. As an illustration, at the beginning of the November 2015 meeting, one member asked why his motion on October 2015 for a referendum surrounding the cost of education had not been addressed. In response, the chair pointed out the member’s lack of knowledge of the processes of the union. He did not understand that the motion had never been approved as it had been shut down with the meeting in October. The chair added that he also needed a petition to obtain this referendum. In other words, he lacked important knowledge about how motions are passed and put forward by the UTSU. By the same token, oftentimes the chair would confirm certain decisions which he himself was uncertain. In the end, the book was one of the most important actors of the meeting. Additionally, the greater a member had knowledge of the rules, the better they were able to refine how they acted in the space to push forward their own political agenda.

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