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

Research Journeys (Ethnography of the University 2015: Focus on Power)

How did We Arrive Where We Are?


By Saania Punja

As we began studying power in the University, we were pointed to various spaces on campus that could potentially be an area of interest for us, and although some already knew the direction that we were going to take, others were still feeling lost. An important part of our research journey was that of stumbling upon things that puzzled us; things that we were curious about. While often it was difficult to narrow down our seemingly large and ambitious topic of “Power in the University” into something smaller, it was finding these “small things” that really initiated our research, and in some cases, refocused our research to an area that we had become increasingly interested in. In this sense we were actively seeking for answers to our questions, and at the same time being open to the surprises that we may encounter during this process.

Once we narrowed down our area of focus, it was by engaging with theories, documents and fieldwork that we were able to both conceptualize our findings, and connect them to the larger topic of power. And when there were points in our research of dilemmas and doubts: were we doing enough? What could we do next? How could we best collect data? How could we explain our findings? It was class discussions that helped push us in the right direction. Whether we discussed broader theories or focused on individual work, having a space to share our ideas and receive feedback was crucial to the success of our individual projects.

Experimenting with Ethnography

By Laura Beach

At the end of November, nearing the end of the semester, I took the time to reflect on the journey my ethnographic research had taken. Reading through my responses and writing exercises was an experience of simultaneous temporal troubling (as past/present/projected future intersect and collide) and a linear laying out of my progression from one point in this project to the next. It was both a fast forwarded flash back/montage of how-did-I-get-here and an atemporal present-on-pause. From week to week, and sometimes day to day, I found myself alternately feeling as though I had a firm grasp on how I was going about locating and tracing power within the university, and feeling as though I had no idea what I was doing or whether my approach would prove to be fruitful. Halfway through the semester I switched gears entirely, from studying power relations and decision-making within Governing Council meetings, to an experimental approach which had me contacting the University of Toronto Engineering Society regarding offensive content in their annual Frosh handbook, and asking for an apology and forms of redress. This change was born out of a casual conversation between myself a few colleagues in class, and I was hopeful that this would give me an opportunity to observe power relations at play between myself and various individuals/organizations within the campus community.

The first stage of this approach involved going through all of the Frosh handbooks (from 1970 to present date) and other materials on the UTES website, in order to outline and track the development of offensive discourse. I drafted a letter which I sent to the UTES President, Undergraduate Toronto Student Union (UTSU) President and UTSU VP Equity, and got in touch with the Varsity student newspaper to inquire into whether similar concerns had been raised in the past. The day before I sent this first email the UTES announced a contest to create new verses for Godiva’s Hymn, the traditional song, with many offensive verses, which is reproduced in each handbook, and sung each year during orientation. I took the opportunity to re-work my draft letter, commending the UTES for their commitment to inclusivity and change, in an effort to use the existing momentum toward change to take things even further. Though my communication with the UTES President has fallen short of what I had envisioned (he has committed only to striking a committee to ascertain whether I am due an apology), I feel strongly that putting a positive spin on my initial email in using the Godiva’s Hymn contest to commend and encourage progressive change has been instrumental in securing a line of communication, to the benefit of my research project, and – hopefully – toward the enactment of concrete change.

Following Narratives

By Saania Punja

My research initially started with a focus on the area of student services on campus. At this point I wasn’t at all sure about the puzzle I wanted solve, but rather spent a lot of time exploring spaces and looking for various research paths I could take and how I could theoretically understand them. As I started to narrow down my area of focus, I began to find puzzles in the area of Student Life that I wanted to better understand. In particular I was very interested in student relationships with student leaders and staff members.

However, during this time I was also facing a dilemma about conducting research in a place of my personal experiences and involvement. Although I was easily able to explore similar my interests in student initiatives outside of Student Life, I still found myself jumping back and forth from one to the other and collecting information that I did not particularly know how I was going to use. While I believe that the area of Student Life does have a lot of potential, I realized that it would be best to divert from it completely and pursue my research in one specific area.

Even though I was still curious about student and leader power dynamics, I also started to learn about several discourses on student narratives and decided that this too was a puzzle that I wanted to solve. I became interested in how student narratives are both circulated and challenged on campus and the role that student initiatives have in this. I found that I needed to pay close attention to the discourses present within such groups to notice the subtle ways in which narratives are passed from person to person. I then also observed ways in which community involvement is used a solution to the negative student narratives that are prevalent on campus to complete my research; this was the primary focus of my research during my last few weeks of fieldwork.

Lost and Found

By Jessica Broe-Vayda

At the beginning, I felt positively lost. This project seemed too big and too ambitious to complete in a mere three months. After reading Cruikshank’s article, however, I listened to Professor Tania Li’s advice to try to trace something small but still relevant and important. Even with this direction, it took me a few tries to determine what could work. After starting with initiatives developed to professionalize students, I stumbled upon a topic that I felt was manageable and interesting.

Actively engaging with theory and contemporary anthropological work was crucial to the success of my project. Around half-way through the semester, I changed my approach and tried to make my project iterative. I oriented the remainder of my project around two things: 1) I looked for new theory to guide my ethnographic project, and 2) I continued to search for entry points indicating how and by what means the university governs well-being. I found three lines of inquiry particularly relevant: 1) Foucault’s discussion of pastoral power and how this intersects with the disciplines and the care of the self; 2) Tania Li’s suggestion that we use the “analytic of assemblage” when examining how heterogenous elements “are assembled to address an urgent need invested with strategic purpose” (Li 2007:284), and 3) Howell’s (2015) exploration of resilience, where she argues that making resilient is different from making responsible; rather, its end is directed towards enhancement, or the processes involved in making better. Resilience-oriented governance projects make subjects capable of bouncing forward, rather than bouncing back.

Follow Your Knows

By Shannon McKechnie

This class was immediately appealing to me. I want to pursue Higher Education in my graduate studies, so what better class to take than one about the University? I knew in the first class that I would want to study the role of Student Life programs in our University.

Looking back through my notes and weekly reflections, I feel like my research journey was pretty linear. Since I already had some familiarity with the field I was researching for this project, I wasn’t starting from scratch – I acknowledge that I had my own ideas and thoughts about Student Life from my own experiences that really played into my initial ideas and research for the first few weeks of class. However, as the weeks went on, I could see my perspective change as my fieldwork continued to reveal new layers of the field of Student Life, our class discussions helped me situate my findings in theory, and classmates helped to analyze what I was reporting. At many points, I felt like I had too many questions. My research journey has been about narrowing my focus and asking ‘how’ questions to reveal the practices of power in this field.

No Event is too Small

By Anna Shortly

My fieldwork on student governance offered many possible avenues to pursue in terms of theoretical orientation and focus—but perhaps too many. Looking back on my fieldwork, I can’t help but to feel regret that I had spent time looking through old archives, or conducting a survey, or simply not doing enough in one, concrete direction. I was often left scatterbrained and overwhelmed by the large amounts of data and observations I had  accumulated, and I did not always know how I was going to connect every loose end I discovered. There were too many student unions, too many meetings, too many events, too many scandals, and too much history.

While I was worried about spreading myself too thin with all these different potential topics to explore, I was also worried about going too micro. Throughout my fieldwork, I was most interested in the one major event of the University of Toronto Student Union—the Annual General Meeting—that I had attended early on in the course. But I did not focus on this line of inquiry, the dynamics of power in the meeting, out of fear that it was too small, too micro. In one of the last weeks of the course, however, a fruitful class discussion changed my view. When I brought up my concerns about focusing on one event, the class began discussing the practice of centering one’s ethnography and analysis on a single event—famous examples of this practice like Geertz’ Balinese cockfight and Wacquant’s Chicago boxing gym came to mind. A single event or space actually seemed to be a great central focus for ethnography: it captures, embodies, magnifies, and creates relations and behaviours in a culture.

Considering that my event is hugely significant for student politics, it started to make a lot of sense to embrace my desire to write about an event, rather than hopelessly seek for those “more legitimate” lines of inquiry. My remaining weeks of fieldwork were thus devoted to focusing on and understanding the meeting, as I had decided that the best move for me was to follow the interests I had developed during my fieldwork.

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