Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Work 2016 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Observations and Analysis (Ethnography of the University 2016: Focus on Work)

Negotiating Role Conflicts through Social Media

By Lama El-Hanan

I am doing my research at the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO). Doing anti-racism work at the University is challenging, given that it involves conflicting role demands. ARCDO employees must work to eliminate racism and systemic discrimination while also enabling the University’s academic mission. Although ARCDO frames the achievement of these objectives as one and the same, I suspected – and my research confirmed – that one is in fact being advanced at the expense of the other. In “On Being Included”, Sarah Ahmed (2012) argues that equity policies are often circulated rather than instituted, allowing universities to not only continue with problematic practices, but also to deceptively market themselves as equity-oriented. This is certainly the case for the University of Toronto which, despite being awarded “Canada’s Best Diversity Employer” for the past nine years, has consistently cut funding to the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.

How do ARCDO employees manage to remain committed to and fulfilled by their work in the face of such glaring contradictions? To answer this question, I have been looking at the ways in which ARCDO employees negotiate and reconcile conflicting role demands through everyday work practices. One site that has proven particularly fruitful has been social media. ARCDO maintains two very different kinds of presences on Facebook–a group page and an individual profile. The ARCDO group page is very formal. Students cannot add the organization as a friend or post on the page. This formality gives the page an administrative and institutional feel that discursively places the office within the University, and by extension, its image-management apparatus. ARCDO’s individual profile is the complete opposite. Students can add the organization as a friend, and post freely on the page. This gives the page an informality that presents ARCDO as a student-centered space that is separate from the institution. I argue that in the context of dwindling funds and the University’s appropriation of ARCDO’s efforts for image-management purposes, the creation of an additional individual Facebook page functions as a way to (a) carve out a space where employees can do the student-centered anti-racism work they would have otherwise done through programming, and (b) do so in a way that cannot be appropriated by the University (because unlike policy documents, Facebook pages are not amenable to institutional citation and circulation). This, in turn, allows employees to negotiate the tensions they experience between their role demands of “eliminating systemic discrimination” and “enabling the University’s academic mission”.

One of the key themes we explore in this class is co-linearization–the neoliberal undertaking of producing employees who “occupy themselves in their own accord in the service of the capitalist organization” (Lordon 44). ARCDO employees’ negotiations of their conflicting role demands through social media has important implications for their co-linearization. In bringing conflicting role demands into closer alignment, these negotiations allow employees to extract fulfillment from their work and therefore, to work for work’s sake.

Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University
Press, 2012.
Lordon, Frédéric. Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire. London: Verso, 2014. Chapter on “joyful mobiles”

Challenges to Doing Anti-Racism Work at the University

By Lama El-Hanan

The University mandates ARCDO (Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office) to do anti-racism work, which it defines as an “active and consistent process of change to eliminate individual, institutional/systemic and ideological racism” (ARCDO brochure). ARCDO’s definition of anti-racism is in line with the classic definition of advocacy as an effort on the part of an individual or group to effect change in a society or institution. However, ARCDO is, in many ways, not positioned within the University to advocate on behalf of racialized staff and students. As part of the University’s network of equity offices, ARCDO is accountable to the administration—an arrangement which is potentially counter-productive to anti-racism work (Krishnan 2003). When describing the role of ARCDO at the University, employees emphasized that ARCDO is not an advocacy organization insofar as it is “not supposed to” explicitly challenge the University on issues of racism and systemic discrimination. These institutional constraints on doing anti-racism work are compounded by the fact that ARCDO is understaffed and underfunded. As one employee explained, ARCDO does not have the resources to “change a system of racism that is deeply embedded in the institution”. Systems of racism, they argued, are constructed through power. Therefore, power is required to dismantle them—power which ARCDO lacks.

The constraints discussed above are all based in the University’s policies. However, there are other much subtler ways in which ARCDO’s ability to do anti-racism work is constrained by the University. One of these is discourse. The University of Toronto’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office was founded in 2005 (ARCDO). It was preceded by the “Campaign for an Anti-Racist UofT” (Krishnan 2003). Launched in 1989, this campaign aimed to address issues of racism and systemic discrimination as they existed in areas ranging from the University’s admission practices to its curriculum (Krishnan 2003). Although the campaign was initially unaffiliated with the University, it eventually became part of the University’s bureaucracy, taking the form of the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (Krishnan 2003). It is not insignificant that the bureaucratization of anti-racism activism was accompanied by an amalgamation of discourses around critical race theory and cultural diversity. ARCDO argues that this change simply reflects the expansion of its role at the University to include a responsibility for matters beyond race, like creed, culture and ethnicity (Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office). However, there is good reason to be wary of the term diversity. Himani Bannerji contends that the language of diversity functions as a “coping mechanism for dealing with an actually conflicting heterogeneity” (Bannerji 2000:37). Put differently, it works to contain or suppress anti-racist ‘noise’ in institutional settings. In her book, On Being Included, Sarah Ahmed suggests that diversity names the fact of racial or cultural difference without necessarily evoking a “commitment to action or redistributive justice” (Ahmed 2000:53). By implication, she explains, diversity runs the risk of being “cut off” from initiatives that challenge racism and systemic discrimination, and can even take their place in defining the University’s approach to equity issues (Ahmed 2012:53). In this way, diversity allows the University to conceal the operation of systemic inequities and rebrand itself as equitable. The discourse therefore has more to do with changing perceptions of Whiteness amongst potential “student customers” than it does with addressing the problem itself.

Works Cited
Ahmed, Sarah. On being included: racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press, 2012.
Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office. STAMP OUT, ERASE, OUTPACE. N.p.: ARCDP, n.d. Print.
Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office. University of Toronto. Accessed 12 Dec 2016.
Bannerji, Himani. The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays On Multiculturalism, Nationalism, and Gender. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2000.
Krishnan, Raghu. “Remembering Anti-Racism.” THIS Magazine, 1 Jan, 2003, Accessed 17 Dec 2016.

First Impressions of My Field Site

By Lama El-Hanan

ARCDO seems to take a multi-dimensional approach to addressing issues of equity and inclusivity at the University, and this is reflected in the diversity of its organizational settings. The spatial organization of the ARCDO building itself is very bureaucratic. Staff members are isolated in cubicles, and the office is furnished using a monochromatic grey palette. This setup reflects ARCDO’s quasi-judicial function of handling complaints of harassment and discrimination as they relate to the University’s Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment (ARCDO).

Since 2013, ARCDO has also worked to create spaces where racialized staff and students can engage in conversations about navigating the academy as people of color, and build networks of support (ARCDO). These programs include the “Connections and Conversations” group—an initiative that provides “discussion and a support network for racialized staff to flourish at U of T”—and the “Unfiltered Truth Talks”, which serves as a ‘safe space’ where students can engage in conversations about race, ethnicity, and discrimination as well as “find community amongst peers with similar experiences” (ARCDO). Meetings for these groups are usually held at Hart House conference rooms, whose atmosphere differs radically from the bureaucratic setup of ARCDO.

Interestingly enough, ARCDO frames the ultimate objective of its initiatives—even those centered on ‘empowering’ racialized students and staff—as enabling the accomplishment of the University’s “academic mission” (ARCDO). For example, the ARCDO website describes the “Connections and Conversations” group as fostering an “empowering environment” where staff of color can “contribute their unique ideas and talents to the University” (ARCDO). The “Unfiltered Truth Talks” series is similarly framed in terms of allowing students to thrive at the University by providing networks of community and support. There is a fundamental contradiction between ARCDO’s objective to enable the University’s “academic mission” (or master desire) of producing work-ready individuals in service of the neoliberal system, and its stated goals of eliminating racism and systemic discrimination. However, this conflict is obscured by ARCDO’s framing of its goals and policies. The ARCDO website describes its efforts to “stamp out” and “erase” racism as part and parcel of enabling the achievement of the University’s “academic mission” (ARCDO). It states that the “elimination of racial discrimination and racism is an essential part of U of T’s efforts to cultivate and equitable and inclusive learning environment” where all students can flourish, and defines “honoring the institutional commitment of the University of Toronto as an organization exemplifying commitment to anti-racism and the elimination of systemic discrimination” as a core policy (ARCDO).

In his book Willing slaves of capital: Spinoza and Marx on desire, Frederic Lordon argues that in order to succeed, neoliberal enterprises like the University must create a desire to work amongst their employees (Lordon 2014:43). They do this by enriching work with “intrinsic joyful affects”—i.e. those that are “intransitive” rather than derived from objects outside the work activity, like material rewards (Lordon 2014:43). This involves aligning the desires of the employee with those of the enterprise (Lordon 2014:43). The ultimate product of this “neoliberal co-linearization undertaking” are “joyful auto-mobiles”—employees “who occupy themselves in their own accord in the service of the capitalist organization” (Lordon 2014:44). Given that I am interested in how the gap between the enterprise’s desire and that of employee comes to bear on questions of power and resistance in the workplace, I am curious to find out how and to what degree this discursive obscuration functions as a mechanism of co-linearization in the workplace.

Works Cited
Lordon, Frédéric. Willing slaves of capital: Spinoza and Marx on desire. Verso Books, 2014.
“University of Toronto.” Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct.

Career Center Workshops

By Maggies Morris

As part of my research project, I have been attending workshops offered by the Career Centre at UofT, to better understand its role in producing future workers. At the end of each workshop, I typically ask fellow student-attendees their thoughts. Most times, students claim it was interesting or helpful. But, with one workshop, several attendees-cum-interlocutors noted that the workshop was a waste of time. These casual comments on the dubious value of what I deemed an ethnographically uneventful workshop became a “small-big-thing:” a small circumstance with a larger, unintended result. Here, the value of this ‘small’ event is that these student comments forced me to reflect upon not simply the work of career educators in producing work-ready students, but also on the ways in which students receive and process the knowledge offered to them through this production. These comments allowed me to understand that students are equally involved in assimilating, adapting or rejecting the knowledge offered to them as they form their identities as future workers.

This workshop had followed a ‘narrative approach’ to career theory, where we were encouraged, in a dialectical process, to produce narratives of our futures in which our careers did not necessarily figure centrally. Instead, our career was meant to be but one chapter of a larger ‘story of me.’ We were encouraged to analyze the ‘chapters’ in our life-narratives with challenges to “connect deeper with ourselves,” to think critically about the university as a space producing self-critical student-workers (ie. we are taught to cry over losing 2% off an exam, but not cry about having 5 exams in 2 days) and society as a space filled with barriers to success (lack of jobs, competition). Yet, throughout these conversations, student questions always returned the focus to ‘fixable’ things like how to find work, resumes, or interview tips.

This opened up a line of inquiry for my work: why is it that students as future workers devour knowledge which demands the colonization of their personhoods by the capitalist master-desire, promotion of a work ethic and its supposed ‘ensuing success’? And why, when provided with discourses which acknowledge the struggles, failures or the dislocation that work (both academia and employment) causes to us as persons, do many students find this kind of knowledge to be lackluster and unsatisfying? Student’s didn’t want to hear that there are barriers to being a great student or finding employment – they wanted to hear how to do it. Student’s didn’t want to hear about the socio-political structures intrinsic to their working-lives which they are incapable of dismantling – a university ethos which promotes “overworking our bodies,” or national unemployment. They wanted to hear about an intelligible and doable solution, and to be guided toward the construction of a social imaginary that suggested ‘fix your resume, and you’ll definitely get a job’ – regardless of its factual accuracy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s