Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Collaborative Ethnography (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Nil Alt, Maya El Helou, Cassandra Gemmell, Maggie Morris 

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

Common slogans like “Just do it” have become iconic references to the pop culture that promotes a certain kind of path to success and well-being: A path walked alone. Today’s Western university is no exception to this. On the contrary, the university has increasingly become an institution spearheading the neo-liberal imperative to succeed alone. At the roots of this imperative are individualistic and competitive goals fueled by ideas of productivity and self-management. Individual performance has increasingly replaced participation and collective knowledge production among the students at the university, shifting the emphasis away from the process.

Collective knowledge production, on the other hand, recognizes the limits of one’s own competence, and introduces the idea of ‘reflexivity’ that facilitates interaction between  individual perceptions and experiences. Our collaborative ethnographic inquiries, which formed the basis of each of our projects, helped us acquire two important insights: First, we realized that the process and the content of a research project were inextricable. Second, the opportunity to reflect on each other’s ethnographic work enabled us think through our dilemmas, shortcomings and strengths.

The reflexive process required us to show each other the raw, unprocessed and messy results of our ethnographic work. This exposure allowed us to make sense of our field work collectively, hence developing richer and more layered analyses. The anxieties that typically arouse from our feelings of complicity, our own subjectivity and emotional vulnerability in our field sites were managed via discussions of our field experiences and sharing of our field notes on a weekly basis. This collaboration allowed us to support one another in processing these dilemmas, and navigating the thorny terrains of representation and recognition in our sites.  In such moments, we acted like open sounding-boards for one another, cultivating patience for and trust in both our field and each other.

Our collaborative ethnographic work enabled us to grasp the university as a cohesive yet contradictory whole with its linkages and ruptures.  As a result, we developed a broader and more fine-tuned critique of the university than we would have if we undertook our projects individually. The collaborative work allowed us to identify the

histories, capacities, and the work that goes into the making of the university. Further, we produced knowledge anchored in specific sites on campus through the synergies of each others’ experience, knowledge and field work.

Having experienced knowledge production within a collaborative and deconstructive student group, we are now curious as to how collaborative ethnography can be instrumental in tackling the following questions about the university: Where can we find spaces on our university campus where different ontologies are manifest, not only on paper but also in practice? With what other practices can we counter the valorization of self-discipline and entrepreneurship at the university?




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