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Ethnography of the University Collaborative Writing Theme 3: Who is the imagined university student

By Tarini Date, Ailin Z.W. Li, Nil Alt Kecik, and Cassandra Gemmell

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.

Within the university campus, there are several different actors present in the space, such as students (undergraduate and graduate, international and domestic), professors, administrative workers, caretakers, groundskeepers, etc. In our current cohort, almost all the projects have chosen to focus on groups of students. This category, as we have discovered, though, is not as homogenous as one might assume. As such, we pose the question: who is the imagined student at the University of Toronto? We explore the socialist students’ group, individuals who interact with the UTSU food bank, individuals who have encountered pro-life demonstrations on campus, and a Facebook group dedicated to U of T memes to illustrate how student identity and values are imagined and situated within these groups.

To create a student group or student-centred service, the individuals leading and participating in the group imagine an identity—the assumed values, needs, and desires—of the students participating in the group. In the U of T Memes for Edgy Teens (UTMET) Facebook group, students employ an element of exaggeration to form an identity for the “relatable” student. This student fails all their exams, sleeps less than three hours per night, requires endless cups of coffee per day, and is mildly depressed and perhaps borderline suicidal. Through interviews, it is revealed that many students understand this “relatable” student identity as more of a caricature, built through exaggeration. Even though the identity is exaggerated, students in the UTMET group are able to bond over humorous critiques of this caricaturized student identity.

An exaggerated identity can also be used to create the “other,” as with the students who encounter pro-life demonstrations. Interviews and informal conversations shed light on the othering of pro-life demonstrators. According to many interlocutors, pro-life demonstrators are thought of not only as holding anti-abortion views: holding anti-abortion beliefs is equated to being misogynistic (they are seen as wanting to control women’s bodies), homophobic (based on the assumption that they only see sex as procreative) and transphobic (because the pro-life group only recognizes women as those who get pregnant, excluding transgender and non-binary folks). These assumptions are greatly exaggerated because they are more often than not based on simply on the belonging to the pro-life group. This construction is deeply moralizing and patronizing: it is used to look down upon supporters of the pro-life movement and to construct oneself in juxtaposition: they support women’s right and are allies to the LGBTQ community, while pro-life supporters are not.

Patronizing constructions of particular types of students occur across campus, including at the campus food bank. The kind of student subjectivity superimposed on the food bank user in the space of the UTSU food bank is one that portrays students as hungry/malnourished bodies in need of charitable help. This construction is based on a top-down need interpretation that views the students as mere physical bodies rather than physical and social beings. Accordingly, the assumed primary need of this student becomes vegetables and fruits. Yet none of this is based on actual food bank user feedback. Indeed, my observations and interviews reveal that users need more proteins, i.e. milk, yogurt and eggs. As for vegetables and fruits, most users skip one or more fruit or vegetable either because they are unfamiliar and/or mouldy or rotten. The need interpretation forms the basis of subsequent ideas of ‘improvement’ at the food bank. Further, it demonstrates what assumptions are made about the food bank users at U of T. Yet the danger lies in the fact that the alleged needs and assumed identities are not always recognized as interpretations.

Top-down constructions are not uncommon. In fact, UofT’s administration plays an active role in moulding how the individual student is imagined: as inherently threatening because of the student’s capacity for enacting political behaviour within University space. This positioning of the student as a potential enemy capable of dismantling UofT’s administrative power structure has its roots in the 1960s and ‘70s due to repeated student mobilizations and disruptive protests over international, domestic and on-campus issues. Traces of the administration’s reactive behaviours to student politics during the 1960s and ‘70s appear in the present as students continue to be policed and limited in their political expressions in University space. This a result of students being continuously associated with political behaviour targeted against the administration. Therefore, the administration pacifies students by promoting the notion that student experience centres around the success of the individual rather than through mobilized collectives.

In all of our research projects it has become clear that throughout the University, various actors are engaged in the process of constructing the “student.” These constructions vary greatly, they are highly exaggerated, moralizing, patronizing and can be created by peers, as is the case in the UTMET group and the pro-choice supporters, or, from the top-down as is seen within the food bank and campus administration. What ties these constructions together is their imagined nature. In fact, it is that fact that allows for so many different constructions to exist at once.

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