Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Diverse Spaces on Campus, By Erica de Souza and Charlotte Millar (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “On Being Included.”

Space and the usage of space can illuminate multiple dimensions of diversity. For instance, at St. George campus, when looking at the Bahen Centre one might recognize that while the space is utilized by a diverse gender and race population, the space itself does not represent or celebrate diversity. 

When exploring the Bahen building which is home to the Department of Computer Science, Charlotte found that the learning environment promoted individual studying and learning. The space was so silent that the lecturers kept their doors open while teaching without fear of interruption from noise. It is interesting that in this space, unlike many others on campus, you cannot find groups of students socializing together. 

Bahen Centre can be described as a white space. Students conform to expectations, and many are what North American academics would consider ‘good students.’ Is this really diversity? On one hand, students utilizing the space are diverse in terms of race and gender. Yet the students reproduced by the space are uniform: they study individually and are competitive.

A different type of space on campus is First Nations House in North Borden Building which seeks to support diversity, and specifically Indigenous students. As you step into the building you see a table full of pamphlets, buttons, and posters for different advocacy groups, LGBTQ+ supports, and other resources for students. Staff and students can drop off donations right next to it. Heading up the stairs, Indigenous art graces the walls. The turtle lounge on the second floor is a quiet space, since it’s surrounded by Instructor Offices. However, classes can be held in the lounge, students are known to hang out there and student art is also on display. Leaving the turtle lounge up the stairs, is more First Nations House including a small computer lab area, more offices, and a classroom. The physical space of First Nations House also supports language learning with posters on walls introducing words in Indigenous Languages.

The physicality of the space is marked by its celebration of Indigeneity. It aims to be anti-colonial, by internally decolonizing a rather weathered colonial structure which is built on Indigenous territory, specifically the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Huron-Wendat and Seneca. 

Indigenizing space is important since the learning environment is a critical component of learning itself. Students in Indigenous Studies come into this space, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and gain reflexive perspectives on their own lives and identities. On this large campus, it is rare to find a learning environment that helps to constitute and support the cultural, and linguistic knowledge of its students.

On paper to strive to be anti-colonial and inclusive is great, but when you walk around and reflect on where you feel welcome, you realize there is a long way to go. “Diversity” cannot be achieved without anti-colonialism and welcoming different ways of knowing. Messages conveyed by spaces are the implicit knowledge that is privileged and supported within academia; they are key influences in the adaptation a person goes through during their time in university.

Note: Photography of Bahen Centre by Charlotte Millar, and Photography of North Borden Building by Erica de Souza

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