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

Embracing Diversity or Creating Normalized Students? By Maya Banejee and Aashna Shah (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 “Confronting Walls and Normalizing Practices.”

It’s not uncommon to hear people frame post-secondary education as a ‘journey’ through which a young person ‘finds’ themselves. Indeed, university experiences tend to mold one’s identity. However, this process is an intentional one, rather than something that just ‘happens.’ The person one becomes is often the person the University desires them to be. The university is a ‘hub of normalization,’ producing a standardized student who leaves the university as a certain kind of person with a certain set of skills and understandings. While the admission process assures that students who arrive at the university have some proven academic capability, they have a great diversity of backgrounds, abilities, outlooks, and identities. However, through their time at university they must adapt to the standards set by the university in order to ‘succeed.’ Normalization is a multifaceted process, occurring through both the academic and social spheres of the university.  

As an international student, there have been moments in Ashna’s university experience wherein she felt the need to ‘evolve’ in order to be successful at the university. It is those moments that have led her to investigate international student’s experiences of ‘transition’ as they enter the university and learn new ways of navigating unfamiliar space. Interestingly, most of Ashna’s interlocutors did not feel like they had to change anything about themselves to ‘fit in.’ However, they were quick to ‘other’ themselves when talking about their experiences at the university. Some students were quick to point out the benefits of participating in the programming that the university had designed to help international students have a successful transition into the university. Interlocutors suggested that this programming was an attempt to ‘level the playing field’ by providing resources that might help students feel more comfortable at the university. This can be framed as a social process of normalisation that international students must go through in order to successfully navigate the university. This then begs the question of whether this experience is unique to international students alone.

All students, local and international, are subject to the process of normalisation through the academic sphere of the university. Everyday experiences in the classroom impart messages about academic standards, communicating what a ‘good’ student looks like. As students interact with syllabi, receive grades, and interact with professors’ academic standards are learned and internalized. These standards then shape the culture of the university, colouring how students understand themselves, as well as how they interact with others.  

In Maya’s interviews with University of Toronto students, a collective idea of the ‘archetypal’ University of Toronto student emerges. Interviewees characterized University students as “competitive”, “motivated” and “depressed.” This archetype is created through the academic environment of the university — and through the culture which emerges from those academic practices. Generally, students go through their academic journey and come out on the other side having been successfully normalized into a particular kind of student. However, this process is not always a successful one. There are those students who find themselves unable to be transformed in the ways the University desires. In the student who sees themselves as outside the university — as out of place or lacking in belonging — the process of normalization may be incomplete. 

The goal of these normalising processes is the production of a certain kind of student with a certain set of skills. This process of normalisation, a base function of the university, seems at a distance from what the University’s diversity messaging seems to promise. While the university has constructed itself as a ‘diverse’ space, the base structure of the institution remains the same as it has been for decades.

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