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

Encountering Walls, and Finding Something Unexpected, By 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 “Concepts and Methods.”

When you encounter your first ethnographic wall [a blockage, a dead end], it feels like you are stuck in your research and will not be able to get out of it. However, during my study of the diversity of the computer science program, I learnt that the metaphorical wall could be more illuminating than perhaps your original plan was going to be. For example, when I first entered the halls of Bahen I had hoped to find maybe groups of students socializing whom I could interview. However, as I quickly found, the Bahen Centre for Informational Technology is not a socializing space. Instead, the halls are deafeningly quiet. As a result, you cannot move without disturbing a studying student. This is for two reasons: first, everyone within these halls is studying; secondly, the building is so quiet that your footsteps cause students to look up. 

Nonetheless, had I never encountered the inability to interview a student in person, I would never have been able to research the diversity to the depth in which my research took me. See, there is only so much racial and gender diversity that can be observed, and within the space of Bahen, it is very diverse. So, although I was stuck with where to take my project, I now wanted to understand how diversity worked in a space occupied by a diverse body.

The second large wall I had to subdue in my project was the fact that I was conducting ethnographic research within a global pandemic. This meant that people were even less interested in face-to-face conversation. I doubted whether social media would allow me to conduct research that could be considered ethnographic. However, the UofT subreddit provided me with the ability to see how people understood the computer science program from an internal and external point of view. 

Most external posts were about fearing they may not be admitted due to the highly competitive requirements. While internally, many spoke of stress and struggles with the pressure of succeeding. Overall, it showed that my understanding of the space of Bahen as a place for limited socializing and toxic competitively was correct for the general view. But the comments on my post on the subreddit demonstrated how the strength of anonymity given by the social media platform allowed for people to communicate online without fear of judgement. I think what the wall taught me most was that sometimes encountering an ethnographic wall can be the most illuminating and vital step for your research. 

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