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

Observing Closely: Phantom Dialogues in Discussions of Diversity Initiatives, By Mason Lorch (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.”

As part of my preliminary research into diversity-related happenings at UofT, I watched a video released by the Rotman School to commemorate the introduction of a new scholarship for Black students applying to MBA programs. The video consisted of a montage of clips from a plenary presentation where a panel of UofT faculty answered questions about Race issues at the university and the importance of initiatives for combatting anti-Black racism.

As I watched the panelists speak about these topics, I noticed a phenomenon that drew my attention. I began to sense that there were fragments of non-present conversations, hypothetical or remembered, folded into the speakers’ presentations. I eventually began to think of these conversations as phantom dialogues. These dialogues revealed themselves from time to time, especially in how ideas led to one another.

An example of a phantom dialogue from the video: One professor is talking about the low representation of “black bodies” in classrooms, and how “their absence ought to trouble everybody.” He pauses, then, suddenly, as if responding to a counterargument, he says “It’s not that the students don’t have the capability, the skills”. He goes on to explain about the barriers faced by students of colour, and as he does so, his body language and tone change; he becomes more insistent, more passionate. He speaks almost as though he is confronting some other person who is contesting his claims. 

It is important to note that no such person is present. The professor is performing a monologue to his computer screen (this video was recorded early on during the COVID-19 pandemic). But nonetheless, the presence of an imaginary interlocutor can be sensed in the structure and flow and in the emotional contours of the professor’s oratory, which mimic, in some respects, the characteristics of a dialogue. 

When you look for them, these phantom dialogues crop up throughout everyday speech. They seem to be a central strategy by which people structure their thoughts and points of view. This observation is useful ethnographically because, by identifying and outlining these phantom conversations, the ethnographer gets a window into the thought processes, imaginations, and memories, of their interlocutors.    (Links to an external site)

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