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

The Modular U of T Student and the “Others”, By Katerina Richard (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.”

In class brainstorming we conceptualized the modular student as the student whose qualities characterize the ideal student body. The University mobilizes this concept through various institutions. U of T students are expected to be studious, competitive, overachieving, independent, and busy, yet at the same time they are supposed to be involved, sociable, have an occasional party life, and be present in university groups or clubs. There is an assumption that students can cope and figure things out without asking for help. Problem-solving independently is an expected trait for U of T students; the student is also turned into a productivity machine. The university itself becomes a huge machine that mass produces “normal” students. These complicit students are supposed to hide their fatigue and stress and be ready to take on more tasks and accept restrictions. 

Diversity is supposed to be inclusive of divergent people and individuals with different needs, yet our research findings suggest that the university does not do this, rather it holds students to the expectation of the modular student. As a result, some students become positioned as “others.” For example, students may feel out of place when asking for financial assistance through bursaries or grants. The process of asking for help assumes “normal” U of T students have disposable income and therefore do not need additional funding. The applications, wait times, documentation to “prove” that they need assistance are practices by which U of T produces its “others.”

When students compare themselves to the model or ideal, they may be devastated when receiving a B or A- for an assignment. Students judge themselves and feel they are judged by others as failing to meet the standard set by the model. This is not conducive to intellect, academics, or growth, yet it remains an underlying background cloud over students. Unfortunately, it is difficult to address something that is not physical and hard to prove; however, it can be helpful for other students to acknowledge this idea of the modular student and what it entails. This would help students be less self-critical to the point of feeling like their entire worth is based on a grade. It could also help to take away from the stigma around asking for financial aid or other types of assistance. 

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