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.”
Yuyang: In Grade 12, after applying for universities, my friends and I created a “Wall of Rejections” on a whim. We stuck our rejection letters to a wall and by the next day, the wall was covered in rejections posted by our fellow students. At that time, everyone was anxious about getting into a good university so the wall became a place where students encouraged each other to celebrate their failures and take risks.
Similarly, this is the first time many of us have done ethnographic fieldwork. It’s challenging: we search for possible sites and reach out to potential informants, risking being refused, rejected, or even ignored. Honestly, we felt a bit dejected and frustrated when this happened, but the process is not a waste of time. The failures speak to something important, just as the successes in ethnographic work. Therefore, this blog will be another wall of rejection to share our “failures” of getting into the ethnographic field and discuss their meaningful implications.
Fatemah: Iceberg under the sea
I haven’t been directly rejected by anyone, but when I went into the sites, I found many things that I hadn’t expected.
First, I looked after how the seating works in Robarts library and when students have the opportunity to pick a seat, where they sit, and how this reflects the embodiment of diversity principles. But no clear pattern emerged immediately and I didn’t have enough time to explore it further.
Then I shifted to working on documents and strategic plans the library creates. It seemed fruitful and meaningful at the beginning. However, as I talked to a librarian, I realized there was a whole other layer of documents behind the scenes and many things that didn’t make it into a document. So when these documents were shared with me they felt like insider knowledge.
Isabella: Sending emails into the void
My project is about the diversity of food on campus. I had the opportunity to interview many students who were more than happy to talk about their experiences. But when I reached out to managers of college food services and other staff at the university, none of my emails received a reply. It felt like I was sending my interview requests into a void. There was no echo to my inquiries or even an acknowledgment of their existence.
But the silence spoke volumes.
In the emails, I was conscious about avoiding sensitive and triggering words, but I still had to mention topics such as “diversity” and “inclusion” to describe my research. University staff may have been nervous and vigilant regarding my inquiry because they didn’t want to be seen as going against the institution. They may have been worried about saying the “wrong” thing which could put their position within the university at risk.
I noticed that my interlocutors need the security of confidentiality and anonymity. Eventually, some staff agreed to a call after I suggested that I could make their data anonymous. Once they felt protected they were more comfortable answering my questions. However, they took the time to cover up any critical comments with positive images, for example, mentioning that the dining hall heavily relies on student feedback to improve the food after admitting that they think students are too “picky” and impossible to please.
Yuyang: Being Rejected But Not Fully Rejected
My project is about how writing assignments shape the diverse student population into homogenous U of T students. At first, I tried to get into a weekly writing workshop that helps students with their essays. When I presented my detailed proposal and confidentiality consent form I was rejected by the program directors, who claimed that some students might feel nervous being observed and interviewed since they’re already hesitant to come and ask for help in the first place.
I thought that was reasonable, but when I was about to leave. I was given a survey to do. I’ve participated in this workshop three times, but this was the first time they surveyed students. The questions were similar to what I had described in my proposal. On the survey sheet there was no information about confidentiality and consent. This contradicted with the idea of protecting the “vulnerable” students coming here for help, which the program directors used as a reason to reject me doing research here.
I felt conflicted at that moment. It was nice to see that they had created a forum to listen to students’ voices for improvement. But when they reframed my questions without giving me any credit, it felt like: first, I was not protected or even respected in this place, and second, the institution was unwilling to let a student gather feedback because they wanted to control the narrative.
As Ahmed describes in her book On Being Included, practitioners could experience the institutional operations and procedures as a kind of resistance. She caught an expression that came up many times in her interviews: “banging your head against a brick wall.” Similarly, we could feel that there is an invisible but concrete wall blocking us to get into some sites. The wall of rejection is revealed to be the same wall as the institution.
Sara, Ahmed. On Being Included : Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press, 2012. https://librarysearch.library.utoronto.ca/discovery/fulldisplay?context=L&vid=01UTORONTO_INST:UTORONTO&search_scope=UTL_AND_CI&tab=Everything&docid=alma991106156544406196.