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

“Toxic Culture” and the “Try Hard”, By Maya Banerjee (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.”

The phrase “toxic culture” is a familiar one to most University of Toronto students, one that is thrown around in casual conversations, on message boards, and in classroom discussions. It carries many meanings, but generally conveys the idea that UofT has a uniquely ‘toxic’ culture — one which is understood as encouraging practices that are detrimental to students’ wellbeing. These claims of ‘toxic’ culture are scattered across the University of Toronto’s reddit forum where students anonymously share news, ask questions, and vent their personal frustrations. One poster, reflecting on their time at the university, writes “the atmosphere is over-competitive for no real reason … [it] fosters toxicity.” Another comments that UofT is different from other universities because it has a uniquely “toxic academic culture.” The university’s commitment to equity and diversity are called into question in many of these posts, as students generally charge the institution’s ‘toxic culture’ with creating an academic and social environment inhospitable to those with mental illnesses, disabilities, or other difficulties. 

It is not uncommon to hear students direct ire at the University’s mental health services, which some blame for the perceived lack of student wellbeing. However, the ‘toxicity’ may run deeper. In fact, my research suggests that the University’s services may be functioning well. In a sample of 28 posts from UofT’s reddit forums, all of which mentioned either accessibility services or health and wellness, the majority of students reported positive experiences with the university’s services. Perhaps we should not be focusing solely on how to treat the ‘symptom’ of the university’s cultural issues and instead shift our focus to the underlying problems. 

At the core of discussions of ‘toxic culture’ is the concern that UofT students are driven to prioritize work over their mental and physical well being. I am unconcerned with whether or not UofT students genuinely work harder than students from other universities. Rather, I place emphasis on the metrics which students use to measure themselves.  In my interviews with UofT students I sought to get a sense of how interview subjects imagine the ‘UofT student’ in an archetypal sense — who is the ‘regular’ UofT student? The collective picture these students painted was a cohesive one. This ‘regular’ student is “depressed,” “cold,” and always too busy to meet up with you. They are a “try hard” who spends all their time at Robarts, presumably studying. Work comes first in their life, and they may be “over-competitive” in their desire for academic excellence. The students I interviewed had their differences — some spoke positively of the university while others condemned it — but they all seemed to agree on what the ‘archetypal’ university of Toronto student looks like. The descriptors offered by interviewees reflect the common sentiment that UofT students are work obsessed, sometimes to the detriment of their social lives or mental wellbeing. 

The students I interviewed frequently compared themselves to this ‘normal’ UofT student.’ One student, reflecting on her academic performance, confidently stated “people study more than me.” Another told me, “I don’t feel like I’m on the same level [as] the average ‘try hard’ engineer.” Rather than comparing themselves to real people — say, a friend or classmate — they compare themselves to an imaginary, ‘average’ student. This comparison drives feelings of inadequacy and generates the lingering sense that one should always be working harder, doing more. In the early stages of my project, I ‘piloted’ my research questions on a student from Ryerson university; she described the archetypal student at her university as “artistic.” Students from neighboring universities may possess different collective ideas about what it means to be a student, perhaps indicating that the archetypal U of T student is indeed unique to this institution.

While the university’s services treat stressed out, mentally drained students, the root causes of these student’s struggles are not often discussed. Perhaps shifting notions of what it means to be a UofT student might result in a student culture that is hospitable to a wider diversity of students.

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