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

When Efforts Do Not Bring Rewards, Other Possibilities Open Up, By Yuyang Yuan (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.”

As a kid, I was told that “how much effort you make brings the rewards you will get”. When I studied hard, I could get good grades. When I practiced piano, I could play beautiful music. But when I grew up, things changed. Sometimes efforts bring nothing or just a little, and you must move on. From my interviews about the experience of doing writing assignments, I found this is also a cold hard truth for many students.

Meinv, a student who majored in computer science and data science, is also interested in cinema studies. She took a cinema course but could not understand what the professor said in the lecture. “My English was bad, so I listened to the recording again and again. But since I haven’t trained in the humanities field, it’s still very hard to make sense.” After this course she gave up the idea of studying other Cinema courses. But this didn’t diminish her passion to watch movies in her spare time that made her an artistic and thoughtful programmer.

Horse is a third-year student who majored in Philosophy. He once took a course about Hegel, a prominent philosophy figure. The professor suggested that the best way to read Hegel is through line-by-line commentary. He excitedly practiced this in the essay, going through all the details in the original text and reading secondary sources on Hegel’s work. For some ambiguous sentences, he even offered more than one possible explanation and analysis. However, the grade was much lower than the usual grade he would get for philosophy essays. 

Horse then read the example papers and found none of them was line-by-line commentary, but just usual essays that repeated the lecture contents. There was a huge mismatch between the so-called “best way to read Hegel” and the kind of essay his professor expected to see. His effort hadn’t been cherished. And he felt nobody cared about his inquiries. For the following essays, he presented the arguments given by the professor. Once he aimed to do philosophy research in the future, but he gave up. “My university experience is all about disenchantment. It’s meaningless to confine with the rules of production so I have no passion to do philosophy in academia.” 

For me, I use all my possible time to study and keep some time for relaxing to keep my mind and body functioning normally. But when essays are due and take-home final exams are crammed at the end of the semester, I start to rush for the deadline. I desperately realized that unless I cut my time to sleep, eat and rest, the effort I made to study would not bring the consequence I expected: finish everything by the deadline. Then I had to give up some marks or ask for extensions. 

When we believe that efforts will bring rewards, we assume we know what to expect. But in the university the outcome of one’s study involves too many forces: one’s personal (linguistic, educational, socio-cultural, etc.) backgrounds, the authorities, the institution, etc. And it will even be more complex when we step into society. When efforts don’t bring rewards, we start to give up some interests and thus some parts of the self. We may also withdraw from making effort to meet the requirements that dominate and normalize us: requirements that dictate how to be a good student who gets a good grade as determined by some external standards. Sometimes we are pushed by these forces and uncertainties to develop other “selves” to learn and live in the way that we are comfortable with. 

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