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

Being Evaluated, By Yuyang Yuan (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.”

When we talk about “diversity issues”, the first thing that comes up would be the diversity of social groups, characterized by gender, race, belief, culture, language, etc. Diversity issues appear when some groups are labeled with certain stereotypes that make them socially, economically, and politically privileged or stigmatized. 

In this study concerning the diversity issues at the University of Toronto, I address a more nuanced notion of diversity: the diversity of individuals. Every student is unique in terms of learning, thinking, working, and connecting with others and the world. The individual differences bring intellectual and social vitality to our campus. However, to accomplish the schoolwork, all students are required to follow the same set of rubrics and are evaluated under a certain set of academic standards. In this essay, I will investigate how does the evaluation mechanism of writing assignments shapes the diverse student population into a normalized image of a typical “U of t students” – “hardworking” “competent” “stressed” “study prioritized over everything”, etc. I also pay attention to students’ struggles and strategies to work against these invisible but oppressive forces. 

According to Foucault, disciplinary powers shapes and forces individuals to accept and comply with the norm (a certain set of standard) through rewards, punishments, and training. (Nale 2015, 316) An assignment that satisfies all the requirements on the rubric will likely be rewarded with a higher grade and positive feedbacks. But most students could not successfully fulfill all the requirements so that they will not get a perfect score but still some feedbacks about what is the problem and how to improve. This is a “gentle” punishment that informs students “you can get a higher grade” if you follow the instructions, with the warm-hearted support of how to achieve this. It largely motivates students to learn these standards, to compare themselves with the standards, and finally to push themselves to meet the standards. This is a normalization process. It transforms students from their personal ways of learning, thinking, and working into those expected and desired by the institution, namely the norms. Therefore, even though school assignments are primarily designed to enhance students’ understanding of course contents, they also train students to work with productivity, efficiency, and utility-and-consequence-oriented mindsets – the ethos at the heart of capitalism and modern industrialized institutions. 

However, within the fierce competition, the “mindless drive towards achievements” and the over-emphasize of utility, some students are overwhelmed by the sense of meaninglessness. (Hannah 2019, 13) The fulfillment of evaluative standards becomes prioritized above the exploration of personal interests, the expressions of personal opinions, the conversations with others, etc. In this sense, students are like labor workers, as Marx (1844) proposed, whose work alienates them from other people, from the object they work with, from human nature which generates from working as creatively expressing oneself, and finally, from themselves. The weaker the connections between students and themselves, the more they are likely to be normalized and the less individual diversity will emerge in the academic activities. Therefore, I argue that the central tension between normalization and individual diversity is that the training of doing the assignment, namely meeting the standards, is useful to the social institutions (to produce qualified workers), but meaningless to the student individuals. 

From my observations, most students are aware of the normalization force and an image of “U of T” students that they are gradually being shaped into. They have different descriptions and narrations to discuss it and react to it in a variety of ways, but most of the student participants in this study are more or less uncomfortable, critical, and resistant to it. Students in lower years are more likely to confront it by insisting on the uniqueness of their academic identities, while upper years students gave it up and develop their authentic self beyond the academic field while managing to play the role of a normalized “U of T” student when they come to coursework and evaluations. 

The Source Material

Writing Assignment

There are many kinds of assessments at U of T, writing assignment, test, quiz, oral assessments, etc. I choose writing assessment for this study because its evaluation is not based on “right” answers, but on the standards of writing and the decision of graders. It’s noteworthy that disciplinary power is not mindfully employed by the instructor to normalize the students. It is circulated and negotiated in the back-and-forth interactions between the instructors and the students and shapes the overall academic environment in the university.

To be specific, writing assignments concerned in this study include but are not restricted to essays, research papers, reviews, blogs, creative writings, statistic reports, program design planning, survey reports, etc. The evaluation aspect of the writing assignments consists of explicit rubrics, grading scales, and feedback, and the implicit standards that students get from attending office hours, arguing with graders to remark, in-class oral instructions, etc. It also consists of students’ self-evaluations of their work after learning and internalizing the school requirements.  

Sites of this study  

This research involves three kinds of sites. The first is textual sites, including course syllabus, assignment instructions, comments from graders, and U of T school websites of grading scales and writing advice. The second is real sites, including the writing workshops initiated by college writing centers and some specific courses. It also includes study group activities that I attended. 

The third is interviews. I interviewed fourteen U of T students, including domestic and international students from different linguistic, educational and cultural backgrounds, and study various majors from Humanities to Science. I also interviewed a professor and a TA. They are invited to comment on: a) their favorite or most dislike writing assignments and why they feel like this (mainly for students); b) their/their students’ confusions, struggles, and strategies to work with the requirements that they feel difficult or uncomfortable to fulfill (mainly for students), c) the typical image of “U of T students” and what kind of learner that they are or want to/expect their students to become, with contrasts and comparisons between the two. 

Findings  

Limitations on self-expressions

In a tutorial of an introductory-level anthropology course that word limit is a strict requirement of essay assignments, students are revising their drafts with TA’s instructions. They highlight, underline or bracket each sentence regarding its function: thesis statement, conclusion, evidence, counterargument, critical analysis, etc. Then they examine whether the sentences did a good job and refine them. Finally, they look at the unmarked sentences; think about how do they contribute to the argument. If there’re no contributions, delete. 

The underlying logic of this practice is to decide the utility of every word. If they are useful, maximize their utility, and if they are not, give them away. To meet the strict word limitation, Doris found this practice helpful. Like her, most students mentioned that “deleting” is the hardest work to meet the rubric. To manage the technical skills of concise language use is a matter of practice. The real difficulty resides in taking “utility” as the holy standard to decide whether to keep the sentence or not. Even though it conveys a provocative idea and presents the beliefs and reflections that are personally important to the student, as long as it doesn’t strengthen the argument, it should not be included in the essay. 

Some students compared their writings with their “babies”. They went through a whole process of brainstorming ideas, nourishing them, going through all the ups and downs, and finally putting them into an essay. They had a strong personal attachment to it.  

“I know some points are a bit off-topic, but I like them so I’d keep them anyway, even though there might be a deduction of points. ” 

“When editing, I open a new document and paste everything I deleted into it. I rarely go back to it, but as I know my work is still there, it’s less hurtful.”

“Before I start to write, I carefully plan the essay and set a word count quota for each paragraph. Then I put everything else I want to say in the footnote. It’s the place where I can ‘breathe’. My first footnote would always be a subheading in my mother language that parodies the title written in formal English” 

…… 

Students have strategies to cope with the word limit criteria and the implicit requirements of “everything-on-topic” while keeping some personal traits in their work. 

But when one writes more essays, one could find that these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are two kinds of creative and self-expressive work: to argue for one’s original idea and to argue with the analysis of evidence, usually from course materials or researches. Students with less writing experience are more likely to keep the former and look for recognition of their worth as a student based on the creativity of their ideas. Analytical work seems less “original” as it is based on others’ work. Jenifer, a TA for an introductory-level anthropology course, says, “Some students would give strong polarizing ideas. It’s the free energy of young people. But I would suggest that more citations would help to develop a better argument.”

With more writing training, students realized that “you cannot take things for granted” and “rigorous and coherent analysis make the argument more credible”, so that the explanations of concepts, comments on the quotes, connecting the dots, etc., are all important, “original” and self-expressive. Ella was inspired when her professor encouraged the class not to “hide behind others’ words”, especially girls who are shaped to do so, and confidently make comments and analyses. 

Since upper-year students know that their creative work lies in the analysis part, but not making one’s own arguments, they felt less hurtful to prune their work. They’ve internalized the rubric to evaluate their work, not in terms of whether their ideas are perfect, but whether their arguments are strong and cohesive.

As objective analysis is deemed superior to artful self-expression, and logos are placed above pathos, this evaluation schema sets the norms that people should present their ideas with logic, arguments, and rationality that are distant from their personalities, emotions, and characters, so that what they say is more easy-to-understand, objective, and persuasive. An idea is plausible not because the person who proposed it is trustworthy, but because the methods that lead this idea are reliable, based upon a standard that everyone agrees. On the other hand, a personal belief with less supportive evidence and analysis, or even justified by intuitions, personal anecdotes, or personal preference, is deemed to be less credible and less useful so that it should be corrected, or deleted. The worship of rationality is the product and also the needs of the industrialized institutions since it maximizes the efficiency of communication and enhances the productivity of academia, industry, and society. 

Therefore, the evaluation mechanism does not limit personal expressions but shapes them into a useful form. These normalized self-expressions are still originated from personal stances, and could not be separated from one’s personal backgrounds, but are depersonalized and deindividualized. 

Time Restrictions and Life Beyond Writing Assignments

Once again, Charon submitted his essay right before 11:59 pm, the deadline. He then posted a meme on his social media account.

In my interviews, three students mentioned this meme or the idea of “academic trash”, and more raised their confusions about the value of their work. When I asked why do they regard their work as “trash” or worthless, most of them said that they especially think about this when they rushed it for the deadlines. For some humanities students, there are many essay dues around the final period, and when final exams become takehome essays, they get the second round of “final essays”. During the fast-paced and highly intensive schedule, students need to be as productive as possible. Reasonably, one had to sacrifice quality for quantity.

But, from my observations, one’s work became trash not simply because of the time restrictions. It’s because students once had a genuine interest in it and anticipated it to be excellent, not necessarily in terms of grades, but personal fulfillment. Later, Charon described his heartbroken experience of doing that “trash assignment”. It was during our study group activity and everyone was quietly studying together when he suddenly put his head into his arms and cried out “I submitted my essay for … (a course) last night. It’s my favorite topic and I determined to write it with full energy. But I rushed it. I made another piece of trash. I’m trash.” 

Like Charon, when some students got essay topics that they are indeed concerned about, the essay is a chance to explore their academic interests. They naturally make more effort, do more readings, brainstorm and enjoy it like a “game”. But when deadlines approach for that particular assignment and a cluster of other courses, they have to withdraw from the free flow of exploration. They break their commitment to the topic and their interests, as well as a commitment to be an authentic self. Students might not be interested in some assignments but they still made it, inauthentically. When it ended up with writing their favorite essays like a task, they failed into the desperate inauthenticity again and were overwhelmed by the sense of losing self-control. So they submitted it like throwing trash, as they didn’t want to see it anymore. They are relieved from the stress of work but continue to blame themselves. Some said, “That’s why when my interested topics are addressed in the course, I lost my passion in it. But maybe sometime later, when it’s no longer about coursework, I’ll take it up again.”

The strict time requirements of coursework not only limit one’s academic exploration but also squeeze students’ personal space to think and to live. 

Most of my interviewees mentioned, “I should be studying all the time”. Some said this as a selfcriticize. Some described it as a key aspect of a typical “U of T student”. Similar expressions are like “prioritize study over everything else” “center my life around school work” “the professor assumed that I had the time to do the readings twice, before and after the lecture, and then go through the secondary literature”, “for study, sleep, and social, U of T students can only get two at one time” etc. 

But there are many things to do beyond the coursework. The academic inquiry is not limited to completing an assignment. Peter, a second-year humanities student, continued to think about his essay questions after submitting the essays. To write an essay, he had to look at a big problem through a small perspective and put away some intricacies and dynamics in the whole picture. “Real life is complex and you cannot assume that when we put some evidence together, they will necessarily lead to an explanation that could give account to all kinds of phenomena.” Even though the other deadlines constantly come up, “I would not let go of these larger questions.” He knew what the assignments expected him to do, and although he thought it’s problematic, he still complied with it and made up for the loss later. However, the strict time limitations made his inquiry even harder. One day during the final period, 2:42 am, he posted on his social media account “I’m almost burnt out.”

The time spent on schoolwork also squeezes the personal lives of students. “I finally became a U of T student, when I had no time to cook for myself and had to eat hotdogs all the time. Now I can even have a meal in ten minutes, from ordering it to finishing eating.” To him, squeezing the sauce on the hotdog, quickly and forcefully, is like squeezing out a bit of personal time from the whole day that he devoted to studying.

Jane, a fourth-year student majoring in philosophy, is an expert in essay writing through assiduous practicing. Her major problem of writing is working slowly and hard to concentrate. She bought three timers. She put her cell phone in another room when working. Sometimes she left her phone to her friends and went home to study. When she didn’t have the phone with her, she felt free from restraints. 

As suggested on the school website, if there is “outside stress distracting you from your academic work”, “turn off your cell phone, and stay off email and the Internet”[1]. This assumed that the cell phone activities are “outside” while study/writing is “inside”. Spending time on the study is normal, while paying attention to the Internet is “distractive” and wasteful, as it’s not productive, and reduces one’s overall productivity. 

As Foucault points out, when individuals become more “efficient in time”, they are more “efficiently dominated” by the norms. (Nale 2015, 114) The more time one spends on studying, the less time is left to develop a self beyond study. But “the more time” is without an end. As assignments submitted after deadlines will receive late penalties, the deduction of points, students push themselves to meet this requirement, not to sacrifice the quality of work if possible, but to sacrifice their time to eat and sleep, to explore their real academic interests, to step back and reflect upon their study and life, and to connect with a larger world. One has to give up some control to what one could do, and thus what one could become, as to give up some authenticity, and some part of one’s self. As a result, the diversity of an individual is constrained. Students are constrained not because they are from a certain group that might be stigmatized, but because of a dominant and powerful disciplinary force, that shapes them to become “the student” that could quickly learn and efficiently produce, rather than “a student”, who studies, lives, explores and become oneself. But, fortunately, some students find their way out.

A Self Outside of “the Student”

“So do you think these writing assignments help you to become a better learner?” I asked Alex, a third-year student who majored in computer science and data science.  

“Of course. These statistic reports help me to better understand the statistic analysis. When I learned to write it, I also learned to read it. I could grab the course readings quickly since then.” Alex answered immediately, with confidence and excitement.

“Sorry, this question is about ‘a good learner’, not just a good student in this course or major. Do you have any idea of what kind of learner you want to become?”

“Learner… I haven’t thought about it” she paused and murmured, “I don’t know.”

She was a bit surprised to hear this question. She took it seriously and thought about it carefully just like doing her homework and answered with great honesty. It was in a group interview and when I asked it separately from everyone else, all other students said that they want to become someone like Alex, who is hard-working, outgoing, intelligent, and highly competent. She also feels stressed, but she is very optimistic. She is the U of T student. She is an ideal learner. She sings when she studies.

None of the other students I interviewed are like Alex. But all of them have an answer about an ideal learner, which is very different from “the U of T student”. And some answers tell a similar thing: an ideal student has a self outside of “the student”. 

I was very astonished when Jenifer (a TA in an introductory level anthropology course) said that a good student is someone who has “a self-outside of the student.” I confirmed three times as I initially supposed that she would say something like “hardworking” to depict an ideal learner. She then pointed out that the grade is only an evaluation of the assignment but not of a person. When a student receives a low mark and gets comments about the problems in the essay, one could easily feel discouraged. But actually, everyone is subject to evaluations and could easily lose track, “students, TAs, professors, all the same”. “So just minimize the self valued by grades.” There is a much large self beyond schoolwork and could not be evaluated by the standards. Even though schoolwork demands endless time and work and students have to be inauthentic in many cases, it’s still possible to draw a boundary between the “true self” and the role of “the student”. The latter is subject to evaluation and normalization, but the former is protected by the boundary. 

Mary talked about her internship experience and reminded me that the evaluation mechanism prepares students to become desirable workers. In the workspace, she was expected to follow the instructions rather than work with creativity. She learned to be “subordinate” to the rules and requirements. It’s not just doing what she was told to, but doing it comfortably. Her trick is to draw a specific boundary between working and living, and thus a boundary between “worker Mary”, and Mary. When her working self is criticized or squeezed, her real self backed her up. 

Similarly, to free oneself from the constraints and evaluations of the writing assignments, some students build their own writing spaces. Charon asked the most extensions among my interviewees. He also struggled with other evaluation standards, like language use, word limits, etc. But he thought all of these requirements are reasonable and helpful, academically. He works hard to meet them to be competent for applying for graduate schools. But he never expected to explore all his interests and gain the value of self through doing the assignments. “There are evaluations first, then assignments. We come to the university for being evaluated… One might be able to change the rubrics, but no one could overturn the mechanism of evaluation, it’s anywhere.”

Charon has a blog in which he writes some trivial random words. He believes that good writing experience is letting the ideas and words spontaneously and impulsively flow out of the mind without much thinking, analyzing, and self-criticizing. He always writes it before deadlines, when anxieties reached the maximum. We had some courses together. When I saw his blog updated in some midnights, I knew he had got another extension, and once again his true self is confronting the normalized self, fighting for some space to stay. But when I read his heartful words after I finished my due, I naturally reconnected back to my true self in a chaotic but poetic world where ideas cannot be formulated by logic, argument, and rationality. These ideas could be well sensed, but not evaluated. It is a possible world for the “self” outside of “the student self” to rest upon. 

Conclusions

This study focused on the evaluation mechanism of writing assignments and investigated how does it serve as a disciplinary power to normalize a diverse student body into the typical image of “U of T students”, through the limitation and normalization of self-expression, and the constraint on personal time to develop individuality. Students have different feelings and strategies when they resist the disciplinary powers. A possible way out is to develop an authentic self besides that a self that is complied with the norm of “the student”. 

On one hand, the normalization process prepares students to become productive and efficient workers that are desired by academic and industrial institutions. It is also useful for students themselves to seek further work and education opportunities. On the other hand, students’ resistance against the disciplinary power and normalization mechanism, together with their efforts to develop an authentic self beyond the study life, make their life meaningful and unique. It also brings the university community with diversity and vitality. 

Bibliography

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[1] “Writer’s Block.” University of Toronto | Writing Advice n.d. https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/general/writersblock/.

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