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

Good Students and Outsiders: Belonging at the University of Toronto, By Maya Banerjee (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.”

Introduction

In early October a notification popped up on my phone screen; my midterm grade for a sociology course had been posted. Nervous but optimistic, I opened Quercus. Immediately, my heart sank. I scored a 57%. Immediately, I texted a friend and told that I had ‘failed.’ She texted back, “Wait, a 57 is a fail?” I replied, “for me.” Over the next few days I was miserable, questioning my own intelligence and whether or not I was ‘good enough’ to pursue a graduate degree.  In hindsight, this reaction comes across as an over-reaction. I had not truly failed the test, nor the course as a whole, yet I deemed my grade and myself a ‘failure.’ In receiving this mark my sense of identity, constructed in large part around being a ‘UofT student,’ was destabilized. This in turn caused me to question my belonging. This sense of belonging was only restored when I received the rest of my midterm grades, which re-solidified my identity as a UofT student. This made clear to me that my identity as a student was, subconsciously, conditional on a certain degree of academic achievement. If this experience is shared by other students, what are the implications for those who frequently struggle to perform to the standards of the university? Who is desired by the university and who finds themselves standing on the margins?

The University of Toronto positions itself as strongly dedicated to diversity. The university’s website proudly displays news articles related to diversity and inclusion, some discussing programs and scholarships for Black students (Haikara 2020), while others announce the hiring of diversity workers who will work to make the university more ‘equitable’ (Vendeville 2021). While the University’s dedication to ‘doing diversity’ may have positive effects, the institution’s structure remains unchanged. The university is premised on exclusion, exclusivity, and the generation of economic capital and prestige.  Given these realities, are there truly ‘diverse’ ways of being a student at the university Toronto beyond aesthetic diversities? Every individual officially enrolled as an undergraduate at the university is a ‘University of Toronto student.’ However, I argue that while every student exists within the university, not all are of the University (Moten and Harney 2013, 26). The University seeks to produce a standard, ‘normal’ student. Individuals arrive as ‘outsiders’ and must be shaped into UofT students, but not every student can be successfully molded into a ‘standard’ or ‘normal’ shape.  I present the idea that, at UofT, students are not labelled as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ but as‘UofT students’ and ‘outsider students.’ Drawing on my primary research, I will argue that there are very limited ways of being a student at UofT, with most students being divided into one of the two categories, although the boundaries between the two may be crossed or blurred. I frame my emotional reaction to receiving a poor midterm grade as taking a step over a boundary into the space of the ‘outsider,’ one who does not entirely belong within the university.

Methods

My initial research into student experiences of belonging began on the University of Toronto reddit forums, an online community of students unaffiliated with the university in any official capacity. The forum is a space primarily used to circulate information around the student community, with the vast majority of posts involving sharing news or asking questions. However, given the anonymous nature of the forum, many students also utilize it as a space to share personal experiences and vent their frustrations. I analyzed two clusters of posts, attempting to understand what kinds of stories students told about themselves and their relationship to the university. One of these two clusters was a broad sample of all 413 posts made on the forum between November 21st and December 15th 2021. The second was a specific keyword search for the term “mental health,” which included 94 posts made between October 16th of 2020 and October 8th of 2021. I then coded for common themes and keywords related to student’s experiences of and feelings towards the university.

The narratives which emerged through the coding of reddit posts then influenced the construction of semi-structured interviews, which serve as my primary data source. I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with five UofT students, all of whom have been assigned pseudonyms in the interest of confidentiality. Interviews typically lasted 25 to 40 minutes and focused on student’s feelings and perceptions of themselves as related to their experiences of university life. More specifically, I sought to understand how interview subjects understood the academic ‘culture’ of the university and how they conceived of their place in that culture. Participants were gathered through personal social networks, some being classmates while others were strangers. It should be noted that the scope of this paper is somewhat limited, given the demographics of my sample. Interviewees were all third- or fourth-year undergraduates majoring in the social sciences or humanities. In addition, only one of the five identified as a man.

Synthesizing personal experiences, data derived from reddit, and data derived from interviews I proceed to discuss the ways in which a certain subset of the student population comes to exist as ‘outsiders’ within the university. My analysis is inspired by The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Moten and Harney 2013), but primarily informed by the work of Michele Foucault. Foucault’s concepts of power and discipline are particularly central to my analysis.

Power, discipline, and the ideal student

Foucault frames power as a productive force which shapes our realities, truths, and identities (McHoul and Grace 1995). The lens through which one sees the world is shaped by power, as are the ways in which we understand and label ourselves. Power manifests through mechanisms of discipline, which seek to control and pacify through non-physical means. These mechanisms of power “enable us to consider ourselves as individual subjects” (McHoul and Grace 1995, 3) shaping the self and structuring what we perceive to be true about ourselves. Mechanisms of discipline create docile subjects whose labor can easily be extracted, though those subjects may see themselves and their actions as free or agentic.

In the university, power is laced through every function of the institution. One main function of the university is the shaping of students into productive workers. Students learn academic standards through interaction with the institution and the mechanisms of discipline which operate within it. As the university’s official grading scale dictates, a 4.0 is ‘excellent’ while a 0.0 is ‘inadequate’ and undeserving of institutional recognition — a ‘failure.’ When a student learns that their mark is marginal, they come to understand that their academic performance is inadequate. When they read a course syllabus and learn that late submissions will not be accepted, they learn that it is unacceptable to not meet a deadline. Students are trained to evaluate themselves around these norms and adjust their behavior when they violate them. This is what Moten and Harney (2013) refer to as the “call to order” of the classroom (8), the normalizing effect of disciplinary power within the university which produces a ‘standardized’ student with a standardized skillset.

When prompted to reflect on their own academics, most students I spoke to quickly evaluated their academic performance, labelling their grades as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Sabrina, a third year, adopted a modest tone as she spoke about her grades. ”They’re not the best, They’re not the worst. They’re decent,” she explained, smiling. Sabrina identified herself as “average.”  “And how do you feel about that? Are you okay with [feeling average]?” I prompted her, curious as to whether or not feeling ‘average’ entailed any sense of alienation or sadness for Sabrina. “…It doesn’t really impact me too much… It’s not too soul crushing.” While Sabrina did not necessarily take pride in her grades, she was not ‘crushed’ by them. Like Sabrina, most students who were satisfied with their performances specified that they could be better.

There were also those who rated their performance poorly, like Alex, a third year who was eager to discuss his difficult university experience. When questioned about his feelings regarding his academic performance, Alex audibly exhaled and began speaking; he did not have to think about his answer. “I thought I was smart, I thought I did things well. I thought that if I felt good about an essay, it’d be fine..” Alex seemed to feel poorly about his academic performance and embedded in his reply was the implication that he was not ‘smart.’ This form of negative self-talk was common among posters on the UofT reddit. Students who posted about academic hardships frequently labelled themselves as “failures” and expressed feelings of inadequacy. Most of these students had not actually been ejected from the university, and many had not even actually failed a course. Here, the label ‘failure’ refers to a student’s inability to be a ‘proper’ student — to live up to the standards one has internalized. Negative self-talk, then, becomes a form of self-discipline.

‘Power’ in the context of the university should not be understood as unidirectional or the exertion of any one administrator’s will. Just as the university calls students to order, students call other students to order. Power is not simply something held by those in authority. Rather, the subjects which it shapes share an equal role in its reproduction. In the context of the university students also play a role in the mechanism of power, disciplining themselves and others. One way this occurs is through comparison.

Throughout each interview I sought to get a sense of how students imagine the ‘UofT student’ in an archetypal sense. Who is the ‘regular’ UofT student? The collective picture painted by my group of interviewees was a cohesive one. The ‘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 “competitive” in their desire for academic excellence. These answers convey the image of a student who prioritizes academics, even at the cost of their social lives or mental wellbeing. The students I interviewed had their differences, but they all seemed to agree on what the ‘archetypal’ university of Toronto student looks like. Whether or not a student’s ideas about their fellow students reflect reality is of less significance than the function of these ideas. I posit that these common, cultural ideas are created through discipline and serve as a vessel through which students engage in self-discipline, however subconsciously.

In both interviews and reddit posts it was not uncommon to hear students reference their academic performance in comparison to others. But who is this other? Students rarely compared their performance to that of students they knew, like classmates or friends. Rather, they compared themselves to the imaginary, ‘ideal’ or ‘normal’ student — the archetypal ‘UofT’ student. The archetype may be unconsciously invoked as a point of reference by which students measured their performance. This invocation can be understood as serving a self-disciplining function: students remind themselves that they must keep working and improving, reminded that, supposedly, other UofT students are studying more and working harder than them.

Several of the students I interviewed also raised the topic of ‘grades talk,’ the idle conversation between students on topics of academics and schoolwork. One student I spoke with cited these conversations as a way of “bonding,” but also asserted that, at times, she disliked ‘grades talk.’ She noted that many students who claimed to have “failed” an assignment did not mean they had actually failed in any official capacity. “They mean a 70,” she complained. In labelling their 70% assignment a failure during ‘grades talk,’ the possessor of the grade disciplines themself, reinforcing the inadequacy of the grade, but also reinforces this standard in the mind of the students around them. Disciplinary power shapes the minds of subjects in such a way that they begin to discipline themselves and others, allowing an “automatic functioning of power” (McHoul and Grace 1995, 67). Students are trained to evaluate themselves around norms, and it is these norms which inform student identities, goals, and outlooks.

Becoming a UofT student: narratives of transformation

The laws and guidelines set by an institution structure possibilities, creating “places or positions in which subjects can form” (McHoul and Grace 1995, 48). At the University of Toronto, the positions offered to students appear to be few. I found that, rather than understanding themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ students, students understood themselves as ‘UofT students,’ ‘outsiders,’ or as occupying a liminal space between the two. Focusing for the moment on the ‘UofT student’ — the identity which was most represented among my interviewees — I explore the ways in which students enter the university as ‘outsiders’ and find themselves transformed into ‘UofT students.’

Among my interviewees the ‘UofT student’ is represented by those students who expressed a sense of belonging at the university and self-rated their academic performance as ‘good,’ “satisfactory” or ‘average.’ However, the most defining commonality among these students was their tendency to construct narratives of transformation about themselves and their abilities when reflecting on their time as university students. Three of my interviewees — Anika, Sabrina, and April — all independently framed their student experiences in terms of progression or progress. April, reflecting on her grades, told me that she felt “pretty shitty” about her overall GPA. “[it’s not] because of the profs or courses,” April explained, “During first year … I didn’t study…I almost got kicked out.” She specified that the transition from high school to university was a hard one, and that she quickly learned university was not about ‘fun.’ I asked if she felt differently about her grades in the present, and she stated that she had “improved” but was still not satisfied with her grades. While Anika, Sabrina, and April all felt that they could be doing better academically, they all had the strong sense that they had ‘transformed’ since their first year at the university, coming to belong at UofT.

Such narratives were also present on the university of Toronto reddit forum. In the comments section of a post in which a student vents about their struggles as a first year, an upper-year assures the poster that “It’s not uncommon to struggle in your first year” and shares that their own first-year struggles helped them “identify what was holding [them] back.” A tumultuous first year is regarded as a normal part of learning to be a UofT student, an ‘adjustment period’ during which a student learns to study ‘properly’ and comes to understand the rules and logic of the institution. While this path of ‘becoming a student’ tends to be presented as a linear one, this is not always the case. To briefly return to my personal experience, receiving a poor mark in an upper-year of university was enough for me to call my belonging back into question despite the fact that I, like most upper-year students, had already gone through the process of ‘learning to belong’ in my first year. My sense of ‘progression’ was interrupted, destabilizing my identity as a UofT student. Some students may straddle the line between ‘UofT student’ and ‘outsider,’ while others may firmly occupy a position on either side of the spectrum.

Belonging and the ‘outsider’ student

The concept of ‘belonging’ is central to my work, as a student’s sense of belonging within the university is tied to their relationship with the institution. I did not define belonging for my interview subjects in the interest of trying to ascertain what belonging at the university meant for them personally, rather than presenting them with a ready-made framework for defining their belonging. Interestingly, students rarely focused on social belonging. Instead, when asked about their sense of belonging, they tended to fixate on their academic performances.

Those students who constructed narratives of progression around their student experience tended to express at least some sense of belonging. Though the degree of belonging they expressed varied, each came across as relatively certain of their identity and place within the university. Sabrina, who identified her grades as “decent” and expressed a strong sense of progress, asserted that if she wasn’t “meant to be” at the university she would not still be here.  These students are both in and of the University, having been successfully shaped into students who, while not perfect, meet the standards of the university.

Not every student I spoke with expressed a strong sense of belonging. One such student was Olivia, a third-year student in the social sciences who straddled the line between belonging and unbelonging. As we walked to the on-campus coffee shop where our interview would take place Olivia and I chatted idly about grades and schoolwork, a natural topic of discussion among students. Olivia remarked to me that she needed to improve academically in order to “prove” that she belonged at the university. Hearing this, I was immediately excited for our interview, where we could discuss Olivia’s feelings of having to ‘prove’ her belonging. As such, when I eventually did ask the question, “do you ever feel that you don’t belong at [at the University of Toronto]?” I expected a “yes” in response. However, Olivia surprised me. “Hmm. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt that,” she replied. Then, she continued, unprompted, “…If I’m not performing up to standards… I don’t automatically think I should be kicked out. I think I need to step it up and improve my grades.”

This gave me pause. While Olivia’s initial response was not an empathetic expression of belonging, she did express that she did not feel any lack of belonging. Yet, immediately afterwards, she implied that there were conditions to belonging — academic ones. She then redoubled her initial statement, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I don’t belong… But it’s hard to feel like you do belong here.” She expressed that she had felt a stronger sense of belonging in high school and went on to state that she felt a person “like her” was “just awkwardly there” in the university, surrounded by people with “scholarships” and “connections.” Olivia’s answer struck me as riddled with contradictions. She seemed to bounce between reasserting her belonging and expressing a lack of belonging; she belonged, but she was also “awkwardly there,” as if standing on a boundary line and looking in.

While Olivia straddled the boundary, Alex stepped over it. Before I had gotten halfway through the question, “do you feel that you belong at UofT?” Alex was already responding, in a certain tone, “no.” He continued in a matter-of-fact tone, “I’m not rich, I’m not smart enough.”  He went on to bring up one of several incidents of suicide which occurred within the Bahen Centre, recalling a board of sticky notes erected by a student organization, “It was everyone just shitting on [the university]. I realized I wasn’t the only one…” He expressed a frustration with the university, which he later emphasized, stating that the university “[doesn’t] give a shit.” Given that Alex was the only interviewee to outright state that he did not belong at the university, I prompted him further, asking if there was any one core reason for the extreme sense of alienation he expressed in his initial answer. He elaborated, “I don’t have the resources other people do. I don’t have the money.” After saying this he rambled for a moment, unfocused, before pausing to think and continuing, “[the university] tries to make everyone on the same equal footing, but we know that’s not true. Not everybody learns the same.” Alex’s response conveyed a sense of alienation from the university and a frustration with its structures and practices. He overtly attributed his own lack of belonging to his lack of financial resources, but also implied that his learning style played a role. Ultimately, Alex felt that he was not on “equal footing” with other students.

Alex represents the ‘outsider’ student, a student who exists within the university, but is at the same time outside of its bounds. The ‘outsider’ student might be compared to the Foucauldian notion of the ‘unruly’ subject, one who possesses marginal knowledge deemed unscientific or invalid (Dreyfus 2016, 15). Every student may be framed as an ‘outsider’ upon entering the university, but after a period of struggle they are transformed into a UofT student. The ‘outsider’ is not necessarily unintelligent, but they have not been molded into a subject desired by the university — either because they refuse to be shaped, or because they cannot take such a form. While other interviewees shared narratives of progress and coming to belong, the narrative Alex presented was reversed: he had entered the university confident in his intelligence and abilities but became less confident over time. There was no turning point at which he came to ‘belong.’

While students who reported a weaker sense of belonging tended to be more critical of their academic performances, grades are not necessarily the defining factor in dividing insider from outsider. Rather, the presence or absence of a sense of progression appears to be a stronger divider of the two. Through the ‘transformation’ students come to ‘belong’ at the university. The ‘outsider’ remains outside the University even as they study within it; the university is not able to shape them as it desires through processes of discipline. As such, whether a student comes to occupy an ‘outsider’ role may depend on how effectively the processes of discipline have worked to shape them into a standardized UofT student.  My interview data suggests that students who have poorer economic resources may be more likely to feel a lack of belonging. However, there was no conclusive data on whether student’s backgrounds or locations in social inequalities affected their ability to develop into students who ‘belonged.’ 

Conclusion

Through processes of admission and rejection the university selects those it deems capable of being transformed into students, setting them on the path to transform from outsider to student. At the University of Toronto, coming to belong is a process through which students internalize standards and buy into a work-focused culture. Students share the collective image of the ‘UofT student’ as defined by motivation and dedication to work, and it is this ideal which they strive to match. When students compare grades or boast about pulling an all-nighter, they collectively bolster their identities as UofT students and reinforce the common standards which they all seek to meet. However, not every student can fit into the same mold; for example, a student who learns at a different pace or through different means than other students. Being unable to step into the identity or position of the ‘UofT student,’ these students remain ‘outsiders’ even as they exist within the university. Such experiences of unbelonging may be associated with experiences of stress or suffering. For Alex, the interviewee who felt the most alienated from the university, his sense of ‘unbelonging’ was coupled with a deep frustration and sense of hopelessness.

These most basic processes of the university, processes of exclusion, are somewhat contrary to the university of Toronto’s depiction of itself as a diverse space. While the university advertises the aesthetics of diversity in order to cultivate prestige and legitimacy, the institution remains structurally unchanged. There is a limit to the level of diversity which is tolerated, and those who exceed these limits become outsiders within the university — or find themselves expunged from it.

My intention is not to paint the University as a tyrannical institution which punishes difference. The university serves a productive purpose, producing competent, standardized workers who hold valuable skills — and uphold the prestige of the institution. However, it cannot be denied that within the university, those who are sufficiently different, less able to be molded into a ‘normal’ student, are marginalized. Perhaps we might imagine a different university and a different form of study — a truly diverse one.

References

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. London: Routledge, 2016.

Haikara, Nina. “U Of T Faculty of Law Launches Black Future Lawyers Program.” University of Toronto News, January 2020. https://www.utoronto.ca/news/u-t-faculty-law-launches-black-future-lawyers-program.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe u.a.: Minor Compositions, 2013.

McHoul, Alec, and Wendy Grace. A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject. Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group, 1995.

Vendeville, Geoffrey. “Nicole Kaniki Is U of T’s First Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Research and Innovation.” University of Toronto News, May 2021. https://www.utoronto.ca/news/nicole-kaniki-u-t-s-first-director-equity-diversity-and-inclusion-research-and-innovation.

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