Ethnography of the University: Overview

The Ethnography of the University

Tania Li

The Ethnography of the University project was founded at the University of Illinois by Professor Nancy Abelmann. See the EUI website for a rich archive of past student projects. EUI researchers in anthropology and other disciplines have pursued hundreds of research projects over the years. On a visit to Toronto in 2010, Nancy Abelmann encouraged me to start a parallel project, and produce ethnographies of the University of Toronto. I taught multiple iterations of a course called The Ethnography of the University designed for both undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Toronto from 2012-2022. When Nancy visited again in 2014 and asked me what we had done in the class so far, she said we were conducting “ethnography in the university” not “of the university”: we had no analysis of the university as such.

Nancy’s intervention obliged me to think much harder about how we could conduct an ethnography of the institution. Where would we start? I realized that we would need a theme – a track that we could explore, a way in. So I recrafted the course to follow a common theme each year. We start with a few theoretical readings on the theme, then students each pursue their own research projects, using the class time for collaboration, brainstorming and feedback. Students write up their findings in blog posts that offer brief accounts of their findings or their experiences as researchers conducting their first field work. They write final research papers, which they may or may not chose to publish on the website. They all participate in the end-of-course conference, which is open to their friends and family and to the broader community.

Many students have said the practicum course is the most intense intellectual and collegial experience they had during their studies. Sadly, Prof Abelmann died in 2016. I knew her only briefly but loved her enthusiasm for teaching and research, and her generous collegiality. Her legacy continues to inspire our explorations of the university as a rich field for ethnographic inquiry.  For a sample syllabus, see this blog post.

Here are the topics we have investigated so far: