Why Study Power in the University?

By Dr. Tania Li

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few considerations prompted me to propose power as a focus for our study of the university in the undergraduate course, ANT 473 Ethnographic Practicum The University 2015. First, I received a collegial nudge from Professor Nancy Abelmann, who first developed the “Ethnography of the University” at the University of Illinois and encouraged me to start a parallel project at U of T. When I told her 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. She 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.

Second, a conversation with my daughter and her friends when they were students at U of T drew my attention to the figure of “the man”. Who is the man? For them, it was the university as a hostile, anonymous, bureaucratic force, determined to undermine them and make their lives difficult. Specifically, in that instance, it was the ROSI course registration system that had rejected my daughter’s attempts to register in a required course due to a missing prerequisite. She was in fact exempt from the pre-req, but the system did not recognize the exemption. By the time she got it sorted out, the class was full. That is the man. Listening to her made me think about how students experience power in the university, and what the metaphor of the man implies. Do they picture an actual man, sitting in a room, plotting ways to make their lives difficult? If the man is a metaphor for bureaucratic power, how do their varied encounters with bureaucracy support or interfere with the image of the man as hostile? Presumably, a helpful person at her college registrar’s office fixed the technical problem, but what is the position of such an encounter in relation to the man’s power – especially given the frustrating outcome: the class she needed was already full?

Finally, I was led to reflect on how power works in my own life as a professor at U of T. So much of my working life is self-directed: within reason, I can decide what courses I want to teach, and what material to cover; I can decide how to focus my research, and which invitations for collaboration I want to accept or reject. The audit culture to which we are subject is relatively mild: we prepare an annual report on our activities, which is reviewed by a committee of our colleagues. If we are found to have excelled, we get a little extra merit pay; if not, too bad. Freedom is one of the privileges of our lives as academics. Only self-governing, autonomous subjects would work as hard as many of us do “freely.” Yet freedom can be coercive, as I observed during the 2015 TA strike, when the administration devolved responsibility for impossible “choices:” each individual instructor in their classroom had to decide how to reconcile incompatible goals. These events made me reflect on how we are governed through our freedom, and how we govern ourselves and others in these terms. Has the man become us?

Download the course syllabus here: ANT 473 Ethnographic Practicum The University 2015