Ethnography of the University Initiative at the University of Illinois

A few years ago there was a special issue of LATISS about a noteworthy initiative at the University of Illinois, the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), which aims to support courses based on student research about their own university. Its virtue is precisely that it is not a traditional ethnographic research project, but a collective project that supports student ethnographic research. The special issue (from 2013) is a little older than most of what I write about here, but I wanted to post some quick excerpts from the issues, in guise of an introduction to the project, and an appreciation of the admirable reflexive research that it fostered. I might also note here that this project has also yielded an important ethnographic monograph, the late Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation (which I previously reviewed in LATISS).

The initiative’s institutional story is interesting in itself. According to Abelmann and Hunter’s introduction to the special issue, the project never had stable funding of its own:

Despite the administrative challenges, EUI’s organisational infrastructure has been remarkably minimal. The co-directors are faculty volunteers. The day-to-day coordination of the project has been handled by one administrative coordinator or part-time graduate students or a combination of the two. EUI has, however, relied on the cooperation and buy-in of staff members in the university’s libraries, archives and offices supporting online learning and digital technologies. Our funding has been pieced together from departmental contributions, small grants, and other sources of temporary funds. EUI has succeeded in securing some support because it has become a laboratory for piloting various teaching technologies (such as video and podcasting) and research initiatives. What sustains EUI is the enthusiasm of academics who continue to teach EUI courses. (5).

I’m particularly intrigued by EUI’s strategy of piggybacking on the American craze for teaching technology, and thereby procuring the ample funds that go with it. A lot of medium-sized innovation in U.S. higher education works like this — by playing along with current managerial priorities (which are also budget priorities) and then redirecting resources into some other (perhaps more critical) direction.

I wonder, however, if the project may have dwindled somewhat over time, since it is now merged into UIUC’s Office of Undergraduate Research, the website isn’t completely up to date, and its original faculty co-founders are now deceased. Abelmann has been gone since 2016, and Bill Kelleher was already lost by the time of the LATISS special issue, which was dedicated to him.

But in any case, I gather that the EUI style of teaching — with its encouragement of reflexive student research — still continues. Here are some brief excerpts from the special issue that hint at the wide-ranging implications of the projects. To begin with, consider some substantive findings dealing with race and racialization on campus:

Soo Ah Kwon, “The comforts and discomforts of race”:

I find that students [in an Asian American Youth course] do not readily heed my call to think about their research subjects’ identity formation beyond individuals’ personal choice; they are disinclined, for example, to consider that talk of comfort or discomfort might connect to racial segregation and/or racism on campus. 44

Priscilla Fortier, “The persistence of racial discomfort on campus”:

During the training, which [undergraduate Ashanti Barber] decided to study as an ethnographer, staff members viewed a film that purported to make white privilege visible through white activist speakers who were urging other whites to educate themselves and other whites. She described the room as diverse, lively and talkative until the subject was introduced, after which an ‘uneasy stillness’ prevailed. When the student who introduced the film asked the group what might be an ideal outcome from such a conversation, one participant said that he foremost did not want to leave feeling attacked. Ashanti observed ‘people of color listening intently, some white females chattering about a test, a few white men sleeping, everyone else seemed to be mentally absent’ (Barber 2006). A white female told Ashanti in a later interview that she immediately felt uneasy and had begun to shut down before the movie even began. (32)

Junaid Rana, “Anti-racist teaching, student ethnography and the multiracial model of Islam”:

Several students combined their research in a group effort to provide an elaborate ethnography of the various institutions involved in campus reports of harassment, hate crimes, and racist violence… This group addressed the meaning of hate crimes on campus in relation to Muslim students by interviewing student services administrators, dormitory and residence assistants, campus and city police, as well as students themselves. What these studies show is that while there are elaborate policies for handling violence and harassment, a wide range of incidents go unaddressed because of the narrowness of the way in which hate crimes and racism are officially defined by campus policy. The central finding that these student researchers report is a gap between the general understanding of everyday racism and the violent acts that qualify as a hate crime. In other words, the specificity of a hate crime does not include everyday harassment, verbal abuse and discrimination. Because these are not necessarily punishable crimes, this creates a context and atmosphere for the normalisation of everyday racism. As a result, anti-Muslim racism is permitted because it is not deemed sufficiently racist. It is not described as religious discrimination because it is not viewed as a hate crime. A hate crime is, for the police and administrators, a legal category in which material violence results in measurable damages; verbal and physical abuse is not policed and becomes accepted as routinised behaviour whether it is defined as racism or religious discrimination. (57)

Teresa Ramos, “Critical race ethnography of higher education”:

Novak [an undergraduate researcher] debunked the myth that the university was directly engineering racial segregation through assigned roommates. Although ability to pay a deposit was not a factor in racial segregation, Novak’s research shows how a seemingly race-neutral university housing policy of allowing students to choose residence halls maintains historical segregation and reinforces the racial status quo on campus. The outcome of the policy was the same – segregated student housing. Important to note is that white students self-segregate in greater numbers than people of colour. (68)

…EUI challenges some of the foundations of the research university by introducing and valuing the student perspective, a voice that has often been ironically marginal in education policy, pedagogy, and reform. I believe that EUI has the potential to transform the University from within if faculty and administrators take student research seriously as meaningful feedback. For the many students who are destined to play ‘catch-up’ in college and who have not had access to consistent and collaborative teaching, advising and resourcing, EUI’s inquiry-based learning provides a space where students can put themselves at the centre of the university’s mission. My own trajectory is living proof. (75)

I don’t have the space here to comment on all these substantive claims; I just found them striking and worthy of further reflection, in connection with the large body of other research on racialization in academic settings.

On a more meta note, some of the former directors of the project also raised questions about its institutional form and status. Catherine Prendergast, in “Reinventing the university: EUI as writing initiative,” comments on how similar forms of ethnographic inquiry have been adopted in the University of Illinois’s writing programs:

The Rhetoric Program… does not have to weather the periodic budgetary crises that a niche (if expanding) initiative such as EUI must. Writing programmes across the United States enjoy a level of sustained financial support from their universities that few other instructional programmes attain. I have wondered what would happen if the University of Illinois could be moved to recognise EUI as a writing programme, not simply an initiative spearheaded by dedicated, but undercompensated, faculty. What would happen if the university put the resources behind student research at all levels that it currently puts behind entry-level general education requirements? (87)

Timothy Reese Cain gives a nice concluding summary of the general form of the project, in “Examining the university: EUI at the confluence of student research, institutional critique, pedagogical community-building and technological change”:

EUI started out as a small group of faculty committed to sharing practices and improving their teaching. At its heart the project is a pedagogical community that brings together ever-changing groups of participants who revise syllabi, discuss successes and failures in the classroom, reflect on their practices and seek to improve their students’ learning. And they make their efforts public. At the front-end, faculty share their teaching plans and open them up for critique; at the back, through the archiving of students’ work – including process documents demonstrating the prompts that they were provided, feedback that they received, steps that they took and learning that took place – the products of those approaches are shared much more broadly (see the EUI repository in the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship, IDEALS). (94-95)

The emphasis on publishing reflexive and even politically edgy undergraduate research is quite laudable, and it would be interesting to compare this project with other student research programs that have focused on reflexive anthropology of the university.

I hope to publish a further interview with EUI participants in the future.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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