We (don’t) Care: University as Fractured Home – Girish Daswani

This blogpost emerges out of undergraduate student papers that were presented as part of the University Worlds Workshop in January 2020. The students who presented – Dwight Sampson, Alice Xu, Sylwia Pucek – had taken my Fall 2019 upper-level course “The Anthropology of Transnationalism” at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). As their assignment they were asked to conduct research around the topic “University as Home”. Together, we discussed questions such as: If the University of Toronto (UofT) is an employer, a real estate owner, a generator of revenues and a hub in global networks of value and aspiration, then what are the possibilities for and institutional practices of home-making that undergraduate students participate in? What are the transnational and local practices that make the university familiar or unfamiliar? What is the relation between the “diversity” that is marketed by the university and the one that is experienced by students on campus?

To think of UTSC as “home” might sound strange given that many students do not live on campus and neither do they necessarily spend most of their time there. However, UTSC’s efforts to create a supportive educational environment can often be equated with making the campus like home or with creating a community that make students feel at home. As Robin G. Kelley (2016) writes, university “tours for prospective students, orientations, and slickly produced brochures often rely on metaphors of family and community, highlight campus diversity, and emphasize the sense of belonging that young scholars enjoy”. Kelley (2016), however, believes that universities usually fall short of this ideal. While we tend to expect or hope that the university “cares”, this is not always the case. With this in mind, a better understanding of the fractured nature of institutional home-making practices allows us to consider the tension between the desire to belong and what Avery Gordon (2008: xvi) has called a haunting: “those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view”.

The students work focused on several blind spots. Indeed, all three posts point to different ways in which, while advertising “diversity” and proclaiming more inclusive university campuses, the university also works to exclude and to other. One such blind spot is the high number of Black students who drop out of UTSC (Bernard et al. 2020), a phenomenon which is no doubt unique to that particular institution. Dwight Sampson points to the feeling of exclusion experienced by members of the Caribbean student community and looks more specifically at how Blackness often becomes conceptualized as the “problem”. This may not seem surprising once we learn about the impediments to Black life in Canada, which include policing and public education (Cole 2019). Another blind spot is “mental health” on campus. Alice Xu writes about the Computer Science program as an unwelcoming space that is impersonal, has high-fees and a punishing grading scheme. At worst, it is deadly: Within a 2-year period, there have been three suicides on campus. Sylwia Pucek looks at the Department for Sports and Recreation, its student facilities, and UTSC’s investment in the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. In this case, the large operating costs incurred by the university is offset by its ability to transfer most of these costs to incoming students through a mandatory annual levy. She asks an important question about who ultimately benefits from such investments.

Related Posts