Interview with Gina Hunter (Ethnography of the University Initiative)

Gina Hunter is an anthropologist teaching at Illinois State University, in the Midwestern United States, and a longstanding participant in the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI). The EUI, which we’ve written about before, is an institutional initiative housed at the University of Illinois which aims to support reflexive student research projects about higher education. The project has been around since 2002, and Hunter was its co-director from 2006–2014. She generously took the time to answer a number of questions about the project, its politics and context. The interview, if I may say so, is particularly relevant for teachers thinking about the politics of students doing critical research on their own educational institutions.

Eli Thorkelson: Can we perhaps start by talking a bit more about the internal history of the project? I know the project was initiated by Nancy Abelmann (whose 2009 book about Korean American college students I really loved) and Bill Kelleher, but I’m wondering how you yourself came to the project? How has its organizational atmosphere changed over the years, as it has gone from novel experiment to a more durable part of the institution?

Gina Hunter: Looking back, I see EUI emerging at the confluence of at least three intellectual currents. I was a student of both Nancy and Bill in Anthropology. Nancy taught Ethnographic Methods and I recall her excitement about the then-new web-based software programs (the Community Inquiry Laboratories at UIUC) that she thought might be used the show the process of how an ethnographer moves from inquiry to field notes and data to writing up analyses and conclusions. She saw pedagogical potentials of “asynchronous learning environments” and a publicly accessible online archives of student work. She wanted to “open-up” the classroom for collaborative work and so that students could build on each others’ work from one semester to the next.

Secondly, at that time, many people in higher education were discussing the release of what came to be known as the “Boyer Report.” In this document, officially titled Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities, the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University had concluded that U.S. research universities were frequently failing their undergraduate students who too often graduate without knowing how to think logically or to write and speak coherently. The Commission’s number one suggestion was to fully integrate undergraduates into the research mission of the university, by making research-based learning central to undergraduate education. EUI was one answer to that call.

Finally, Nancy was herself developing research interest in the University, and specifically the University of Illinois, as she began to explore how so many Korean students ended up there and what challenges they faced. By 2002, Nancy and Bill had initiated the Ethnography of the University of Illinois, with a year-long series of events and workshops at the U of I’s Center for Advanced Study. They invited people from across campus and beyond to speak on various aspects of the University from its budget, to assessment, to its architecture and physical footprint.

EUI really took off when then-chancellor Nancy Cantor designated EUI a Cross Campus Initiative, gave it a temporary budget and commissioned EUI to study the Brown vs the Board of Education Commemorations. So EUI was a research endeavor, pedagogical framework, and a collaborative community.

It was shortly after that that I came on board as an “outside” affiliate by teaching a course at Illinois State University in conjunction with EUI. A few years later, in 2006, I became a co-Director (there were a number of others for different periods) and I stayed in that role for eight years or so. Over those years, the project formalized: we developed a website, wrote the mission statement, recruited faculty, developed new faculty orientation workshops, developed internal and external advisory boards, wrote grants, and began to strategize about the long-term sustainability of the program.

What I most appreciated about EUI was the very supportive and engaging pedagogical community. Faculty from across the university and from multiple institutions were teaching EUI courses at the same time. The “online” aspect of the project –both the shared course management and the EUI archives within the UofI institutional repository, called IDEALS—required thinking through key interdisciplinary aspects of the project. We needed faculty and students across many departments and institutions to understand and follow human subjects research protocols that we established with UofI’s IRB. And, we asked faculty the same basic format for the EUI projects (so that there would be some consistency within the archives). Specifically, we asked that all projects include a process document (not just a final product). We also suggested that the process document include sections such as “Question”, “Methods”, “Data”, “Conclusions” although this format was not entirely compatible with, say, creative writing or museum studies classes

Within this pedagogical community, EUI inspired other kinds of campus-based projects. (See, for instance, Writing@ The University of Illinois by Catherine Jean Prendergast, Richard Nardi and Cory Holding).

Once EUI became incorporated into the Office of Undergraduate Research at UofI, the project seems to have become more internally directed (the web presence of EUI diminished) and focused on scaling up to larger classes. The current Director, Karen Rodriguez, can speak to those changes.

Eli: Nancy Abelmann, in her short piece called the “EUI Story,” observes that she tried to bring institutional researchers into the project. Did that continue at all over time, or did these institutional researchers end up going back to their offices and leaving EUI to the faculty and undergraduates? I know Priscilla Fortier, from the Office of Minority Student Affairs, got quite involved in the project, but that seems like a different sort of role than the more quantitative analysts who typically work in official “Institutional Research” roles. So I wonder if EUI put in question the existing structures of institutional expertise, which usually serve the upper management, or perhaps pushed them to become more dialogical or collaborative?

Gina: Right, Pricilla Fortier was involved in the project primarily as a teacher rather than as an administrator. In particular, she worked (she’s retired now) as an instructor and advisor for McNair Program Fellows; she saw EUI as a valuable way for minority scholars to explore issues of privilege and power within academia.

The data available from the institutional research office is a great place for students to start asking questions of the institution. What is tracked? Why? Who are our “benchmark” institutions? And, indeed, some students effectively critique the formation of institutional research data and categories. But I think it often takes much prior knowledge of the university to “get behind” the numbers. For instance, interrogating data on diversity in enrollments is easier once you have knowledge of various programs used to attract and retain various populations of students (not only racial and ethnic, but honors students, athletes, etc). So, I have to provide my students that information—otherwise the numbers just seem like reflections of larger social and demographic facts.

I’ve also had institutional researchers and other administrators visit class to converse with students—in part to prevent any facile characterization of “The Administration” as a faceless bureaucracy— not to discount at all the potential violence and tyranny of bureaucratization but for students to see how certain interests and positions on university concerns are formed.

I don’t know that EUI research is of interest to institutional researchers—largely because it is not in a form that institutional research offices know well how to use. I do know that EUI research has had impact on our universities—at least when it aligns with existing interests. A few years ago, for instance, students in my ethnography course collectively studied the “international student experience” at Illinois State. Among the findings, was a critique of literal and figurative space of our English Language Institute, a first stop for many international students on our campus. The ELI was located in small building at the edge of campus. My students wondered aloud why a campus interested in attracting larger numbers of international students “greeted” them at a campus “back door.” A related finding was a lack of tolerance and understanding some of our faculty show toward non-native English speakers. We presented these and other findings at a well-attended campus conference and that generated much discussion. A year later the ELI was moved to a building on the main Quad and our teaching center began offering workshops on how to engage international students in the classroom. Obviously, “internationalization” of the campus was already underway at our otherwise provincial university, but I know that the International Studies Office paid attention to out EUI project and I like to think that we instigated some positive action.

Eli: Perhaps this gets us to the obvious big question: what has happened when the project’s ethnographic findings aren’t congenial to the administration?

Gina: Early on at EUI, we discussed the issue of institutional feedback. Nancy always argued for the intellectual value of pushing students to make recommendations back to the university, and we saw the potential for institutional reform. At the end of one semester, we made a list of key student findings and recommendations and wrote it up as a press release. We sent it to the media relations person for the Anthropology Department and got a prompt slap on the hand from someone in the administration. They did not publish the article and asked what response mechanism we had in place to allow those responsible for policies and programs to respond. I recall being stunned at the level of image-management at UIUC… something I had not encountered at the lower profile Illinois State. We took the critique to heart and tried to implement some feedback loops—for instance, sending targeted invitations to administrators from campus units that were the subject of student projects. But of course, this was only when we knew in advance that there were well-done student projects. All of this requires advance planning that is really hard to do for semester mini-projects.

Things may have shifted further on this front now that EUI has been integrated into the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Eli: Can you comment a bit on what EUI has meant to its undergraduate student participants in the long term? Does it seem to leave a durable impact on them? Does it become a pipeline to graduate school or applied anthropology work?

Gina: I know some EUI students have gone on to graduate school, like Teresa Ramos, but I wonder if that became a real trend. I don’t have data on this, though Karen might.

Eli: Relatedly, are there any interesting social dynamics that emerge within the EUI student populations? For example, does this reflexive research particularly appeal to students from socially marked or marginalized populations (perhaps in ethnoracial/sexual/religious/socioeconomic/linguistic terms)?

Gina: I don’t think it’s only a question of the student being from a socially marked position, although those positions sometimes do foster social critique that, in turn, aids students in doing EUI research. Students involved in social movements —be it feminism, decolonialism, anti-racism—are also already engaged with critiquing the social structure. So, this kind of “institutional ethnography“ also makes intuitive sense. The struggle is how to get all students to “see” the university.

Eli: In the September/October 2008 issue of Change, you and Nancy Abelmann and Timothy Reese Cain wrote: “In the classroom, EUI struggles to find the best ways to help students think institutionally. Not all EUI research ‘goes institutional’; for some students the university remains simply a setting and is not envisioned as an agent of any kind. This challenge extends to faculty participants as well, many of whom think of the university as little more than the backdrop to their own academic lives.” I think this points towards an issue for many people trying to “teach the university” these days, including me. Can you say more about when this sort of “institutional gaze” comes into being and when it doesn’t?

Gina: I think some questions and some projects lend themselves to more institutional thinking. It’s easiest to see institutional forces in moments of change and debate. Adding a historical or cross-institutional perspective helps too.

In 2012, I published the results of a small SOTL study conducted the year following one of my EUI courses to assess the learning “take aways” from the course (Hunter, 2012). I found that EUI helped many students reflect on the purpose of higher education in a broad sense and on the complexity of the institution. On the one hand, those things seem like things students would obviously learn in a study of the university. On the other, most public discourse these days on public higher education focuses on earning a degree to get a job and whether a particular degree offers a good “return on investment” (or will get one a job that pays enough to cover student loans). EUI courses can shift the narrative toward understanding the broader value of higher education institutions, and well as critiquing their role in increasing or decreasing social stratification, and understanding the forces that seek to commodify and privatize all aspects of education.

Eli: It’s great to know that you’re able to shift students’ consciousness in this direction. My experience is that while my students are able to strongly criticize academic administration, broader questions about commodification or privatization are often hard for them to engage with directly, and I’m reminded here that doing research can really open their eyes in some cases.

Let me just step back for a moment and ask a little about your life and your context, since I think it’s always easier for our readers to understand reflexive research when they know a little bit about the people who do it, and the space they work in. I noticed that you’re a product of these institutions too, since your undergraduate degree is from Illinois State, your graduate degrees are both from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), and now you teach at Illinois State. Do you think you could just say a word about your own family background and how you came to your academic career?

Gina: Yes, I was born and raised in central Illinois and have benefited enormously from the public education I received at these two institutions. My father was a first generation college student at Illinois State, where he met my mother. He became a high school math teacher and the state government employee—so my siblings and I grew up middle-class. Although tuition at these public schools was and is relatively affordable, my education was funded in part through government subsidized loans, my part-time work income, and my parents’ contributions. Average annual tuition and fees and Illinois public universities was only about $2,500 in the early 1990s; it is about $14,000 today. It’s much harder for families like the one I came from to send their children to four-year universities. It has become much more common for students to complete two years at community colleges and then transfer to a university. One-third of the undergraduates at Illinois State today transfer from other colleges and universities.

So, I feel hugely privileged to be in academia and to be able to teach cultural anthropology. I, like all the faculty in my department, teach General Education courses up to graduate seminars. Illinois State does not have the publication and grant-seeking expectations of a major research institution like the University of Illinois, so we are allowed more time for teaching, which suits me.

Eli: And to step back even a little bit more — here I’m imagining talking to my students in South Africa! — what’s central Illinois like as a place to live and work in higher education? From where I used to live in Chicago, a few hours to the north, I always pictured Urbana-Champaign as one of those classic, big Midwestern college towns surrounded by an enormous zone of rural agriculture. I picture it as a bit of a cultural bubble, since a lot of the students don’t come from the region, like the ones in Nancy Abelmann’s book who hail from the more urbanized Chicago suburbs. Does this cultural bubble, if there is one, extend to faculty life as well?

Gina: Your imagination is quite accurate! Yes, Urbana-Champaign is a big college town. Nancy referred to it as “centrally isolated.” It is a cultural bubble although faculty may be more mobile than students and are perhaps more likely to identify with their national and international disciplinary or professional communities and networks—than with the institution per se.

Bloomington-Normal, where I live, is much less of a college town. Illinois State is a smaller school (21,000 vs the UofI Urbana-Champaign’s 44,000 students) and our largest employer is an insurance company. It’s a very different “feel.”

Both institutions draw students from the Chicagoland area, such that many of our students come from more diverse neighborhoods or high schools to find themselves in white dominant campuses. This perhaps feeds back into your observation that critical university studies may appeal more to students from socially marked positions.

Eli: Let me circle back, finally, to questions about the institutional future. As I think we all know, there’s been a lot of writing about how hard it is to get critical projects to really “stick,” to become permanent parts of academic institutions. As Davydd Greenwood puts it, “Individually positive projects do not change the larger political economy of public universities.” So I wondered: where do you see the EUI project going in the future? Is it still meeting the same reflexive needs as it did when Abelmann initially wanted to study processes of racialization and segregation? You mentioned that you might frame the project differently in our era of Trump and #BlackLivesMatter — can you say more about that?

Gina: Individual projects can lead to small positive reforms –I’ve seen it on my campus– but they are indeed very weak against the larger political economic forces shaping higher education. Collectively, these projects help shape a vision and understanding of higher education that is quite oppositional to neoliberal forces.

Funding for higher education continues to decline in the US—and given new tax cuts we might expect that funding to further diminish. However, the last US election saw substantial discussion about free public college education and more media attention to that idea than given in decades. Things change.

Those of us who see higher education as contributing to democratic citizenship and to human development—and not only as a route to economic development and social mobility—need to wrest the dominant narrative back from neoliberal logics. I think that EUI-type projects help us do that.

Eli: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Gina, and I hope in a small way we can help spread the word that collective research projects like the EUI can really affect large numbers of students, especially if we can sustain them for longer periods of time.

Abelmann, Nancy. 2009. The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cain, Timothy Reese. 2013. “Examining the University: EUI at the Confluence of Student Research, Institutional Critique, Pedagogical Community-Building and Technological Change.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).
Fortier, Priscilla. 2013. “The Persistence of Racial Discomfort on Campus: Ethnographic Perspectives from under-Represented Student Researchers.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).
Hunter, Gina. 2012. “Students Study up the University: Perspectives Gained in Student Research on the University as Institution.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 12 (1): 19–43.
Hunter, Gina, and Nancy Abelmann. 2013. “The Ethnography of the University Initiative: A Decade of Student Research on the University.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3): 1–8.
Kwon, Soo Ah. 2013. “The Comforts and Discomforts of Race.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).
Prendergast, Catherine. 2013. “Reinventing the University: EUI as Writing Initiative.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).
Ramos, Teresa. 2013. “Critical Race Ethnography of Higher Education: Racial Risk and Counter-Storytelling.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).
Rana, Junaid. 2013. “Anti-Racist Teaching, Student Ethnography and the Multiracial Model of Islam.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).
Somerville, Siobhan B. 2013. “Locating Queer Culture in the Big Ten.” Learning and Teaching 6 (3).

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Eli Thorkelson

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

4 thoughts on “Interview with Gina Hunter (Ethnography of the University Initiative)”

  1. Thank you, Gina and Eli, for a really illuminating discussion. I had read The Intimate University some time ago and always wondered how it all worked. Now I have a better idea.

    I have only one substantive comment. In emphasizing having students engage in research on the institution they are in, a goal that is entirely reasonable, you skipped over what has became increasingly evident to me in my last decade of teaching and now in the reform of the CASA-Seville study abroad program. It is that our students rarely have experienced conducting any kind of social research at all, not just organizational research on the university. In 10 years, I had no students in a course that relied on doing local ethnography who had ever done an interview, formulated a research question, developed and tested interpretations, and synthesized them in writing. Perhaps Cornell students were uniquely bereft and most of these did not come from anthropology, but I suspect that learning how to do social research of any kind may be the larger issue of which blindness to the organization of the university is one manifestation.

  2. Thank you, Davydd, for your interesting comment. Despite the recognition of the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates, it still difficult to carry out in the space of a semester. Social research that goes public or that students can build on from one semester to the next usually requires Institutional Review Board (research ethics) oversight, and that requires tremendous time and labor. At my institution, there are only a few instructors who regularly teach our research courses and it is easy for them to get burned out.
    EUI was wonderful in being able to offer an “umbrella” IRB (although I believe this became more difficult over time and as the diversity of courses increased) and for providing a supportive faculty cohort. I think that any institution that wants to encourage undergraduate research has to find ways to navigate IRB requirements and support faculty. Without this is hard to see how one can really make social research accessible to a large number of students.

  3. Hi Gina, Thanks for the response. I see from what you said that what I had in mind is not what I conveyed. I was not thinking about big “R” research skills but learning about a social science or humanities field by learning how it approaches gathering and interpreting data. For a number of years before I retired, a colleague and I taught a no prerequisites alternative to the standard introductory anthropology course. It was called “Engaging Other Cultures”. With between 20-30 students, we taught basic social anthropology and linguistics by having them select a topic of personal interest and study it through a sequence of exercises. They began collecting lexical and discourse items and wrote a 3 page essay. At the same time, they read a bit of linguistics and some articles on language and culture. Then on to social roles and social structure through brief participant observation and an interview with another short write-up and readings on this subject. Then onto the world of symbols, worldview, etc with the same process. These short exercises were mentored and peer mentored and added up to a final research paper that the whole class shared. Any course in the social sciences can be taught this way. Indeed, I realized that knowing a field depends on knowing how the people in it gather and interpret data.
    I am now in the final process of a three year action research reform of Cornell’s study abroad immersion program in Seville, Spain. The program was not working despite the fact that students came with good Spanish skills, live with families, take course directly in the University of Seville with Spanish and Erasmus students, etc. Their inability to engage, improve linguistically, and their 24/7 engagement with the internet and smartphone maintained cultural bubble kept them from learning. We have restructured the whole program around a semester-long course on how to learn about language, society, and culture in Seville through ethnographic and linguistic methods promoting direct engagement with Sevillano society. The results have been very encouraging and the students are also much more confident and outgoing.
    So I wasn’t thinking of forcing everyone to take a research methods course. The bifurcation between introducing a discipline by laying out its important findings and dimensions (which were the results of research) and research methods as an advanced and more abstractly methodological activity is, I think, a mistake. And when we make that mistake, we end up, as in Seville, with a bright bunch of students who have no idea how to deploy ways of learning and analyzing what they are learning in context.
    I hope this is clearer.

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