Producing and Raising 'low Aspirations': An Institutional Ethnography of a University Outreach Program with Elementary School Children

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 14:35
Location: Hörsaal 6C P (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
David PEACOCK, University of Alberta, Canada
This article reports findings from an institutional ethnography of the outreach practices of student equity workers as they engaged school students and communities from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.   From the standpoint of outreach staff in an Australian university that educates a comparatively high proportion of ‘first generation’ university students, I explain how a complex and diverse set of outreach activities was being coordinated and standardized by the use of government mandated reporting and evaluation templates. 

Ethnographic descriptions and interview texts are constructed from an outreach program for elementary school students observed over two days.  As outreach staff anticipated government reporting requirements and articulated their evaluation practices to them, they truncated their more complex and nuanced community engagement work into the deficit-based categories of equity policy that sought to ‘raise the aspirations’ of ‘low SES’ students. Yet this activation of ruling relations was not absolute.  Within a less-selective university with alternative entry programs, and with long standing commitments to social inclusion and social justice, outreach workers were afforded possibilities for textually-mediated appropriations of the equity policy to the benefit of local students from Pacific Island backgrounds and students with disabilities.

The research furthers the sociology of university-community outreach by offering a rich and rare ethnographic description of so called ‘widening participation’ practices in higher education. It also contributes to the field of institutional ethnography by providing an empirical account of how ‘what gets done’ in university outreach practice is neither simple reproductive actions of extra-local discourses nor local, uninhibited innovative practice.  In this university, community outreach became recognizable to its practitioners as it was constructed both as an instance of authorized policy and as ‘what gets done here’.