Nancy Abelmann, Co-Director of EUI
Long before "EUI" had a name, I had the simple idea to cull students' ethnographic research on the university into an on-line site. As I read the umpteenth paper on hazing practices at one or another sorority or fraternity, I wondered why students should, semester after semester, reinvent the wheel on one or another university-related research project. I thought about how much better the work might be if perched on the shoulders of similar work that preceded it. All of this made particular sense at a centrally-isolated large university like the U of I where the most natural research site is the university itself. For my own part, I knew that many, many anthropology courses, ones both methodologically and substantively organized, asked students to conduct research at the university; I also knew of many more methods courses across the university and thus my imagination ran wild as to the treasure-trove of lost findings about the U of I.
The deeper origins of the project were two-fold. The first stems from the late Alan Dundes, remarkable and prolific folklorist in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley where I did my own graduate work. Professor Dundes was many things, among them perhaps one of the country's most charismatic lecturers, for decades making American life look endlessly interesting when seen through the folkloric or ethnographic eye. I don't know when it started but by the time I was at Berkeley in the early 1980s, there was a small room where the folkloric collection of thousands of UC Berkeley undergrads was housed and catalogued. Professor Dundes had made researchers of his undergrads who collected folklore in legible and patterned ways and deposited it into the archive. It always struck me as such a good idea although I must admit I knew little of how the archive was organized or how it was used. Of course by my early teaching years, archival machinations thought to the Web. But I have learned that the creation and organization of a living archive, one that is used and built upon, is no trivial matter, on- or off-line.
The second origin was my own remarkable ignorance about the university and so-called institutional research. I stumbled upon this ignorance when I began research on Korean American undergrads at the U of I, a topic of interest to me as an anthropologist of the Koreas and Korean America. As I began to search for demographic numbers at the U of I, I learned about the considerable available information on the University and about the many people on campus whose jobs it was to research and report on the University. Over time, I came to understand how important it was to think of the university not as a neutral background for my research interlocutors but as an agent itself. When co-founder of EUI Bill Kelleher and I thought back to an anthropology seminar that we had co-taught, The Anthropology of Contemporary Issues, we realized with hindsight that we had sent students out to research with little appreciation of existing data on the university. For the first EUI group (then called EOTU for Ethnography of the University), a working interdisciplinary seminar Bill and I organized through the U of I Center for Advanced Study, we made sure to include institutional researchers and academic professionals who are in fact the real knowledge-base of the campus.
EUI in its earliest years took shape alongside my own book on the University, The IntimateUniversity: College, Segregation, and the Korean American Family. Through both projects I became increasingly committed to appreciating research not at but on universities, research that engages universities as complex institutions. In this vein, EUI remains convinced that through research on the university, students begin a life-long journey of critical and reflexive participation in any array of social institutions.
The story of EUI since this very early inspiration is one that has been authored by many people. We like to think that the Initiative has been changed by nearly every hand that touches it. The project as revealed in this website still bears, I would like to think, its earliest inspiration but has become so much more.