Introducing Academic “Desirability” to Models of Student Engagement

SERT asked Ryerson students to define student engagement and when we introduced an idea about academic “desirability” we came to understand more about students’ experiences, their barriers to engagement, and what bringing research “to” participants can look like.

In what ways might a student’s sense of their academic “desirability” impact their engagement experiences?

There’s an obvious path here towards narrative analysis, a preference for stories as the unit of scrutiny, stories in all their context and complexity, not reduced to codes or themes.

September 2019-June 2020


First, a survey to investigate how students define “student engagement” and “desirability”

The design of our survey questions was based on our interest in gauging how students not only define student engagement, but also how they perceive as well as experience barriers (or not) to engagement. While our main focus in analysis of this survey was on the topic of student engagement, a few of our questions presented the topic of “desirability” to students by prompting further self-reflection on whether they feel like they have characteristics of the “model student”.

Bringing Research “To” Participants

At our research “activations”, when we set-up in various locations on campus, participants also had the opportunity to participate in the survey on-the-spot including via our Survey Audio-Recording Booth. These activations, as opposed to simply sending the survey link, served a few unique purposes. We generated interest in the survey and our research questions, which demystified the research process for our potential participants.

Responding to a pandemic: A shift to virtual “walking” interviews

After our survey closed, we invited participants who opted-in to a followup invitation to join us for an interview to focus on our second set of research questions. We were in the midst of our research design when Toronto and Ryerson University reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic – the university closed and shifted to an online-only model to protect public health and safety. Instead of hosting walking interviews on campus as we had intended, our interviews involved one SERT research assistant calling one participant on Zoom at a time. At the beginning of the interview, the participant was asked to think of a place “on” campus they would like to begin on Google Maps. As the interview continued, participants took us “around” campus and its surrounding downtown Toronto streets and we engaged in a loose conversation about belonging, student engagement, desirability, and anything else that came up for participants and research assistants during their time together.

A team that pivots: Conducing research amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Part of the recruitment process for SERT research assistants includes asking candidates to describe their comfort with ambiguity. The events of March 2020, on a global scale, tested our adaptability, amongst other things, in a very real way. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 13, 2020, Ryerson University announced all classes and exams would shift to an alternative/online format. All in-person events and gatherings at the university were cancelled indefinitely. On March 17, the university announced a shift to an essential services model, resulting in the complete closure of nearly all campus buildings and services. Students, faculty, and staff had to adjust to a new learning, teaching, and community reality, overnight. We understood given the global crisis at hand that our participants may not be able to separate their current reality from what would have been their “regular” routine at Ryerson. And why should they? So, we allowed space for participants to reflect on and share their current experiences in recognition of the magnitude of what was happening for all of us.

Our approach to analyzing student stories

SERT sees narrative as a fundamental aspect of the human experience. People tell stories to make meaning of their experiences and of the phenomena they encounter. We see our participants as narrators of their experience. So, our method coincided with that understanding, as we generated stories through unstructured interviews. We acknowledge further the nature of our interpretations that follow as a kind of subjective truth, not an objective truth. We are interested in deepening our understanding of students’ experience, their perceptions, their lives – rather than what is necessarily objectively true or what causes things to be true (Hendry, 2007). It is with this perspective that we interpreted our participants’ stories and responses and later situated them within the broader context of current discourses about student engagement.

Student engagement as defined along a continuum

In the survey we primarily were interested in getting a base understanding of students’ thoughts about student engagement and desirability or “the model student”. Our survey respondents overwhelmingly defined student engagement as “extracurricular activity on campus” and “desirability” was defined in terms of academic grades and persistence. In the discussion that follows, we’ll refer to “student engagement” as “co-curricular engagement” to clarify this distinction provided by our survey respondents. In the literature, for example, academic and in-class experiences are also examples of “engagement” so we want to make this distinction clear for the purposes of our work with this idea of desirability.

By learning how some students articulate their definition of co-curricular engagement and if they connected to this new concept of desirability, we would have an understanding of how students relate to the dominant student affairs discourses. There was a great diversity of student responses on the survey, and we saw a continuum materializing as we considered each response. Mapping students’ definitions of co-curricular engagement from the open-ended answer on the survey from broadest to most narrow shows the vast range of perspectives present in the Ryerson community.

Visualizing our data this way helps convey our central finding regarding some students’ definitions of co-curricular engagement: engagement exists along a continuum where some students understand it in quite narrow, specific terms and others see it more open, more broadly. Somewhere in the middle we see other ideas that offer a mix of both and we wonder where these definitions of engagement come from, how students come to understand the concept and even how this continuum may play out at other institutions.

Desirability as individual, engagement as relational

In our discussions on the topic we introduced a new concept of desirability that we hypothesized we could use to be able to convey with more accuracy the varieties of students’ experiences of engagement. Our concept of desirability was adapted from the work of disability scholar Mia Mingus (2011), and can be summarized as: the sense a student has that they are wanted by the institution. Out of this emerged our research question: Is there a relationship between engagement and desirability? Our hypothesis was that if a student feels desired by a university, then they will feel compelled to engage more fully, resulting in more opportunities and feelings of belonging. This would in turn result in an increased sense of desirability. We called this possible relationship between engagement and desirability the virtuous cycle. We were curious, too, to know what might happen when that cycle was broken or how a negative relationship between desirability and engagement might impact students.

In this video we have selected some clips from our interviews with participants to share some of their responses to our questions about “desirability” and belonging on campus.

Branching off to the right of “sense of one’s desirability,” the virtuous cycle between desirability, engagement, and belonging plays out. This cycle closely aligns with what was learned in Participant #3’s interview. Her sense of desirability came from her work on campus, which also is the source of her community and how she engages. For her, engagement, desirability and belonging all connect and lead to one another; where desirability ends and engagement begins is not separate. As she already has a strong sense of desirability from the institution, her academic performance was not a central feature of the interview, unlike the others. Her strong sense of her desirability as informed by her engagement makes it so she does not have to more actively pursue desirability by only achieving good grades, compared to the other interviewees. So, our initial hypothesis seemed to be in play when applied to a student who is already actively engaged.

However, we thought we would be able to map an inversion of the virtuous cycle onto a student who perceives themselves lacking those qualities of a “desirable student”. We imagined that a student’s lack of desirability would lead to a lack of engagement and it would turn into a vicious cycle, a mirror image of the virtuous cycle described above. This idea was articulated in one survey open-ended answer: “I feel being a mature student I am an undesirable student, my lack of engagement leads to feelings of being undesirable, and feeling undesirable leads to avoiding engagement”. However, this is not what we learned from the other three interviews. We ended up privileging this assumption that the model would be two symmetrical cycles, and it took much time before we could break free of this and realize the interviews were pointing to a model that was more complex. This, again, highlights the tension between our desire as researchers to “make sense”, to codify or model our findings and the inherent complexity of the human phenomena under question that defies such simplifications.

We found instead that it was the pursuit of desirability (the pursuit of high grades; a student’s academic persistence) that interfered with engagement in co-curricular activity. Our participants have a keen understanding of the value of co-curricular engagement and what it could offer them as students, but three of the four participants identified that they did not have the resources, energy, or time to participate. They feel they must stay focused on maintaining or achieving that sense of “desirability” as defined by academic persistence and performance. While there is no shortage of willingness to participate, their academics remain the priority, leaving little time or energy to participate with the university outside of their schoolwork. Therein lies the tension between lack of desirability and lack of engagement. Students feel pulled towards engagement opportunities and want to become examples of model students (students who are engaged and who feel a sense of belonging), however, they are instead tugged towards spending all their time on academics in order to be desired, making engagement difficult, even inaccessible.

On our model’s left side, a divergent path then stems from the lack of engagement and we posit this could lead to any number of possibilities. The cycle is broken, and where it leads depends on the student in question. Some possibilities were found in our respondents’ stories – students could feel disconnected from the institution, for example, which in turn could result in mental health challenges or general frustration; students could also develop an antagonism directed towards the institution. Some literature describes students’ critical attitudes towards their school as evidence of engagement (Macfarlane and Tomlinson, 2017). We had one such example in our survey, when a respondent shared that an engaged/desired student is “a student that would be a strong representative of the University even though they might critique the institution.” Other students felt the opposite, with one stating “I feel like I do not meet the characteristics of a model student because I try not to be complacent within the institution of Ryerson.”

Another possibility is that off-campus responsibilities and opportunities take precedence in their lives. Students identified with those barriers to co-curricular engagement in our survey. In possibly the “worst case scenario” as far as educators are concerned, the loop does close. This sequence plays out where lack of engagement leads to further feelings of being undesirable, so the student continues pursuing academic desirability while sacrificing co-curricular engagement opportunities, but the institution’s demand for engagement creates an unattainable expectation. They cannot “be” desirable – we repeat here one respondent’s experience: “I feel being a mature student I am an undesirable student, my lack of engagement leads to feelings of being undesirable, and feeling undesirable leads to avoiding engagement.”

When this broken cycle is related back to the survey, the key distinction between desirability and co-curricular engagement makes this broken cycle even more dire. Desirability was linked by students to intrinsic traits, for example their studiousness and social extroversion and personality characteristics. Desirability is marked by who a student is as an individual, and so when they have a poor sense of desirability and feel a lack of academic persistence, they may feel they are wholly to blame for this. Engagement is seen as relational, but if only certain students have the intrinsic qualities that make them desirable and can benefit from the virtuous cycle, then only certain students can enter into the relational parts of being an engaged post-secondary student. How are we addressing those left behind? Questions of equity and who is seen as possessing these qualities abound.

Just as discussed in SERT’s “Stuck Narratives” project, there is no monolithic experience of students, and as such this is not meant to be a conclusive model. Instead what we have developed is an idea that broadens the traditional models to reflect the diverse experiences the students we talked to have. There is still room left for it to grow, questions still needing to be answered. Others may test this model at their own institutions, or explore those question marks left unnamed. Our exploration of the relationship between desirability and engagement serves simply to deepen and diversify the traditional narrative of the student experience.