College students often use the campus as a venue for their course-based research activities. More often than not, however, the university is simply a locus of research, not a subject of student inquiry. In this article, I consider what can be gained when students “study up” the university as an institution. I draw on data from my undergraduate students' research process in an ethnographic methods course at Illinois State University. I argue that an institutional focus provides an especially effective approach for teaching ethnographic methods — one that differs from standard introductory textbook instruction in ethnography and that helps students avoid routine pitfalls of beginning ethnographic research. In particular, I argue that the university focus enables novice students to analyze fine-grained ethnographic data within a middle-range institutional context without macrosocial theories and frameworks that are likely beyond the scope of their semester-long projects. I also argue that an institutional focus can help students become more engaged, critical stakeholders in the university community.

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