Spotlight: New College Dining Hall Research Update

By The New College Dining Hall Research Team

In the summer of 2018, The University of Toronto Food Services reached out to the Innovation Hub to help gather insights about students’ eating experiences on campus. They were in the initial stages of redesigning the Audrey Taylor Dining Hall at New College and were looking to get a better sense of how the physical space, social environment, meal plans, and food options could better meet students’ needs. As the Innovation Hub specializes in using empathy-based ethnographic methods to gather in-depth personal narratives, we were perfectly positioned to help take on this challenge.

New College Dining Hall, photograph from University of Toronto Food Services website

In keeping with this goal, we began conducting interviews in the summer with staff from New College and Food Services, to hear their perspectives on how the space could be better designed to meet students’ needs. We’ve now turned our attention to gathering first-hand narratives from students about their experiences, in relation to current campus eating spaces, and what they envision an ideal eating space would look like.

Though student interest in the project was high, given students’ busy lives it proved challenging to find students who were willing to be interviewed.  We needed to get creative in our efforts to collect data. By speaking directly to students dining at the New College Dining Hall and surrounding lounges, as well as other eating spaces around U of T we quickly collected emails from many interested students. This strategy allowed us to amass interview slots at a slow but consistent pace.

We also found a different avenue for engaging students in our research by reaching out to residence councils and dons. By attending council meetings, talking to dons, and going to their office hours, we were able to hear many students’ perspectives. As well, by targeting the community-engaged students who attend these meetings and office hours, we believe we’ll be able to do significant recruiting with heightened response rates. Overall, there is much to be gained from potential partnerships with residence councils and dons. And most importantly our research is made all the more rich and meaningful by the diversity and depth of conversations we are able to have with students about their experiences.

New College Dining Hall, photograph from University of Toronto Food Services website

From our interviews so far, we’ve found that students have many stories to share.  We have been able to guide the interviews towards issues that are most relevant to the project, without affecting the flow of the conversation. Indeed, it is often the case that students will bring up points of utmost relevance we had not previously imagined. In such cases, we do not hesitate to let the interview take an interesting and unexpected turn.

In addition to students’ insights, we have also learned a lot from staff. Sitting down with chefs and other dining hall employees yielded valuable information that would, to our surprise, periodically deviate from students’ feelings and observations. We are eager to begin untangling these seeming contradictions in the next phase of the project.

We are happy with the progress we’ve made so far and are keen to learn more, as we conduct our remaining interviews and wrap up this phase of the project. The next step is to analyze all the data we have collected–something we are all very much looking forward to!

What to learn more? Click here for information regarding this project’s research question(s)!

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