Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Change Postponed? (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This blog post was part of a series of student posts written during coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

“I hope that your work makes a difference”, By Mélina Lévesque 

On a cold winter afternoon sometime at the beginning of November, a good friend of mine and I decided to grab a coffee. Let’s call her Dee. As an engineering student in her fourth year at the University of Toronto, November was a busy month for Dee. She took a moment to show me her agenda, which was covered in blue, purple, and red ink to distinguish between the midterms, quizzes, assignments, and problem set that she had due. The colors all seemed to blend together on the page, with mixes of blue, purple and red sometimes all mixed into one box marking the day of the week. As she flipped through her weekly agenda, my eyes grew larger and larger. She laughed and said that it “really wasn’t anything new” and that she had “gotten used to the chaos and anxiety” by now.

It had been a month since a student had committed suicide at the Bahen Centre. This was a place where most of Dee’s classes were held during the week. As we spoke over coffee, she shared with me that it’s hard for her at times to walk into Bahen for classes and reminds her of the silent stress and suffering that many students may be going through. Thinking back to three years ago, Dee felt that many of the stresses and anxiety that she currently goes through stem directly from her program of study. While Dee expressed to me that she felt proud to be in a program that would lead her towards a bright future and sustainable job after graduation, the path to get to this goal made her feel like she was “walking on hot spikes”. I brought up what was written on the poster that I saw that day at Bahen, “no more culture of stress=success”. She explained to me that while even she sometimes succumbs to this frame of thinking, “getting rid of it” was much easier said than done.

One thing that she said to me in particular deeply resonated with me: “I hope that your work makes a difference”. This made me think about what “making a difference” actually means, especially in the context of my research. For Dee, learning about the research I was conducting in regard to looking at the “stress=success” mantra amongst engineering students like her was important. She felt as though it was not spoken about enough. “We joke around about it a lot, but the truth is that no one knows what is actually going on beyond the joke.” After our conversation, I took some moments to think about this some more.

Here was someone who looked at my research as an opportunity to gain a deeper insight into, as she put it, “her world”, but also as a powerful platform for making a difference. Could this be a possible outcome of my research? If my work could shed some light on a topic that held importance to students like Dee and others, then this motivated me even more. Making a difference, for students like Dee, was making their voices heard.

On the Ethics of Ethnography at ‘Home’, By Marwa Turabi, Kristen Bass 

Often, and necessarily, the ethical constitution of the ethnographer considers positionality. Certainly, it is important to wonder about how the politics of our person will affect our interactions with our interlocutors – vulnerability seems so apparent when you consciously compare how your agency (and broadly, power) differs from the actors within your field. You ask questions like: How can I protect the identity of this informant? What are the implications of sharing the name of my field-site? And, does doing so jeopardize anonymity? Where am I situated in the power-dynamic that I share with my interlocutors? However, it seems that we seldom ask what it means when the ethnographer is made vulnerable in the field. What do I do when I, as the ethnographer, want to be made anonymous? What do I do when an interlocutor, outside of my research, is my superior? These quandaries proved to be pertinent to some of our field-experiences at the University of Toronto. 

The awkward, and sometimes complicated, thing about doing ethnography at a university where you are contemporaneously a student, researcher, and teaching assistant (TA), is that your interlocutors probably know you. Specifically, your interlocutors probably know you as their student, their TA, or their peer. Your reputation in these roles seems to precede you as the ethnographer; and, conversely, your interlocutors conflate your role as an ethnographer, with whatever role they associate you with the most. While doing her fieldwork, Marwa had a couple conversations with a faculty-member who holds a substantive role in her academic-career. The stuff of the conversation was obviously important to her ethnographic project. However, Marwa would wonder how these conversations might affect her relationship with this interlocutor outside of her ethnographic project related to ‘time’ and ‘the University’. For example, at one point in the conversation the professor suggested that being an over-worked, and under-appreciated, graduate-student is a “rite of passage” in academia. Marwa put her pen to her paper, and scribbled “[do they] think that if I fail to make my [… overwhelming personal] life coexist with my academic life, I am a colossal failure to academe?” The answer to this might very well be “no.” But,  of course, she did not ask this question because she felt she could not ask this question. While the professor blurred Marwa’s role as ‘an ethnographer’ and ‘a graduate student’, Marwa thought it would be unethical for her to do the same –to ask a question related to her performance as a student. Yet, she left with fraught feelings which made her feel vulnerable as a graduate-student. There seems to have been little guidance from the ethics review board for managing this kind of anxiety. Or, is this another ‘suck it up and figure it out’ condition for an empirical ethnography? The ethnographic knowledge we yield from our fields, especially when these fields are a part of our own daily lives, affects us. Indeed, the things we learn contour our apperceptions of not just the ‘field’ – but of ‘home.’ Surely, a more considerate ethics procedure would ask us to wonder about how the ethnographer might manage the messy feelings which emerge from making ‘home’ strange. 

Innovation for the future leaves some in the past, By Morgan O’Brien

In 2017 the University of Toronto signed a three-year Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) in accordance with the province’s vision for the future. It reads: “Ontario’s colleges and universities will drive creativity, innovation, knowledge, skills development and community engagement through teaching and learning, research, and service.” This mandate depicts the relatively recent shift in the role universities are expected to perform, from knowledge production and training alone, to the application of knowledge and services through “community engagement.” The rate at which institutions like the University of Toronto foster private partnerships and commercialize intellectual property is now taken for granted. The shift that the province is at once partially responsible for, and responding to, is not a mere conceptual exercise but carries with it extensive implications. 

Innovation suggests that there are problems to be solved. The emphasis on innovation therefore suggests that academic work with the potential for solving those problems should be prioritized. It insinuates the capacity for applied research and innovation to improve human welfare for an imagined better future. These priority areas each go beyond the production of knowledge that was once at the heart of academic institutions. As a result some new areas of expertise have emerged and grown at tremendous rates. Work that fits within the vague parameters of forward pointing innovation is supported and funded by the institution, various levels of government, and by the public. 

The SMA in particular highlights the reallocation of funding to be directed towards performance in priority areas including “innovation” and “impact”. For some, funding they once had is now predicated on their ability to fit within the vaguity and intangibleness of categories like “impact”. Many departments are able to achieve this. They effectively repackage their work with buzzwords like “innovative” and even redirect research efforts towards particularly virtuous causes in order to fit the criteria of community engagement. But for others, no amount of tinkering can make their work fit within the imaginaries of innovation and impact. 

Traditional departments like history, classics, and the like, have trouble convincingly portraying themselves as forward pointing and engaged with the community, criteria that are integral to the SMA understanding of innovation and impact. In other words, the very nature of their work is inconsistent with the specific goals of the SMA. For one, this means less funding. It also materializes in decreasing enrollment rates. But perhaps most significantly, it means a devaluation of the very work that they do. It means that work looking to the past and expanding knowledge for its own sake is rendered virtually worthless. Departments throughout the University are forced to either make their work fit within the inherently forward pointing and application based provincial mandate, or be left behind. 

Strategic Mandate Agreement 2017-2022

Click to access University%20of%20Toronto%20SMA%202017-20%20%28for%20publication%29.pdf

Title in Progress: The University as Liminal, By Jonathan Avalos; Morgan O’Brien; Ximena Martinez Trabucco

Imagine this scene…The old man looked up from his Camus book. Around him were young students, entering and exiting the subway train. He stayed put while slowly exhaling the last pinch of smoke from his lungs. It was so bad not being able to smoke in the subway anymore, he thought. Meanwhile a bunch of hipsters came onto the train and sat next to him. As they talked about their future career plans, the old man got a tad agitated. Without warning, he shouted, “Nobodies learning to learn, they’re just learning to get on.” The students, bewildered and somewhat offended, asked “why are you even here, sir?” “To learn of course!” retorted the old man. Dumbfounded, the hipsters stood up and got off the subway. It was not just the old man complaining, nor the bitter cigarette smell but the rancid, unbearable atmosphere.

Rosa (2005) argued that there is a prescription of chronological events that need to occur in a particular time and in a particular order (10). The University, and a subway train, can be viewed in this way.  A place where young adults go to prepare for the “real” world, and leaving behind their childhoods. From one destination to the next. It is a place of transition; what is known as liminal. The in-between time and space of “real” destinations.

Even if a whole chunk of your years are tied to an identity created at the University, this is only temporary. You are not seen as a complete person, but imagined between adolescent and adult. The University isn’t considered the “real” world. You’ll eventually stop inhabiting that liminal space and time, that identity you crafted for yourself as a student. And become again in the transit to some uncertain place.

And yet there will be an older person, or a parent with a child, or someone else that doesn’t “belong” there on that train. These people are already from the “real” world, and yet have decided to ride the train again, or for the very first time. And it seems out of place, especially to the students already there who expect everyone to be embodying a liminal time. The real cannot enter the inbetween, the transition; they’re already complete. They give the impression that identity is possible at the University. And this causes confusion, bewilderment, even disgust. It makes that person, too, feel out of place.

And as Rosa (2005) would put it, Out of Time, or in a state of Time/Out (11). The state of incorrect time, where a person experiences their expected chronological events “out of order”. The existence of the old man disrupts the liminal space.

It breaks the idea of the University as just a liminal space or time. Or that the “real” world is the end. Being Out of Time allows those who embody a Liminal Time to rethink why they are exactly at the University. To learn? Or to move on?

Reference List

Rosa, Hartmut. 2013. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by J. Trejo-Mathys. New York: Columbia University Press.

Time and Hannah Arendt’s oikos and polis, By Ali Azhar

I worked to get myself a holistic view of the research I conducted  in three seemingly variable and variegated sites – the streets of Toronto; Tristram Shandy and a seminar conversation – to bring it all together in the form of a question. Previously, I had put in dialogue the structural elements of the conversation within Tristram Shandy and that of the seminar; noting the mechanisms by which both of these are progressive and digressive too. Digressions, writes Sterne, are the heart and life of a story for the reader – while progressions are necessary for the writer to advance with the story. Really, the comparison between the seminar and the book was an obvious one that stood out. I am tempted to go further there, transcribe small portions of transition moments to analyse how participants muster their bodies and the diverse temporalities of the gaze, gesture, talk and objects to bear upon the intersubjective change of topical focus. Such an endeavor I project would be descriptive but would hardly attend to the so what.
So I held on to that thought and went a-looking at my fieldnotes from the first five weeks of fieldwork where I had allowed myself to be diverted by chance into various sites and interactions – to see what I could find to be the same or different to my other sites. I read twice-over my fieldnotes and interview transcripts and coded them. In the post that follows, I will bring forth the major difference I have perceived between life on the street and in the seminar discussion, in light of Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of time and Rose’s article on the Powers of Freedom. Finally, I will conclude with a question that aids in progressing the research.
Par hasard – my interactions were of the following sort: a girl raising money for charity; school teachers preparing with their students for a climate action march; an actual climate action march; a bookstore launch on progressive politics and identity politics; a participant who walked with me to take issue with the contents of that talk; a lady feeding a squirrel; an older man asking me if I will vote; a book launch of a boy writing a book on his life – Angry, Queer, Somali – so as not to be invisible in society; and a writer who I interviewed telling me that the most important temporal dimension for her was ancestral time – her ancestors weren’t allowed to write so she takes her words very seriously. In my fieldwork, the streets have revealed a character that is both political and active.
Tristram Shandy, which some have read as a satirical work has conversations – he invokes, uses and argues against his contemporaries and earlier intellectual figures: Locke, Hume, Diderot, Rabelais & co. His main characters – his father Walter, Uncle Toby and other characters engage in discussions of everything and nothing. Written during the Seven-Years War in Europe, the book largely ignores the topic. Economic considerations never figure into the conversations and there is hardly a female character of note. As one of the foremost proponents of silence in literature, the book is telling in it’s omission as much as in what it includes.
Our seminar conversation too, is much like the interactions in Tristram Shandy. In the style of Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, we construct science with talk of Husserl, Mead, Heidegger, Foucault & co. We circumvent anything that would be deemed political. It’s not that we are not political actors or have no such opinions. Birdwhistell & co. argue that people interact in a world that is always already out there. Our action in the seminar is a learned behavior as we are all competent members of the University.       
Arendt (McCumber, 2014), in her writings on time has distinguished between the vita contemplativa and vita activa. Diverging from her forebears Nietzche and Heidegger, she dismisses talk of prioritizing the contemplative over action, deeming it elitist. For her analysis, in tune with other continental philosophers she argues that everything belongs in time. Hence to shed light on contemporary society, she seeks roots in ancient Greece. She distinguishes two institutions: the oikos or households and the polis the political sphere for action. The oikos belonged to the private realm and was the main unit of economic activity. The polis engendered political life where people tried to overcome mortality. The oikos was paternal, natural, need based, violent, hierarchical, conformist and mysterious while the police was predicated on action – a realm one entered not because they needed to but because they wanted to. By its nature, polis encompassed a diversity of view points and the ‘reality of the public realm relied on the simultaneous perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself.’ In my research, I can’t help but notice how the university has more elements of the oikos, while the streets those of the polis or action.         

‘to diagnose the historicity of our contemporary ways for thinking and acting is to enhance their contestability, to point to the need for new experiments in thought which can imagine new ways in which we can be and act’ – (Rose, 1999)

Arendt further goes on to distinguish labor and work. Labor is the domain of the oikos. What people did to fulfill needs. Transient. Work was in action – the possibility to act or produce something that was transcendental of the everyday – the medium to extend one’s mortality through their output. Arendt was primarily interested in how the future unfolds. Action could be through both words and acts. Through sharing some of these thoughts with my classmates, in my future research, I am interested in better understanding:        

what is active or emergent in our research and activities. How do we through our activities in the university or elsewhere aim to make our march on the future?


McCumber, J. (2014). Time and Philosophy: A History of Continental Thought. Routledge.

Rose, N. (1999). Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge university press.

Is Decolonization a Metaphor? By Ximena C. Martínez Trabucco

Inquiring into the intersection of time and success at OISE has been an interesting way to notice subtle details. “With OISE I Can” has opened space for multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity, not just to show up, but to occupy a predominant space in the building. Among the details that I have noticed is the centrality of indigenous peoples in the images that OISE has articulated over the last two years. The caption, “With OISE I can change perspectives” accompanies the image of an indigenous faculty member in one of OISE’s promotional posters. This advertisement correlates with the brochures that are disseminated through strategic spaces in the building advertising several services and support groups inspired by indigenous philosophies, and apparently directed towards the broader OISE student community. Among these services are an indigenous writing group, an indigenous housing service, an indigenous mental health and healing group, and circles of indigenous teachings, among other initiatives. In addition, many classes that address indigenous and decolonizing pedagogies are taught in various OISE departments.

The salience of indigenous peoples in OISE’s narratives is connected to the “commitment to indigenize OISE” that has been declared as one of the main areas of the New Academic Plan, 2017-2024, and the institution’s alignment with the reflections and guidelines suggested by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (OISE 2017, 15) . How does the presence of indigenous people in OISE reconcile with the narratives of success, a lack of time for deep relationships, and with the neoliberalization of education?  Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang, in their text ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’ point to new ways of colonization that underlie calls for “decolonizing methods” to “decolonize our schools” and “decolonize student thinking” (Tuck and Yang 2012). The text discusses what the authors call “settler moves to innocence” as the very forms that pose decolonization as a metaphor rather than advocate for “the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (Tuck and Yang 2012). The incorporation of indigenous peoples and their images in the new face of OISE, looking towards the future, bring new anxieties. Is this new, emerging epoch something real and unstoppable? Or it is just the delusion of changing one’s perspective, printed on fancy paper that sells well in the developing world? How do the different projects and constituencies of OISE clash or align?


Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, “Learning and Leading from Within, New Academic

Strategy 2017-2024.”

Plan.pdf (accessed January 2, 2020).

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1 (2012).

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