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

Fieldwork, Positionality, Auto-ethnography (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”

Studying Up: Navigating the complexity of conducting research with “the powerful”  By Miya Draga & Morgan O’Brien

When we imagine conducting research under ideal circumstances, we imagine being able to access any site, talk to any person, and get the complete, contextual, and honest information that we want. However, research is rarely conducted under ideal circumstances. This is especially the case when “studying up.” Studying up can be defined as studying actors – be it people, institutions, or organizations – with greater societal power than us researchers. In this context, when we say “studying up,” we mean studying the innate power structures of the institution that we are all embedded in – the University of Toronto. Specifically, we mean studying university administration, or the administration of smaller university organizations. 

“Studying up” brings with it a unique set of challenges, something we quickly discovered when we initially started exploring field sites to conduct our ethnographic research. One issue was that as students, we were far removed from the leadership structures permeating the institution. We had few contacts; we had no “ins”. As a result, the first point of contact with our sites – that is, campus groups and organizations – was frequently through email. Often, we did not receive a response at all. When we did, the responses were rarely promising. One of us, upon sending out three emails with no response, decided to try the “knock on the door” approach with a small research group on campus. She was quickly turned away, and never heard from the group again. Another one of us had hoped to interview the executive director of a campus centre. Although she was able to get ahold of him initially, he didn’t follow up for the interview. When she finally got a scheduled phone interview, the participant was late. He only stayed on the phone with her for 15 minutes before abruptly leaving. In each of these cases, barriers arose in the early stages of building rapport, and prevented us from getting the information we had hoped for. 

It is possible that our participants did not feel like they had much to gain from our ethnographic work. It is also likely that the participants we aimed to recruit were simply busy people with many responsibilities and not enough time to dedicate to a small research project. A more cynical idea, perhaps, is that by allowing to be studied, organizations are opening themselves up to criticism, challenge, or even negative exposure. Seen through this lens, we may consider that for a powerful organization to agree to be studied, they are taking a “leap of faith” that the research will not negatively impact them. They are demonstrating their trust in you, as a researcher; trust that you will “do no harm.” This trust is key to not only gaining access to a particular setting, but to being able to collect rigorous, accurate data. 

As budding researchers, our experiences led to several questions about studying the powerful. For instance, how do you balance the desire to conduct rigorous, meaningful research with the concern that certain topics may be seen as controversial by the participating organization? How do you work with, or around, sensitive material that you uncover through your research? How do you make sense of when it is acceptable to prod at sensitive topics, and push people’s comfort zones – and when to back off? Gaining and maintaining trust is important, as it is key to getting access to study particular settings, maintaining positive relationships, and conducting rigorous research. It is difficult to gain, and easy to lose. As researchers, it is our responsibility to figure out how to build lasting relationships with our participants, built on trust. Only then can we begin to navigate the nuances of doing research with the powerful.

Researching in a Place with an Already Established Position, By Olivia Verstraete

         In this year’s research, I decided to study and research in a space that I work in and previously worked in last year. I wanted to do research in this space because students from all disciplines, years, and cultural backgrounds use the space and they each use it differently, with some commonalities between them. I was also curious about why the students would primarily use the space for homework when events weren’t going on, but at times they would even use the space for homework WHILE an event is going on. It isn’t all and only used for homework, but this was an initial interest to me because I did not associate that with relaxation time. From working in the space and seeing the difference in what is expected to be done in a wellness space and what is actually done. I was hesitant to study the space because I wondered if my role will get in the way of performing my research because of existing relationships with the students as well as the fact that I am in a position of power.

         To remedy these concerns, the class suggested putting up a poster with my face and the dual role I would be playing in the room this semester. Some students noticed it and inquired about the research and how it was going, and some students didn’t even realize that it was there until I point it out to them if the topic of research comes up. After creating this poster, it was much easier to mention the dual role because I had it explained on the page, and could just supplement information, it also made it easier for students to remember that I had multiple positions in the space.

         After getting over the initial discomfort with having to establish a new role that is kind of weird and could be taken poorly as it involves watching and doing things with people, I found that my already established position actually assisted in discussing these things with students. Ideas about wellness are abstract and sharing practices could be personal, so I think already having a repour with the students helped with a level of comfort. So they had the comfort that they already know me and talk about a lot within the space and they know that their name will never be shared. Another reason why this worked so well in this study site is because of the nature of the space. It is meant to be opening and welcoming, and students find this true so they come into the space and share lots about their lives and experiences. I thought my new added position of a researcher would diminish the experience but it actually enriched it as some of the students were interested in the research.

         Studying a site where you already work in an established position can be very interesting, insightful and rich, but this might not be the case for all field sites like this. The space I am in encourages sharing and using community support to get through a shared experience, the university, therefore it worked well with facilitating anthropology research.

Adaptability, By Agha Saadaf

Over the course of the semester doing research, I got to really understand how one’s circumstances can affect the roll-out of their ethnographic work, either positively by maybe sparking inspiration to focus one’s study or negatively by delaying it. In this entry, I will focus on the latter, as I found myself encountering a very unexpected minor medical emergency that prevented me from carrying out any substantial work on my project this week. It should serve as a reminder that when planning out a schedule to conduct one’s work, it is important to consider that life sometimes gets in the way in truly unpredictable manners, resulting in having to adapt one’s plans on the fly. Case in point, one week earlier in the semester, I planned on having a certain set of interview questions ready and beginning interview calls for potential interlocuters. I, however, had an urgent dental issue that arose very unexpectedly and required immediate attention, taking several days to heal. This resulted in approximately 2-3 days worth of time lost in resolving this, while I also had to meet deadlines for other classes and responsibilities with the Anthropology Student Association. As such, this post serves as a gentle reminder that it is very important to be adaptable to unforeseen circumstances when doing research.  

Those 2-3 days were not entirely unproductive. I took whatever time I could scrounge up to look over a text on autoethnography as I had flirted with the idea of adding an autoethnographic component to my project to discuss how my own conceptualizations of my time at the University this year have been reshaped under the provincial government’s OSAP cuts. This reading gave me some more insights on how to approach this should I choose to follow through with this component, such as how reflexivity should “engage in a critical reflection on one’s relationships with other…both within and outside the academy.” (Meneley and Young 2005, 7). This specific line offered a lens through which I could self-reflect on my own position within my research. Thus, despite my unfortunate circumstances that week, the delay was not insurmountable for the adaptable student ethnographer, which really goes to show the importance of adaptability when conducting independent research.  

Work cited

Meneley, Anne, and Donna Jean Young, eds. Auto-ethnographies: The anthropology of academic practices. University of Toronto: PressHigher Education, 2005.

Financial Privacy Meets Ethnographic Authority, By Agha Saadaf

As my research involved some intimate financial details from the part of my interlocutors, I often had to work with estimated numbers and figures given to me by my interviewees. This had a few pros and cons; on one hand, the argument can be made that this detracts from the factuality of my statements and puts my “ethnographic authority” in doubt, on the other hand an ethical transgression would have the same effect to a more significant degree.

With that said, it was interesting to see what interlocutors were willing to divulge about their personal lives and finances in comparison to what they weren’t, and what they changed their minds about over the course of my research. For instance, a couple of my interlocutors had agreed to show me his OSAP statements during our interview, but did not want screenshots of his statements up on the final paper for (perfectly understandable) privacy reasons. Though inserting my own experiences as a subject of autoethnographic research had other benefits in my paper (such as being able to corroborate other students’ experiences from my own firsthand accounts), it also helped to offer more specific and personal ethnographic details on the matter; I was okay with being open about my personal finances for the purposes of my research. However, despite my own willingness to discuss certain details about my own personal financial situation, along with the willingness of other interlocutors to share more private aspects of their lives, I chose not to include any screenshots of anything in the final paper, using specific numbers only when they were provided. Overall, this method offered a good compromise between providing rich ethnographic data and protecting the privacy of others.  

Confessions of a Community-based Fieldworker, By Sarah Chocano Barboza 

When conducting my ethnographic study of student leaders, I faced the challenge of negotiating my role as both a researcher and a member of the community. Although there were many advantages to being part of the group I was studying, I also found myself struggling with my dual positionally. 

The pros:

Michel Foucault urges us to look at history to understand the unique processes that have led to who we are today. In the case of fieldwork, anthropologists need to become familiar with their field site’s history to understand what led to their interlocutors’ discourses and practices. Conducting fieldwork in my community allowed me to draw on my past experiences and re-think the history of student leadership. For example, I was able to reflect on how, in many ways, previous student leaders’ leaders’ practices of community building dictate my involvement. More specifically, I was able to look back at my initial motivations to become involved within my college, reflecting on how this involvement came about. Accordingly, this process of reflection is useful because it increased my engagement with theory, allowing me to push back on previous academic understandings of the University. This direct engagement with theoretical frameworks is meaningful and valuable because you can use your own life experiences as a means to revise and build on a claim that does not seem entirely on track. 

 The most apparent benefit of being a researcher within our communities is that you have a preexisting relationship with your interlocutors. In the case of my research, as a student leader of my college, these preexisting relationships provided me the unique opportunity to access various settings and to gain rapport with fellow students and staff members. 

The cons: 

However, there are some challenges that I had to face throughout my research. My first challenge regards disclosure. For instance, my insider status gave me the advantage to personally know the people in the field. Still, the disadvantage of this access is that I also knew the rumors, rivalries, and drama that naturally arise in a tight community setting. I was very hesitant to disclose these rivalries because I do not want to feed into the drama. Therefore, I decided that even though these rumors were substantial ethnographic data that would better illustrate student leaders’ leaders’ experience throughout their involvement, the inclusion of them would disregard my interlocutors’ mental health. 

Lastly, one of the biggest challenges that I encountered was making the familiar strange. Even now, I feel that my findings are clear because they are part of my quotidian life. It was tough for me to have an objective and critical eye on my research findings because they were very similar to my experiences as a student leader—experiences of exhaustion, stress, and tiredness. Nonetheless, reading theory allowed me to make my familiar experience strange and, therefore, have a critical understanding of my community’s involvement. This awareness was essential when analyzing my findings and making them worthwhile.

Reading the Room, By Charlotte Stewart

When I first entered my field site, a meeting of the student activist group Climate Crisis Response University of Toronto (CCRUT), one of my primary goals was to gain a sense of who the group’s leaders were. This seemed like a good place to start firstly in terms of helping me to figure out how CCRUT operated, and secondly because a group leader seemed like the most appropriate person to consult about seeking consent to conduct my research with the group. On that particular day, the facilitator was someone I will call Joanna, whom I recognized as one of the speakers from the anti-pipelines rally that had led me to this meeting. I assumed, accordingly, that she was the person to talk to. When I approached her at the end of the meeting, however, she responded positively to my introduction of myself as a researcher but seemed rather flustered to have been asked to speak on behalf of the group. She suggested, rather, that I start a discussion thread about it in CCRUT messaging and productivity app to get collective feedback on my request.

CCRUT, as I subsequently learned, has an egalitarian and consensus-based organizational structure. Roles such as facilitating meetings, taking minutes, planning events, and otherwise contributing to the group’s climate justice campaigns are not set, but rather rotate on a voluntary basis. Joanna, as I came to understand over the course of my research, is one of the founders and most active members of Climate Crisis Response at U of T (which draws its mission statement but is not subject to oversight from a nationwide organization). While extremely articulate, confident, and clearheaded in her politics, she seemed deeply disinterested in asserting control over the group, presenting herself as an expert, or seeking credit for her activist activities. In other words, her personal praxis and that which she encouraged in the group seemed very much in line with her theoretical understanding of social and environmental justice. My mistake as a new researcher, it seemed, was making assumptions about the universality of hierarchal distributions of power.

At the same time, Joanna was respected in the group for possessing a great deal of knowledge about CCRUT’s goals. By virtue of the great deal of initiative she took towards the group’s activities, and the time she dedicated to seeing them through, she often ended up in leadership roles. Once, during the debriefing portion of a meeting which Joanna did not attend, someone asked of an upcoming event, “So who knows what’s going on with that?”, to which the reply was a shrug and the quip that without Joanna, we were lost.  The lesson, then, that what people say, what they try for, and how group dynamics play out in reality are all different things. Flows of power, it seems, exist in every space. 

Untitled, By Marwa Turabi

Forming a research question is difficult. During my work in this practicum, I found this to be particularly true because I have so many questions. Here, the problem with overzealous curiosity is that it is disorienting. These questions push, and pull, the ethnographer in so many directions. And, consequently, at times propels us into, what I have learned to call the: “I could not tell you what I am even studying anymore” abyss. This is especially an issue if your time in the field is incredibly limited. But, how do we use the plethora of provocations we encounter to produce a ‘good’ research question? To put this “overzealous curiosity” to use, I, as inspired by this practicum, leaned on Michael Burawoy’s advice for doing ethnography. Burawoy, as cited in the ANT6200 Winter 2019 Syllabus, suggest that “it is imperative you record all your experiences around entry – all the resistance and all the anxiety [because] this is not a pre-play, this is the act.” I took this to suggest that “your experiences” include the questions you meditate with, and on. Therefore, it is important to record your questions as they emerge. This may seem obvious. However, despite previous ethnographic projects, it was in this practicum that I chose to practice scribbling down all of my questions as they arrived. My hope was that eventually one of these questions would act a research question. However, instead, I discovered another benefit to this practice. Towards the end of my fieldwork, I could follow these questions to see the trajectory of knowledge that I was pursuing all along. In simpler words, they hint at your research question. 

For example, these are some of the questions that emerged at the start, and middle, of my project:

I was inundated by the elusiveness of ‘time’: is it an experience? A possession? Or, perhaps an impossible resource?

Should we think of digital media as propelling “life-negating habitation” (Duclos 2017: 22)  for students? Or, by articulating the act of immersing oneself in digital media, and speed, as ‘life-negating’, do we neglect a possibility that ‘inhabiting media’ is one-way students reckon with – or, “pull on the emergency brakes” (Caduff 2017: 19) to stop –  acceleration “[which appears as a] form of overstimulation and task overload” (Rosa 2013: 15)?

How do students uses of ‘time’ demonstrate their own power? How is power negotiated by different uses, and applications, of time? When do these conceptions of time-management clash, and what happens to the student-university relationship when they do? How might students embody the results of this clashing of time-use beliefs? Is space a negotiation of different-temporalities?   

Do other faculty members also differentiate the ‘sane and humane’ from the ‘indoctrinated academic’ when thinking about how to manage time, especially in the face of personal crises (large, or small)? What is being indoctrinated? How does this ‘indoctrination’ produce different ways of seeing time? Why, and how is it, that I understood – and agreed with – what they meant when talking about the importance of finding time for SSHRC as ‘indoctrinated academics’?  

In all of these inquiries, it is evident that I am preoccupied with how the graduate student community embodies, and performs, ‘stress’ by overwhelming their schedules. From analyzing these questions, I could distill a research question: What do graduate student time-use practices suggest about success? And relatedly, how does the “stress=success” ethos affect graduate students management of time?

Indeed, in this way, my research question was actually baking throughout the execution of my  project. I found that by heeding my curiosity and collecting my questions in my notes made them: (1) less overwhelming; and (2) useful for forming my final research question. Perhaps, then, these questions are as telling as ethnographic material. 

Is my phone my third limb?, By Isaac Consenstein

As I began to think about the role of time in my daily life, right away I thought of my iPhone. My iPhone is my alarm clock, my timer, my communicator, my entertainer, and my main distraction. During most in between times throughout the day, I find myself relying on my phone. When I’m waiting to meet someone, I might scroll through Instagram or look at the news. When I’m waiting for food to cook I will often tell Siri to start the timer, or even if I’m in the company of others and no longer feel like talking, I might take my phone out to see what’s happening on the internet. Every time I pick it up, I feel excited about what might show up on my Instagram or Facebook feed, or how the score has changed in whatever basketball game is on. Almost every time, my phone lets me down after a couple minutes of browsing, as there is nothing particularly new or exciting happening. Each cellphone visit was just as dull as the previous one, but for whatever reason, I love checking in.

 I am at my worst when I don’t have things to do and I can play with my phone guilt free. This semester, I always had too much to do, so my phone-induced procrastination guilt increased. In addition, iPhone has added features to remind users how much we look at our phones. Realizing the amount of time, I spend on my phone made me feel ashamed. This feature also allows users to place limits on specific apps. After 45 minutes of social networking, my phone tells me my time is up for the day. I usually ignore the message and keep browsing.

Given my lack of self-discipline, I told myself the only solution would be to leave my phone behind when I go study. During the first week of school I went to Robarts Library without my phone and immediately got restless. I gave myself a manageable study goal, yet I could not stop touching my thigh the entire time. Every time I realized there was no phone, I resorted back to my readings for a brief period. But my lack of distraction became too aggravating. I got restless at the library, so I ran off to do some errands. By the time I was finished shopping and it had been several phone-less hours, I was very anxious to get home. Instead of walking home I got on the streetcar so I could reunite with my phone as fast as possible. I did not know how long I was waiting or when to expect the streetcar. My anxiety and restlessness came from not knowing. Ultimately, my phone doesn’t only orchestrate my time, it allows me to know time. Google Maps can project an estimated time for my commute, and the TTC app can tell me how long my wait for the streetcar will be, and social media gives me an escape from awkwardness or impatience. Lacking my phone caused me to feel the discomfort of not knowing, as I only a vague understanding of time and I became overly immersed with the noise, eye-contact, or any other sights I would rather escape from.

The Art of Analysis: Auto-Ethnography or Auto-Biography, Marwa Turabi

What are the actual possibilities of auto-ethnography? And, am I a worthy enough ‘thing’ to ethnographically inquire on and about? At the start (and truthfully, through to the end) of this practicum, I meditated on these questions immensely. While ethnography is a social scientific method which contemporaneously forgives and embraces ‘the subjective’, something about auto-ethnography feels like it overwhelmingly perverts the ‘objectivity promise’ of the empirical process. This dilemma is not new. In fact, Ellis, Adams and Bochner (2011) manage this anxiety by asking their readers to wonder how we can re-caliber our attitudes towards studying the self as a political, socio-economic and cultural thing. To reconcile with our worries about the ‘validity’ of auto-ethnography, they recommend that we treat this genre as both “process and product” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2011). And so, that’s what I did while considering my relationship – as a graduate student, and caregiver – to time. 

In one weekly-reflection I detail one part of a long process: 

I am incessantly tracking my time – with a whiteboard calendar, phone calendar, timer, day-planner, sticky-notes all over my office desk. I deem these things necessary because I don’t want to seem incapable of keeping up with the demands, and rigour of graduate student-work life. As well, I have to be able to make caring for my ill-family member fit with these demands. Additionally, I (apparently) have to make taking care of myself (by going to the gym, being with friends/family, sleeping, and eating) fit within my schedule.  Yet, I constantly choose to compromise/shift my definition of ‘self-care’, to meet expectations I set for myself, as endorsed by university, and familial expectations. In fact, I often say I am incapable of mindful meditation because my schedule compels me to always be thinking about ‘what is next?’” 

The product, however, was the intense introspection I allowed myself for the purposes of doing auto-ethnography. To leave these thoughts as they are is to do an autobiography. However, to do ethnography of the self is to follow with an analysis that begs questions like one I posed at the start of my project: “What is it that I’m failing – neoliberal logics (?) – if I cannot adequately schedule, and meet, all of my responsibilities while privileging my career?” An autoethnographic process and product means contextualizing our everyday actions, language, and interactions in the stuff of our social milieus insofar as doing so makes it possible for us to do good, and critical introspection. Shifting our ethnographic lens towards our own selves means doing auto-ethnography. 

Reference Cited

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., & Bochner, A. P. 2011. Autoethnography: an overview. Historical Social 

Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 273-290.

Landmark as Self-Definition, By Sarah MacDonald

In my investigation of the Landmark renovation I found that the project’s various offices mobilized time to construct an identity for the project. The Landmark project is a disruptive, multi-million dollar renovation aimed at reimagining St. George campus’s core. It covers Front Campus, Back Campus and Hart House circle, as well as the adjoining areas. Over the next few years the project will remove the ‘modern artifacts’ around this part of campus (cars, parking meters, asphalt roads) and replace them with more green space, seating areas and pathways. Speaking with David, a member of Landmark’s marketing team, he expressed the goal of Landmark as elevating the university’s sense of prestige by enhancing and revitalizing the historic aspects of its campus. However, the three motivations I came to identify as to why the university constructs an identity are: i) to attract donors ii) to define itself amongst other universities as ‘high-ranking’ (a more specific interpretation of David’s hunch) and iii) to maintain relevance and appear ‘sensitive’ to the current social moment. Through discourse and physical space, the project mobilizes the temporalities of History and Future to construct an identity in relation to other campuses and city spaces.

In the texts I read while thinking about the renovation and what it’s doing, most of the material I connected with was concerned with ‘public memory’ – unpacking and analyzing memory as a communal phenomenon. Revitalizing the ‘core’ of campus, Landmark is seeking to impact public space, and is therefore directly speaking to the public’s relationship to this space. In an article titled Places of Public Memory, the authors argue that ‘material supports’ (also referred to as ‘technologies’) are employed to facilitate engagement with the past – calling images, objects and places the ‘infrastructure’ of public memory (Dickinson et al. 2010: 10). With Landmark’s material supports projecting imaginings of more than the school’s history (aka. its future), we can claim that these technologies are deployed to help us engage with multiple temporalities. One aspect of the project that we can unpack in thinking about its use of time to connect with the public is its title. What is a ‘landmark’? It is an easily recognizable object or feature that helps you know where you are situated in a landscape.

In the article ‘Landmarks’, Wapke Feenstra considers landscapes to be pieces of land with different dimensions created upon them, and argues that landscapes ‘narrate our relationship to our environment’ (Feenstra 2010: 114). It’s landmarks – layers added to the land – that create these new dimensions by ‘making visible’ a new perspective (dimension) of the landscape (Feenstra 2010). Using Feenstra’s understanding of landscapes and landmarks to think about the decision to name this project, we can infer that this project – in defining itself as a landmark – is intending to reveal and shape new dimensions on campus. Constructing discourse/ rhetoric and physical space that emphasizes the university’s historic character and future utility, the Landmark project reveals both the social life of a space and the importance we place on time as a marker.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L. Ott, eds. Places of public memory: 

The  rhetoric of museums and memorials. University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Feenstra, Wapke. “Landmarks.” Performance Research 15.4 (2010): 107 – 114.

Making Time to Study Time, By Agha Saadaf, Hayley Lessard, Olivia Verstraete

As students we are all tremendously time constrained. Being pulled around by demands from other classes sometimes made it difficult to focus on conducting research and many times impeded on our ability to deeply analyze situations and data. Alternatively, we would sometimes feel the need to sacrifice homework from other classes that may not have held as much priority in our schedules in order to catch up on research and theory-finding. Studying other students made schedule conflicts more likely to occur, as it was not only us who had busy schedules, but also those we were studying. This occasionally made it difficult to “make time” to meet up with our interlocutors and conduct interviews, shadow or interact with busy students in the field. 

Moreover, it’s also important to consider how aspects of life outside of the academic realm can affect how we made time to study time. As students, we felt the need to have jobs outside of the academic realm to keep up with personal, and sometimes educational expenses, which many times affected how much time we could spend on research. Generally, we found our work schedules often limited the time we had to conduct research or go through theory when required. On top of this, we all encountered various social obligations throughout the semester that directly obstructed time scheduled to do work on our research projects; things like birthdays, family events, friends needing support during the stresses of midterm season. And finally, in some of our cases, poorly-timed health concerns often arose where scheduled research time was pushed aside in favour of taking care of ourselves and going to the doctor’s, setting research back to be caught up on later.    

As you can see, it can be quite paradoxical to find the time to study time. While this cannot fully be avoided, we had employed ways to maximize our time for doing research. When researching within the school, it is always intriguing to explore a topic that is completely foreign, but it can be very beneficial to explore a site that you already frequent. There are likely many questions and puzzles present that you have already thought of but have yet to manifest, and with the addition of the ethnographic lens, it can become even more interesting. Another way to maximize your time is to use your existing social networks to gain interviews and interlocutors. By using people that you know (and keeping them anonymous) the interview can be easier to schedule and richer due to the rapport that already exists. Finally, use of the internet and electronics can be critical. In our experience of students studying students, schedules don’t often align, therefore the use of videochat interviews or online surveys can save a lot of time. It may seem less intriguing to study the familiar, but it can be an eye-opening project and effective way to use your time.

The Institutionalization of care: The University as the Pastoral Apparatus, By: Priya Saibel & Solomiya Draga

We live in an era of the expanding pastoral apparatus. A generation ago, the university looked like a different place than what it is today, albeit another pastoral apparatus. This term is derived from the historic notion of the church as the pastoral (Foucault, 2007), delivering social welfare programs and services through the pastors. Ample examples of these types of care-taking initiatives exist across the university, ranging from support-based initiatives that encompass a wide range of social services, to institutionalized centers like the Healthcare clinic. Take for example the free flu shots that were offered in November 2019 to students, staff and faculty or the ongoing health and wellness initiatives: mindfulness workshops, yoga and the various workouts offered across campus. Through researching pastoral care at the university, we can see the institutionalization of care, and its existence in both highly funded, professionalized departments, and through voluntary initiatives.  

For instance, in the Family Care Office (FCO), the staff are enabling and promoting self-care (Jones, 2018) of the student parent. They do so in a responsive way by attempting to address their needs, and in a tactical way by ‘teaching’ and ‘promoting’ the methods of care to the student parent, thereby equipping them with the tools to be self-sufficient. The FCO was founded in 1993 and is well-funded by the University. They are also comprised of several professionalized personnel, have a clearly defined reporting structure and have a definitive mandate. Their motto is ‘Every family belongs’, and the staff work very hard to make sure that they are catering to all family needs that arise at the university. In the office, there is a large common area with a corner of toys, literature on support programs and initiatives within and outside campus, and several books on parenthood. Plenty of resources are displayed to support families, and there are workshops that deal explicitly with parenting. The peculiarity is that the FCO is undertaking topics and tasks that were previously dealt with privately; that is, in the home and with other family members. Thus, familial forms of care have fallen under the rubric of university services. 

We can see similar pastoralist trends in Grad Minds (GM), the mental health group under the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students Union (UTGSU). GM arose in 2013 when the UTSGU recognized the need for mental health resources on campus and has become one of UTSGU’s largest groups. It is comprised of around a dozen student volunteers who plan and administer mental health workshops, educational sessions, and advocate on behalf of the graduate student body. Unlike the FCO, GM involvement is completely voluntary, and their members are elected annually through a democratic process. GM, as the “voluntary pastoral,” focuses on filling in the mental health gaps that exist for graduate students. The group members are dedicated to the cause and work extremely hard to ensure the effectiveness of the group on attending to the graduate community. However, the voluntary nature of the group poses certain issues. For instance, high turnover is a particularly salient barrier to fulfilling their mission. Although members often join with enthusiasm, many quickly get frustrated with the lack of change, lack of funding and the inability to follow-through with proposed initiatives. Thus, this group is less institutionalized than groups such as the FCO, and as a result faces unique challenges in their efforts to provide the student body with pastoral care. 

Despite the differences between the structure and level of institutionalization of the two groups, their functions are largely the same. Both the FCO and GM work to foster a sense of community and belonging, provide students with much-needed services, and support the university community by providing resources to maximize student wellness. Thereby, these groups extend the reach of the pastoral through professionalized and voluntary undertakings. 


Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Senellart, Michel (ed.). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jones, Lorelei. 2018. ‘Pastoral power and the promotion of self-care.’ Sociology of Health & Illness 40 (6):988-1004.

Student Caregivers in the University: Locating an Invisible Population for Ethnographic Research, By Kristen Bass

The contemporary student is a subject understood by the University as only a student. This ideal student, as a self-interested actor attending university for future economic gain, makes education their top priority. Understanding a student this way, however, has consequences for those who do not fit this model. Mature students or students with caring responsibilities, for example, exist outside the ideal student model because of their other roles beyond the University. In addition to their student role, they may also be a worker, a partner or spouse, a parent, a primary caregiver of an aging family member, or a combination of these. In the context of the classroom, however, these roles remain invisible. 

  A student-parent interlocutor spoke to the University’s assumption of the idealized student when she stated:

It can feel isolating or weird because everyone is assumed to be a full-time student. […] That’s their number one. And I think that professors are often a little unforgiving and they just don’t even get it. […] I’ve had teachers where they basically insinuate that school is all you do.

Here, she describes her interactions with professors who do not see, or do not acknowledge, that some students have other roles and obligations that may shape how they approach their student role.

Moreover, there are limited sites on campus where mature students and student caregivers gather, further augmenting their invisibility. Demanding schedules are often such that this group tends to remain on campus only when they have to. Consequently, their presence as a collective group with shared experiences is unseen by other students or administration. Speaking to this, a student-parent interlocutor said: 

I was thinking, […] it would be so cool if people could meet together. And I’m like, I don’t have time for that! And it’s so funny, I was just thinking it’s this whole community that can’t really exist because everyone’s too busy.

Here, she gets at the challenge of locating this group on campus. Because of the demands of their other roles, which tend to take priority over school, their presence on campus is often nebulous.

This invisibility proves to be a challenge when conducting ethnographic research. How does an ethnographer gain access to sites or subjects that are not visible? Where does this group study or spend time? How does an ethnographer identify a “mature student” or “student parent”?  Is the group recognizable by their age? Perhaps a younger, non-mature student is also a parent or caregiver. Categorizing this group simply by age may have exclusionary results. Their invisibility in the university means that access to this population often requires social networks. As such, these challenges make researching invisible populations difficult.

While the uncloaking of invisible populations is challenging, it is perhaps ethically necessary. As ethnographers, it is of immense importance to dignify all of the roles that make up the person. Surely, if we want our representations to be close-to-true understandings of our interlocutors’ personhood we should take great care to appreciate the different roles of our subjects and the extent to which these roles articulate personhood. 

Moreover, doing so might also demonstrate new and relevant knowledge to stakeholders of our research. How might the Family Care Office at the University offer resources that are considerate of the many roles each student caregiver has? Indeed, a significant way in which we do this work of dignifying is by explicitly acknowledging all parts, or roles, of a person. Further, if the University recognizes the struggles of student caregivers and acknowledges the barriers they encounter by providing supports, this may have positive effects on the educational experience of this group. To be seen, to be recognized, is to attain validation for one’s personhood, in all of its complexities.

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