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

Future Promise (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”

Too Early to Tell, By Agha Saadaf

As the topic of my research was centred on how students at the University of Toronto were affected by a very recent change in government policy (the cuts to OSAP, to be specific), one thing that came up often during my interviews with administrative staff was that it was too early to assess the full situation at this point in the school year. For a study of temporal restructuring, this was an interesting and ironic point to come across and work around, especially in terms of distinguishing between the perspectives of students and the University’s administration (or, at the very least, college registrars). 

For instance, in one of my initial interviews with a financial aid advisor at my college, I learned that the recent OSAP cuts have been a very common reason for students to come in seeking financial aid, though it was too early to tell if it would cause a significant increase in the total amount of students who come in for financial advising appointments. There could be many reasons behind why there hasn’t been a significant in total amount of students coming in seeking financial aid as a result of cuts to OSAP, ranging from students finding other means such as part-time work to offset the reduction to their student aid funding, students having enough money to get through first semester before needing assistance, or perhaps even not being aware of financial advising and aid at their colleges. Based on my research, the last option might be one of the principal reasons, as a lot of the aid-reliant students I spoke to never considered going into their registrar’s office for financial counselling or applying for a collegiate grant through ACORN. 

This brings forth a couple questions I was unable to definitively answer during the course of my research: is this maybe due to my observed lack of advertising for financial aid, and is that lack of advertising intentional in order to prevent an onslaught of students coming into their registrars’ offices asking for financial aid? 

“New” Research, By Morgan O’Brien

During my ethnographic work exploring research endeavours at the University of Toronto I was struck by how many projects were “the first” or “new” in some way. There appears to be additional value gained by producing not just good work, but new work. The language of newness suggests that those involved in the research are the first in some way, that they are doing something nobody else has done. Yet the vast majority of research is not created anew from scratch, but building on or responding to what has come before. Why then, is there an emphasis placed on differentiating research through novelty?

During a public talk about “New Bioinformatic and Molecular Biology Tools for Metabolic Engineering” the speaker repeatedly stressed the novelty of the project he was apart of. As the talk went on however, he substantiated his work by comparing the results to those produced by other research teams. Moreover, he stated outright that his team was not the first to conduct this kind of research. I became curious as to how the research could be considered “new” if others had already done it. I soon learned that the novelty in this case came in the way the research was conducted, rather than the research itself. This small caveat was the basis on which his entire project could claim newness. What’s more, the results produced from this particular way of doing research appeared not to have significantly improved or changed the outcomes compared to the previous ways the same research had been conducted. This suggests that the novelty of work holds particularly high value, even compared to quality. The ability to claim that work is “new” through calculated caveats positions researchers as the first, which in some cases matters more for academic achievement than the results themselves. 

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

Lifelong learning and student-parents: Foucauldian thoughts on governing the subject, By: Priya Saibel

There are fascinating connections in neoliberal theory, governmentality and the tactics of discipline in harnessing lifelong learning at the university. The analysis of lifelong learning is inspired by Foucault, governmentality and the production of knowledge.  Fejes (2008) and Olsson & Petersson (2008) highlight some of the ways in which lifelong learning has been normalized and exercised to work on the neoliberal subject in the present as an adaptable, prepared, skilled individual who can be made capable to deal with future uncertainties. Fejes (2008:87) states that “lifelong learning is constructed by and is constructing a neoliberal governmentality.” Everyone is educable because the future is changing and so must the citizen. Since society is deemed to be a learning society, adult education is “crucial in making this society a reality.” (Fejes 2008:97) Where can we locate evidence of lifelong learning at the university? Are there candidates we can identify who the university works upon to enable lifelong learning? I propose we consider the student-parent for a moment. By providing the different ‘care’ mechanisms, the university as the pastoral becomes an accessible place for prospective students with families to fulfill their educational aspirations. Premising a place of belonging, irrespective of age, class, marital status, sex, race or ethnicity, and adhering to principles of equity, the university has made it possible for anyone at any time in their lives to pursue education. In this vein, educating the parent-student is a political technology to responsibilize and prepare the subject for an unknown, risky and everchanging future. This narrative of the future necessitates the formation of the lifelong educable subject, the student-parent, where knowledge helps to develop the eyes that will allow students to perceive of these new future-looking situations. They must be able “to embody new dispositions of responsibility, future orientation and knowledge production” because “the future is the name of the present in which knowledge-producing subjects are constructed and inscribed with responsibility as subjects through the notion of lifelong learning.” (Olsson & Petersson 2008:71) There is an interesting association with time here in the present and in the future, and how lifelong learning for the student-parent can transcend these temporalities. If these objectives of neoliberal governmentality are to be actualized, then the various ‘family-friendly’ tactics utilized by the university ensure the emplacement of the student-parent as the lifelong learner and site of knowledge production. 

Works Cited

Fejes, Andreas. 2008. ‘Historicizing the lifelong learner: Governmentality and neoliberal rule,’ in Fejes & Nicoll (eds.) Foucault and Lifelong Learning: Governing the subject. London and New York: Routledge. Chapter 7, pp. 87-99.

Olsson, Ulf & Kenneth Petersson. 2008. ‘The operation of knowledge and construction of the lifelong learning subject,’ in Fejes & Nicoll (eds.) Foucault and Lifelong Learning: Governing the subject. London and New York: Routledge. Chapter 5, pp. 61-73.

Blending Time via Social Media, By Ximena C. Martínez Trabucco

During my institutional ethnography, I decided to explore the intersection of discourses of time and success at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto (OISE). My first exposure to the field was through an enticing marketing campaign that OISE has developed over the last two years. The campaign, “With OISE I Can,” consists of a series of posters, videos, and events on social media with the aim of reaching a global audience. Although all the aspects of the campaign are strikingly creative, the social media campaign is particularly attractive. In October 2019, students in the OISE Master of Teaching program, pursuing their dreams of becoming Ontario teachers, left OISE for practicum placements to visit schools and gain experience in the field. In a masterful move, communications staffers made a spectacle of the first practicum day. Through an Instagram live stream, they shared with the world what being an Ontario teacher looks like. Motivated by such an original idea, I walked to the communications team’s headquarters to ask about the initiative:

“We have a huge presence on social media. What [we] did in Instagram… [was] a

take-over. We live streamed an OISE student going to the first day of her practicum

talking about her day and her experience as a teacher candidate in the school, and being

available online to answer questions for future students” (OISE staff member, November,


Live streaming the experience of the student during her first day of practicum is the epitome of a time technology that, in tune with the current policy of austerity, seeks to retrieve public funding from universities while promoting a logic of “social acceleration” (Rosa 2013). Hartmut Rosa explains that time in highly modern societies is characterized by a sense of  “continuous movement” or “social acceleration” (2013, 20) towards a future that has an open ending. We do not know where we are going. As we cannot anticipate what is coming, it is always better to be done “ASAP” with whatever endeavour we are pursuing — even if what actually needs to be done is never clear. The Instagram takeover shows to a global audience, mainly composed of prospective students, how their future could look. However, this sense of the future has a different effect on the other side of the screen. Potential students are faced with the idea of being late already. OISE invites them to reverse that delay by just clicking the OISE application package. The student who is streaming is in the future: she already inhabits her future. She shows that by taking the right decision she has “enabled” herself to occupy her bright future. The past, the present and the future are blended via streaming. Then, the anxiety of not knowing “what is next” in a socioeconomic and political scenario marked by austerity, climate change, impeachments, and unleashed state violence, at least, for the time that the live stream lasts, dissipates.


Rosa, Hartmut. Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity. Columbia University Press, 2013. 

With OISE I We Can, By Ximena C. Martínez Trabucco

When one emerges from underground public transit, a series of posters line the elevator walls at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), the faculty of education of the University of Toronto. Each poster shows a student accompanied by a catchy and enticing message: “With OISE I can.” The posters are part of a publicity campaign inviting people to join the adventure of graduate school. The open-ended sentence welcomes multiple possibilities, reflecting students’ longing and aspirations. What is it that we “can” with OISE? In the case of Nolan, a black student studying to be a Doctor of Education, he is working to create a “liberatory prison education” (OISE 2019) and to develop a restorative American and Canadian justice system. Meng Xiao, another soon-to-be Doctor of Education, is investigating “how Canadian universities can enhance the engagement of international graduate students and better support their success and wellbeing,” while Nevoh, a student in the Master of Teaching program is reaching his goal of becoming a teacher (OISE 2019). The list goes on and on featuring different faces, including many racialized ones, that say what they “can” with OISE.

As the messages suggest, becoming part of those education programs is the key to expanding one’s career while also pursuing one’s material aims. Grant (2018) suggests students are pushed to think more about the job market and its precariousness than to consider their careers as a contribution to the greater good. Until a few years ago, OISE was represented through an image of the building. What does it mean to erase the building while “only” portraying successful people? During the 1970s and ‘80s, critiques of the bureaucracy as a mass of experts and public servants representing the use of public funding populated political debate and public opinion (Rose 1999). This so called “red tape” was symbolized by the figure of the building itself, imagined to be inhabited by a body of bureaucrats. Rigid experts, attached to the state structure and its procedures, who represented obstacles to necessary action. Erasing the building and putting individuals at the centre conveys the transition from a social state form of government to a neoliberal one. Wanting to show real people impacting the world, not an old building, precisely positions the individual at the centre of society — not the community behind the student, nor the greater good, nor the group of scholars doing research; just the individual. Considering that OISE is one of the largest North American institutions dedicated to the field of education, the erasure of the building and the centring of the individual in a marketing campaign raise questions about new meanings the OISE community has acquired. It also raises questions about the objective and intention of our education systems. Consider instead the slogan, “With OISE We Can.”


Grant, Barbara M. “On Delivering the Consumer-Citizen.” In Death of the Public University?

Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy, edited by Susan Wright

and Cris Shore, New York: Berghan, 2018.

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “With OISE I Can.” Advertising campaign, 2019.

Rose, Nikolas. Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge University Press,


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