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

Methods, Archives, and the Arts of Noticing (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”

Synthesizing Data and Theory, By Wesley O’Hearn

  Below is fieldwork I conducted during the early stages of my project.  During this time, I was interested in the student relationship to procrastination via technology: smartphone and laptop.  I was drawn the power of online spaces to trap students for hours on end while they are supposed to be studying. I used Vincent Duclos’ article “INHABITING MEDIA: An Anthropology of Life in Digital Speed” which explores the topic of getting absorbed by online media.  Duclos terms this “Digital Speed” and is primarily interested in how it is shaped by and continues to shape actors in the real world as we are continuously consumed by the lure of online content (22). Ultimately this experience didn’t fit into my final project as I shifted away from online space to material environments.

This week, my main objective was to spend an extended time in the field to build on my brief observations last week.  Instead of taking a focused approached on one or two students like before, I was interested in the large group atmosphere of a lecture hall to see how digital speed affected attention span.  I attended the ANT100 lecture on Thursday evening at Con Hall to accomplish this. I sat in the third-floor balcony to get a clear overhead view of the lecture hall. The room was at roughly 70% capacity, with the vast majority of students using laptops to take notes.  My idea was to observe the students over the period of the lecture (2 hours) to see if they strayed from taking notes to browsing the web and social media. 

  As the lecture progressed almost all the students remained focused on taking notes as they attempted to keep up with the slides.  It was around the 15-minute mark when I decided to shift my focus towards phone usage. This change provided much more interesting observations.  For the first 30 minutes of the lecture, mostly everyone seemed to have no difficulty staying focused and taking notes. I recorded 2 people at the 30-minute mark browsing their phone.  Interestingly, after 30 minutes the amount of phone usage increased. I recorded 9 people at 40 minutes looking at their phone. At 45 minutes, I counted 10 people. We took a break 50 minutes in for roughly 10 minutes.  When we returned, I hypothesized that people had their social media fix satisfied by the break and would be rather focused for a short while. I was correct as people stayed off their phones for the first 10 minutes. After that, the number started to rise; 4 people at 10 minutes, 7 at 15 minutes, and 11 at 30 minutes.  The number stayed relatively static for the remainder of the lecture, fluctuating between 5 and 11 and any given time. I also noticed a few more people browsing the web on their laptops, but this number was very insignificant.

  My main takeaway from this session is that there appears to be a correlation between attention span and lecture time.  Students seem to be able to stay focused for the first 30 minutes of the lecture but are quickly drawn into the world of digital speed shortly after.  Is there a pedagogical solution to maintaining student attention, or is it a generational phenomenon?”

Works Cited:

Duclos, Vincent. “Inhabiting Media: An Anthropology of Life in Digital Speed.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 1 (2017): 21-27.

Working on Activism, By Charlotte Stewart

Near the beginning of my research with Climate Crisis Response University of Toronto (CCRUT), I attended an Introduction to Divestment workshop that was run by the group in partnership with an anti-Israeli apartheid student activist organization. Both of these groups are actively involved in divestment campaigns at the University, the former to pressure the institution to divest from fossil fuels, and the latter from arms manufacturers. In her introduction to the workshop, one of CCRUT’s members explained that the collaboration was based on both group’s analysis of intertwined “structures of oppression” as they relate to a “just transition to a green economy”. This compelling introduction led into an even more compelling workshop, which accomplished the goal of demonstrating, as one student from the anti-Israeli apartheid group phrased it, that though the global climate crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may appear disparate, “once you break things down, you see that they are all part of systems”. So how do these systems relate to my own work?

Throughout the course of my research with CCRUT, I have at times struggled to separate out the critiques levelled at the University by my interlocutors and my analysis of the group itself. A large part of my process in conducting this research has been to digest these student activists’ cogently articulated ideas about their position within the institution and society – work which I had expected to have to do myself – while also trying to pay attention to the dynamics and practices which emerge from these critiques. “So what is divestment?” had to coincide in my mind with “How does this group think about and do divestment?” Similarly, my role has not been to reconcile their sense of injustice at the University’s investment portfolio and their ethically fraught position as its tuition-paying students, nor to attempt to provide solutions to what seem to me to be ascertainably pressing issues. Rather, I have worked to describe and analyze this milieu in terms of theories that have contributed to an understanding of time at the University. Whether or not this has, can, or should be helpful to their cause remains, at least in my head, up for debate. 

While my undergraduate training in anthropology has given me a great deal of language to think through what it might mean to work with people who I do not agree with or feel I may never relate to, until I began this project I had not thought much about what it might mean to work with people that I do agree with and see myself reflected in. Though I am far from the first person to do so, I have to wonder what place (my) research on activism has in the time of climate crisis. 

What is Wellness? By Olivia Verstraete

         When I began this project, studying a space in the university dedicated to wellness, I first had to think about, what is wellness? What are my preconceived notions of this? What is the definition?

         Initially, through seeing this space I was working in as well as what the media was telling me personal wellness looks like, I thought wellness was very attached to materiality. Along with being a comfortable space, it emphasized the use of things as a wellness or relaxation tool, by virtue of the amount of ‘things’ we have for wellness. These things include events where students can paint, make candles, bath bombs, essential oil scented things, and other things such as plants and journaling. Most of the wellness events that we have to surround a ‘thing’ that the students get to take and events where they get to eat. In terms of the media, advertisements are snuck into posts by celebrities showing how fit they are and that this clothing item helped, or how relaxed they look using this candle and lotion set. This image or picture of a relaxed person is seen and admired and the trend starts with how aesthetically pleasing things relax people and bring them peace. Wellness seems to be kind of used by popular culture to sell things and promote a way of living that emphasizes using things to achieve personal wellness.

         After thinking about preconceived notions of wellness being mainly materialistic, I thought that while this may be partly true, it can be the whole truth for everybody. So I looked into a couple of different definitions to gain a sense of what should be the aims of wellness. Dictionary.comgave two definitions: 1. “the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as a result of deliberate effort”; and 2. “An approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventative care or treatment”. This definition was simple but it gave me a much better idea of what wellness practices are or should be. In addition to this, it expanded wellness and achieving wellbeing as a preventative measure in medicine. So basically, according to this definition, wellness is just taking care of yourself. I looked up another definition and found one from the University of California, Davis Wellness Services. They presented a two parted definition: “Wellness is an active process of becoming aware of, and making choices towards a healthy and fulfilling life. Wellness is more than being free from illness, it is a dynamic process of change and growth”. I liked the language in this one because it emphasized the individual in being a player in creating more than a healthy life but a fulfilling life because that differs for everyone.

         I have discovered that practicing wellness and attempting to better oneself cannot follow a template or a timeline, it is for the individual to discover and rework for themselves.

The Art of Noticing, Ali Azhar, Candace Baldassarre, Joseph Wilson

As I walked into the commuter lounge, the scent of pancakes smacked me in the face. I lowered myself onto the well-used couch and smelled a cup of coffee, its owner’s eyes were closed—the sound of his breath indicated to me that he was sleeping. Loud laughter emerged from the area labelled “study space” around the corner that that startled the boy to his feet. I hear another student open a noisy bag of chips; the microwave beeps; a student at a nearby table shows another a video on his laptop. I hear the video get louder and then see a girl near them put her headphones in. Did the video violate unspoken norms regarding the appropriate volume for the space? Given the expectations of sterility and quiet associated with study spaces on campus, the sounds and smells of the space highlighted the non-academic intentionality behind the design of and unspoken norms within the commuter lounge. 

In the active attempt to subvert anthropology’s tendency to prioritize the visual within her above observations within a commuter lounge, Candace approached noticing with an intentionality of foregrounding sounds and smells. She chose to focus her attention to the multisensory experiences within the space. Anthropologists instrumentalize their bodies as the tools of their trade, and the ethnographer as a noticer must hone their ability to interpret a plethora of (multisensory) information and subsequently synthesize it into cogent analyses. Given that the human body is only capable of noticing so much (and in certain ways,) Ali employed technology as a means of noticing in a different way.

            Birdwhistell (2010) argues that communication is not about one orifice for emitting chunks of information and another for receiving it – video allows us to slow down experience, and look at not just what one said, but how they said it. As a student, observing a video of a seminar interaction allowed Ali to step back from the role of student that he is quite comfortable in and notice how we coordinate turns at talk and interactions within a seminar conversation. Furthermore, it lead him to reflect upon how we produce temporal structures within interaction, and the way we make ourselves accountable to what it is we are doing. 

When observing and replaying the video of the seminar, Ali’s attention was drawn to the role of individuals’ gaze and sight lines. Similarly to this focus on body language, Joe’s observations from both Dr. Agneiszka Nowak’s Archeology Lab, and an archaeology conference premised on his noticings of bodily hexes and gaze. Joe noticed that the bodily hexes of the students in the lab are distinctive. Students hunch awkwardly over stereoscopes, seated on high stools with their legs flayed open to accommodate the drawers at their knees. 

At an Archaeology Conference, however, the bodily hexes of the grad students changes. Speakers almost always spoke from behind a podium with one or two hands resting on the podium edge. One hand often hovered over their laptop in order to advance their slides. The direction of their gaze shifted between three places, in order of frequency: 1. The laptop screen in front of them; 2. The projector screen to their right; and, 3. The audience. Their glances at the large screen to their right were often awkward, required them to lean forward a little to ensure they could see what was on the screen, presumably to check to see if the correct image was being projected. 

Often, speakers would shift one leg backwards when speaking, perhaps to compensate for the formality of the rest of their body language. One speaker spoke with one hand in his jeans pocket while his other controlled the laptop, an awkward over-compensation meant to project casualness but really doing the opposite. 

Though all engaged in ethnographic observation, Candace, Ali, and Joe clearly approached noticing differently: while Candace purposely sought to notice the non-visual, Ali and Joe premised these noticings on specific intricacies of the visual. Given the highly subjective nature of noticing, and the innate creativity of ethnography as a genre, noticing is an undeniable anthropological artform. 


Birdwhistell, Ray L. Kinesics and context: Essays on body motion communication

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Ontological Metaphors of Time in the Archaeology Lab, By Joseph Wilson

Analysing the use of metaphor by practicing scientists a be a fruitful way to explore ‘naturalized’ ways of thinking in certain fields. Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) is a cognitive approach to language analysis, arguing that languages have a (limited) set of “conceptual metaphors” that structure the way speakers think about the world (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Some of the research in this field is dated, and most modern research in CMT occurs in cognitive or psychological linguistics (Bowdle and Gentner 2005; Gibbs 2017; Steen 2015) so it is less relevant for anthropologists interested in techniques they can use in the field. Instead, we can use Critical Metaphor Analysis (CMA) and the foundational work by Jonathan Charteris-Black (2004; also see Ochs 1996). CMA is a subset of Critical Discourse Analysis and as such is more tied to the traditions of sociolinguistics.

Lakoff and Johnson would suggest that conceptual metaphors like TIME IS SPACE (‘I met her in 2014’; ‘I will do that on (or at) the weekend’) and TIME IS MONEY (‘I spent four days’; ‘I invested three years of my life’) are representative of how we think about time (1980). CMA, on the other-hand, would be more concerned with analysing the “affordances” or consequences of a particular metaphor, for example, emphasizing the capitalist nature of TIME IS MONEY set of metaphors and their exclusivity to Western discourse. Charteris-Black is concerned with the “pragmatics” of metaphor choice (2004:2) rather than the cognitive implications. “Metaphorical interpretation is concerned with textual meaning,” he writes, “that is, identifying the type of social relations that are constructed through them” (2004:35)

A refined research question for an archaeology lab, for instance, might be: what are the structural metaphors archeology grad students use when talking about their archeological work and in situating their artifacts in a historical epoch? Are these markedly different than the metaphors they use when talking about their everyday lives in ‘everyday time’? Secondary questions are triggered: what are the social factors that determine these choices? How are existing power relations or expectations of student behaviour reinforced (or subverted) by these choices?

At a recent archaeology conference, I found evidence of these ontological metaphors of time, where scientists referred to time a physical reality, a medium we are “in” or a medium that “flows” or “grows” organically. It might be argued that there is no other way for us to talk about an intangible quality like time without materializing it, trapped as we are in physical bodies with which to experience the world.

There is a curious paradox here, however, when archaeologists refer to time. Artifacts are described as “young” when there are relatively few years between the present date and the date of the object’s origin, as in “this building is the youngest structure on the site, built in 1907” (implying “older” structures from the 19th century). This ontological construction takes the present date as the point of reference from which to measure the age of something and suggests that objects “age” backwards through the medium of time. However, when archaeologists refer to the period of time in which an artifact was found “the Edwardian era, the Woodland Period), they use the terms “early” and “late” in a way that implies a reference point that is in the past.

This is incommensurate with the ontological construction described above. An artifact that is described as “early neolithic” is in fact older than something described as “late neolithic” despite the fact that in the English language “early” is often collocated with “young,” and “late” is often collocated with “old” (i.e. late in life; early years; later years; early days). Ontological metaphors are useful, perhaps even indispensable, when thinking about time, but they are many of them, not just one per culture as is suggested by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and one needs to know when it is appropriate to use one and not another, something that separates the veteran archaeologists from the newcomers.

Photos: by Joseph Wilson 


Bowdle, Brian F. and Dedre Gentner. 2005. “The Career of Metaphor.” In Psychological Review. 112 (1): 193–216.

Charteris-Black, Jonathan. 2004. Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Gibbs Jr., Raymond W. 2017. Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff & Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Ochs, E., Gonzales, P., and Jacoby, S. 1996. “When I Come Down I’m in a Domain State: Talk, Gesture, and Graphic Representation in the Interpretive Activity of Physicists.” In Interaction and Grammar, E. Ochs, E. Schegloff, and S.Thompson (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steen, Gerard. 2015. “Developing, testing and interpreting Deliberate Metaphor Theory.” In Journal of Pragmatics, 90: 67-72.

Time as a site of ‘social contestation’ for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, By Joseph Wilson

“As life speeds up like this I move among the urban people, in the urban setting, the city’s metal and mortar, its sharper interactions, with more grit and bite in the gears”

– Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow (1991:30)

A few years ago I found myself in Silicon Valley introducing some education technology startups to venture capital investors. The routine was usually the same: we’d check in at the front desk and wait. And wait. Even if we had an appointment. When I returned to Toronto I was informed that I was being big-timed to remind me of my status.

To big-time somebody is to wrest control of their time, the scarcest of commodities in our ‘accelerated’ world. “In the context of everyday practices,” writes Hartmut Rosa, “temporal strategies like letting others wait… often lie at the heart of social contestation” (2013:12). The venture capital firm (Slow Ventures perhaps?) (Caduff 2017:18) was affirming its power by reminding the fledgling companies (Quick QA Enterprises?) (Caduff 2017:12) who controls the ‘time structure’ in this realm.

The entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, along with tribes of like-minded ‘innovators’ world-wide, are chasing the “dream of an emancipated world in which there was no such thing as a scarcity of time” (Rosa 2013:xxxiv). Books like Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek promise beach rest and untold riches to smart entrepreneurs who use their time (and their technology) wisely to make money without human oversite.

Rosa calls this dream the “utempean society” (2013:xxxiv). To get there, though, requires a huge up-front commitment of labour: coding, designing, red-eye flights and weekly meetings. The technology centre I worked at was literally called an “accelerator” and entrepreneurs were constantly pushed to be “first to market,” or to “fail fast” or to “move fast and break things.” There was a motivational poster on the far side of a shared workspace that said “pound the rock!” It always struck me as being a blatant admission of the Sisyphean nature of tech work. The result was an office full of bleary-eyed young people who had lost sight of what they were doing and why. “Speed-induced stress thus leads to a numbing of perception,” writes Duclos (2017:23) by way of Marshall McLuhan.

In the case of a new company there are specific metrics used to quantify acceleration. But when people complain, in general, that “everything” is accelerating, Rosa asks the clear-eyed question of what, exactly, is accelerating? (2013:22). For anyone who has watched the agonizing process by which Toronto city council makes decision about new subway lines, it is clear that not ‘everything’ is accelerating. In Barthes’ essay The Jet-Man (a throw-away reference found in Caduff’s treatise) he writes, “this paradox is that an excess of speed turns into a repose” (1972:71).

Rosa is interested in the phenomenology of modernity; how it feels to be in a society moving too quickly. “The experience of modernization is an experience of acceleration,” he writes, the key word here being “experience” (2013:22). He writes, though, that as far back as 1750 people were complaining about the crisis of the speed of modern life, a fact we should keep in mind as we listen to our interlocuters complain about the unprecedented stress of modern life. 


Zuckerberg poster:



Amis, Martin. 1991. Time’s Arrow. London: Jonathan Cape.

Barthes, Roland. 1972 [1957]. Mythologies. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Caduff, Carlo. 2017. “Speed Crash Course.” Cultural Anthropology 32 (1):12-20.

Duclos, Vincent. 2017. “Inhabiting Media: An Anthropology of Life in Digital Speed.” Cultural Anthropology 32 (1):21-27.

Rosa, Hartmut. 2013 [2005]. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by J. Trejo-Mathys. New York: Columbia University Press.

‘Weird Splits’: Family Care and the University’s Day Care Policy of 1987, By Priya Saibel

“the University has a responsibility, both as an educational institution and an employer, to assist in the provision of day care services for the university community in order that the career and educational goals of its faculty, staff and students are not compromised by their family commitments.” 

-Report from the Advisory Committee on Day Care, May 1986

The time was 1986 and advocacy work on anti-sex discrimination and women’s equality in the workforce was in full swing at U of T. This also meant that childcare needs were attracting more and more attention. The University had established an Advisory Committee on Day Care under the Office of the VP Business Affairs out of a need to review its policy on day care and to determine whether or not to establish another centre. There were two daycare centres on St George campus at the time: Margaret Fletcher Day Care Centre and Campus Community Co-operative Day Care Centre. The Advisory Committee issued a survey that was circulated to students, staff and faculty to assess the need for childcare. The survey was mailed to faculty and staff, but to capture the student demographic, it was inserted in one single issue of the Varsity on Jan 23, 1986. There was a response rate of 35% from staff and faculty and the response from the student population was 27 out of a potential 25,000 (to whom the Varsity was circulated). The student results were so low that they were deemed ‘insignificant’. Well I wonder why…. The Office of the VP faced a lot of criticism internally for this from student groups, governing structures and the Status of Women’s Office. Yet, they did not want this information to be made publicly available because it could “create the impression that we don’t care…which puts the Committee in a difficult position at the outset of its considering recommendations.” (memo to convenor of Advisory Committee on Day Care, March 10, 1986) 

There were opposing viewpoints between student groups and other committees at the university regarding funding daycare spaces. Student groups advocated for the university to provide the necessary funding for daycare, but the other committees pushed back on this and favoured that the funding come from the public sector. Of the two daycares, the utilization rate by ‘university children’ was only 60%, including children of students. The Advisory Committee commented that if these spaces had had a higher utilization rate, they would have been prepared to recommend that the university facilitate the establishment of another centre. Recommendations by the committee included that the university should demonstrate commitment to its two centres by subsidizing the cost of utilities, structural repairs, general maintenance and provide the centres with the building and grounds at no-cost. Day care centres should respond to the needs of faculty, staff and students and they need to have a minimum level of 75% of ‘university children’ enrolment. Further, there should be more advertising of daycare space through campus newsletters. However, funding was to rest with the public sector. The university was very cautious in responding to subsidizing childcare, thorough and methodical in its formation of committees and generating the right words in reports, but quite sloppy in conducting the survey. Even 20 years ago, the recommendations on day care can be read as ‘speech acts’ (Ahmed 2006) especially if we consider this comment below from a student at the Scarborough Campus who was responding to the revised day care policy: 

“The university has the resources to create a daycare centre where the most up-to-date educational environment is provided to ensure the optimal development of children’s individuality. After all this is why we, parents, attend this institution.” (anonymous, April 1987)

Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sara. (2006). “The Nonperformativity of Antiracism,” Meridians 7(1): 104-126. [Accessed October 3, 2019]

Anonymous. (May 1986). Report to the VP Business Affairs from the Advisory Committee on Day Care. Office of the VP Student Affairs Fonds (Accession No. A1992-0023). University of Toronto Archives, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Anonymous. (April 1987). Brief from the Committee for Daycare at Scarborough College to Scarborough College Council. Office of the VP Student Affairs Fonds (Accession No. A1992-0023). University of Toronto Archives, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Incentivized Subject: Structured incentives, Lead writer: Sarah Chocano Barboza, Collaborator: Damien Boltauzer

Throughout our research projects, we noticed that there are many incentive mechanisms which keep students motivated during their time at the University. Some of these incentives include, but are not limited to: exceptional research opportunities, monetary awards, and co-curricular record credits. We found the Co-Curricular Record (CCR) program particularly fascinating and began to consider the effect co-curricular activities have on the way students manage their time. Therefore, in our respective anthropological investigations we focused on how the CCR’s recognition incentivizes students to expand their university experience beyond the classroom. 

In general, the CCR is a program that documents student’s involvement on campus; these include mindfulness workshops, leadership positions, work-study positions, and academic success workshops. Interestingly, the CCR program advertises these types of involvement as beneficial by emphasizing its importance when applying to postgraduate programs and employment opportunities. Consequently, in recording students’ co-curricular involvement, they construct the prototypical ideal student — a student who spends their time not only studying but also improving their own and their community’s well being.

To encourage students to better manage their stress through mindfulness and other coping strategies, OISE staff members have promoted meditation time as an important extracurricular activity. In doing so, the staff incentivizes students’ to schedule a break from their busy lives. By providing extra-curricular credits for participating in OISE’s Mindful Moments, students are further motivated to educate themselves in self-care. For example, students who wish to participate in Mindful Moments receive an attendance record (see Figure 1) that can later be used to gain proper CCR accreditation.

Being a student leader can also be a great way to take a productive break from schoolwork. For the most part, student leaders find that spending time doing extracurricular activities, such as leading student unions or editing student newspapers, allows them to not only get involved within their communities but also to create support networks that enhance their university experiences. In this case, the CCR is a system of accountability that recognizes students’ extracurricular efforts and motivates them to spend their time creating a sense of community among their peers. 

All in all, our respective ethnographic examinations of the university show that there are a variety of programs which incentivize students by continually recognizing their extra-curricular efforts.

Sterne and Temporality, By Ali Azhar

Rosa (2013) in the preface and introduction of his book Social Acceleration, lays down his conception of time for his project on time and modernity. He distinguishes three modes of time: the epochal time, sacred time and biographical time. Reading Rosa brought forth to me ideas of how I would like to frame my project for this course – the readings I would like to attend to; where and how I would like to conduct my fieldwork; how the project would further the theme for the class: the Ethnography of the University. One of the points Rosa bemoaned as he tried to make sense of the vast and disconnected literature on time in philosophical, sociological and other literature was the limited impact these solipsistic writings had on even the most fundamental sociological theorizing. I realize, I too, would have to frame an orientation towards the research we conduct.        
I have been influenced by Ray McDermott’s (2016) call to explore what is mutually interesting between fiction and ethnography. He argued that since Geertz, who urged his students to read culture as texts, the relations between ethnography and fiction have softened.
Laurence Sterne, an eighteenth century novelist, wrote “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.” The book, a purported autobiography, is both a novel and an anti-novel – as it deconstructs the constructed temporality of a biographical novel in terms of how it depicts a narrative and a lifetime in linear form. On his part, he seeks to present an account “both progressive and digressive.” The novel starts with him lamenting that he wished his parents had minded what they were about when they begot him – and by presenting an account of the act of his conception. He then digresses from one thing to the other, so that even by the end of the second book of his eight-part novel, he is not yet born. He addresses the reader repeatedly, laying out his strategy of constructing an account in a non-linear fashion. At one point he writes: “In the fifth volume I have been very good, – the precise line I have described in it being this:   

My rather ambitious idea: For my project I will analyse Sterne’s deconstruction of the tempo of the novel; my analysis digressing into the writings on temporality offered by a selection of philosophers, anthropologists, etc. I’d then like to gather empirical data by walking through (par hasard) different sites at the university: classrooms, parks, bars and events. I will model my ethnographic journey on another account Sterne wrote later on in his life: “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.” In his account, Sterne focuses on his protagonist, Yorick’s “sentimental” interactions with others. Such an account is interesting to me, as I am interested in questions such as: how people in the university construct temporal environments for each other within interaction; how can an utterance be analysed in retrospect and prospect as it plays out within an interaction; which of the structures of time mentioned by Rosa (epochal, lifelong, sacred etc.) constrains possibilities within interaction – and perhaps how people navigate them in agentic ways.


  1. Rosa, Hartmut. Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity. Columbia University Press, 2013.
  2. McDermott, Ray. “Yorick’s Ethnographic Journey,” Sterne, Tristram, Yorick: Tercentenary Essays on Laurence Sterne, ed. Melvyn New, Peter de Voogd, and Judith Hawley. Newark: Delaware, 2016. Pp. 169-186.

Tristram Shandy and Seminar Conversations, By Ali Azhar

Interaction analysts and theorists on the subjective nature of time have a curious way to describe reality: they insist on using the word ’emergent’; that context is a temporal construct; that people in interaction refer retrospectively to what has happened prior in the sequence of events as well as projecting the future within a flux-like present. In my project, I have been interested in how some of these things play out concretely. 
In this post, I will draw analogies between the emergent nature of Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy and a 45 minute long video recording of a seminar conversation as it played out within a group of five. Writing in 1759, Sterne was one of the pioneers of the art form of the novel. His work though, is as much a critique of the linearity of the chronology of novels of his time. He sets out to write a novel that is both progressive and digressive. Virginia Woolf, amongst others, has noted that the novelty of his art form is in the fact that he took pains to write as if he were engaging in a conversation. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that the conversation I analysed in the seminar was uncannily similar in terms of it’s structural elements: it was both digressive and progressive too. In this post, I will highlight a few mechanisms by which, in my opinion, this comes to be.                   
Sterne famously wrote of his style (the best in his opinion): that he starts with one word – and then prays to God that the rest comes to be. In essence, that is how a conversation in real life plays out – indeed, conversational analysts highlighting the temporality of language have highlighted how grammar itself is emergent within interaction. As the five of us intersubjectively constructed our seminar; our turn-taking; our topical focus; the utilisation of multimodal resources (gaze, gestures, body orientation, notebooks, mugs) – were all co-ordinated in constructing both the spatial and temporal nature of our conversations.         
Pray – how was our conversation both progressive and digressive? Well, we were excellent in terms of giving each of us turns to speak about their projects – we went from one topic to the next as the conversation evolved; yet within each sequence and numerous times within the 45 minute conversation, we’d turn back and refer to something someone had said earlier in the sequence – and take the conversation from there. For example, in minute 27 Alon speaks about his earlier research with shamans in Bolivia – how within their songs referring to ancestors the shamans would drop deixis or subjects – they’d use phrases like running, cheering, calling etc. The comment was itself in reference to Damien’s project on wellness – the meditation instructors of his project didn’t include subjects in their speech, marking the speech as existing outside of the present moment. We continue on to other topics: on incorporating theory for our projects; on space, time and power in a wellness space; the materiality of space; tea – and then continue (minute 42) back to speaking of the shamans in Bolivia. Such ‘nesting of sequences’ and referring back to earlier events permeates throughout our conversation. Thus we create a seminar, that in the manner of Sterne, was both digressive and progressive and at the same time!
Sterne, for example, in Chapter 7 introduces the story of a midwife who was supposed to deliver him. One thing leads to another. He digresses from hobby-horses to writing his readers a dedication. In chapter 10 he resumes the introduction of the midwife only to be diverted on to discussing a parson – spends two chapters narrating the parsons story – and lo and behold – he’s back to the midwife in Chapter 13 to continue his account of the midwife.    
There are other similarities too between the form of the novel and that of our conversation. Periodically we’d find it necessary to refer back to what it was we were actively constructing (Both explicitly and implicitly). On min. 15 one of us asks how long we were meant to be there. Towards the end one of us looks at the watch to note we should wrap up – take a break – check what the rest of the class is up to. We’d offered each other comments throughout on how we could incorporate such and such in our final papers. In these ways, the participants constructed reflexivity and accountability in their conversations, while revealing to the analyst something about temporality in a seminar conversation.  

Waste of Thyme, By Jonathan Avalos

I had spent quite a bit of my time at OISE, and I was doing some interviews near the end of my fieldwork. My last two interviewees weren’t originally from Canada, and had arrived due to OISE’s international student program for their studies. They answered most of my questions similarly to the other students, except in one area. While everyone else saw eating time as a hassle that was getting in the way of OISE classes, Reggie and Kira saw lunchtime as an important event of the day.

For Kira, she said she would spend about 5 hours to take a lunch. Quite a long time to my surprise. Even if exaggerated, she assured me that it was the norm for her back home. She would sit on the floor since it was cleaner, and socialize with her friends. She would never dare to eat alone; it went against how she was raised. When I asked whether she ever found eating a waste of time, she was noticeably confused. Why would lunchtime ever be a waste of time? Conflicts for her, such as class or work, weren’t ‘conflicts’ per se. If she needed to eat, she did. And Kira did so without hesitation, whether it be during an important non-eating event, class time, etc. Food was important, and not eating properly would have been a real waste of time.

Reggie felt a similar way; but felt the hassle other OISE students felt. He didn’t feel comfortable eating at OISE even though he wanted to spend a hefty lunchtime. So he usually ate at home; if at OISE, he would quickly eat something small or have a coffee. There simply wasn’t enough space for him to eat. The main difference between him and Kira was that Reggie preferred a quiet space to enjoy his food. Even though he also preferred social eating, he would rather eat with his friends in a nice space to socialize without anyone else there. The ground floor cafe is anything but quiet. And the other student lounges were usually filled with other people quietly studying. Reggie didn’t feel comfortable ruining the atmosphere if he socialized in these places. For him, it was a disappointment, as Reggie never found that he had the time to enjoy his food properly.

By the end of our interview, Reggie asked if I knew any place that was quiet on campus, to which I could only reply “the empty classrooms are your best bet.” OISE isn’t great for students who want to have a proper lunch. Having roasted chicken during class wouldn’t be a waste of time for them. A waste of thyme, more like it.

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