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

Sacred Time, Lunch Time, Time-Out (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”

An interview with a mindfulness co-ordinator, By Damien Boltauzer

For his research, Damien has investigated Mindful Moments – a campus wide mindfulness program at U of T St. George. The following blog describes one of the first interviews he held for his research. The interviewee describes the benefits he has experienced from mindfulness and the difficulties he has, as a student life coordinator, in recruiting others to the practice. 

‘Jacob’ is a postgraduate student and a Student Life Coordinator at a College at the St. George campus. His responsibilities include the facilitation of various programs: career mentorship, student work-study, an annual leadership conference, orientation programming, and equity-based study groups. This week I met with Jacob to discuss his role as coordinator for the Mindful Moments (MM) program, for which he mediates between Student Life and the student body to provide a space each week for students to learn and practice mindfulness meditation. For this blog post I will focus upon our discussion about MM at U of T.

Jacob self identified as a “huge over-thinker”. He told me that mindfulness has helped him to be aware of his mind’s drift and to be able to “reel it back in”, even for a few seconds here and there. This practice has helped him improve his life attitude to life – he’s more patient now. Recently he had a physically painful experience, but with the skills he learned through mindfulness, he was able to cope with the pain in a new way. In this situation, he was mindful of the pain, and this made him much less reactive. As a practitioner of mindfulness, which he learned as an undergraduate at MM, he has a level of appreciation for the practice and for what it can do for people, and so he promotes it as a Student Life Coordinator. 

When I asked Jacob about what mindfulness is and how it works, Jacob told me that mindfulness is simply the awareness of the everyday, of how one operates in the world. It is a moment-by-moment self-consciousness of one’s breathing and one’s inner voice: “is my voice high pitched? Am I stressed?” It is also an awareness of one’s “cultural programming”, he told me, and it helps one to “dial back” from the motions of everyday life, something he thinks most people could benefit from if they could figure out how to incorporate it in their daily lives.  

But Jacob sees a problem. Students don’t know how they can benefit from mindfulness practice. Despite the mental health crisis at UofT and MM “upping their branding”, very few students come to the MM session that Jacob facilitates. “There are many programs for the support of mental health, and the university has done a fantastic job”, but MM is unique in that it provides a space and opportunity for self-care at anytime, said Jacob. “It’s very easy to find time in the day for MM, but most students don’t understand this, he says, “and so they will say that the university is not doing enough”. Students don’t want self-care; they want to be helped on a “one to one basis”. Jacob has been thinking about how he can improve MM’s marketing strategy to attract more students. At future events, there might be the incentive of snacks, and Jacob is thinking about doing more outreach to ensure that students understand the usefulness of mindfulness.  

A Present for the Future (in a Mindfulness Practice at the University of Toronto), By Damien Boltauzer

For his research, Damien has investigated Mindful Moments – a campus wide mindfulness program at U of T St. George. The Following blog contains his observations from a mindfulness session he participated in at OISE. His discussions with students at the event reveal the complexities in terms of temporality in relation to mindfulness practice at the university. 

It’s 11:55 on a Thursday morning, and OISE students are starting to line up to get their Mindful Moments (MM) Attendance Records signed and dated by ‘Catherine’ (who is a work-study M.Ed. student with OISE Wellness), before entering the room to practice mindfulness. ‘Jone’, the director of OISE Wellness, has been setting up a table outside the room with a sign-in sheet, some advertisements for future events, and a pile of attendance records for potential new participants. Chatting casually with Jone, I learn that the Co-curricular program was only implemented this year, but it has helped to increase participation from 3-5 students per week to an average of 40-50 per week (with over 100 participants enrolled in the program). “We’ve seen a lot of new faces” she says. 

MM is by far the most popular of the events offered by OISE wellness. One way of attracting students was at the OISE orientation events in September, with the use of attractive “wellness banners”. Apparently, there were lineups of students. “People are realizing how important it is to take care of themselves,” says Jone, whilst trying to figure out a recording device so that the MM session can be posted on a podcast. There is a sign explaining that the event will be recorded, and at the outset of the meditation, Jone informs the participants that they will be recording these sessions in case anyone misses any – for educational purposes. 

Here is a way that temporality plays out through the practice of mindfulness at the university: at least at OISE, it seems that some students are attracted to MM for the reason that they can use this in their future careers as teachers. Mindfulness is emerging a practice to administer to children at a young age. Three students I interviewed after the session on Thursday shared their gladness to participate in a program which offers them CCR credit to help themselves, whilst also equipping them with skills which they can implement as teachers in public schools after graduation. One student I spoke with aspires get into public educational administration and policy work, in which she hopes to be instrumental in the implementation of mindfulness practices at the level of public-school curricula. “Get em’ while they’re young” she said, jokingly – suggesting that the teaching of mindfulness to young children will have a greater impact at that time in their lives. The other students I interviewed told me that if they can teach mindfulness to their students in public school situations, this might have a structural effect in society, and possibly even contribute to a better world in the future. 

Sacred Space, By Allan Hirchberg

In my final project almost no attention was paid to the spatial qualities of sacred-time and they how they exist materially. Early on however I was considering these factors and believe that it would be a fruitful source subject for further investigation 

This week I continued to think about “sacred time” in conjunction with the specific institution known as the Multi-Faith Centre. Last week I had begun to wrestle with “sacred-time” as a time perceived and constructed as outside of time, which shines into the crystalline structure of “epochal time,” colouring it with a particular ethic. Before I can discuss the field-site where conducted preliminary research, its name must be addressed. On the Multi-Faith Centre’s website there is a room in Robarts Library on 8th floor that is listed as a Multi-Faith Space, “The room is open for quiet mediation, prayer and other spiritual practices”. However, on the library’s website, as well posted on the door of the room, it is labelled a “Reflection Room”. In either case it is designated for quite activities. I spent some time in this space (meditating, observing others in their practice, and investigating the literature provided) on a Saturday evening. Throughout this time several individuals entered the space, arriving alone and each leaving before the other entered. They were all masculine presenting and appeared to be saying the Maghrib or Isha’a Muslim prayer. The prayers were said at a hardly audible volume, and aside from that they entered and exited the room silently. I stayed silent the whole time. Each person oriented themselves eastward (there is a paper on the ceiling marking the four cardinal directions) before beginning to pray. Some used a mat, others did not. The practice of scheduled and timed daily prayer which orients oneself towards a space (Mecca) outside of the institution of the university is interesting, especially because this outward orientation appears to be explicitly sanctioned by the university, signified by the compass rose. I wonder if this practice do more than orient the body and mind in space? Is there a transportation that occurs? I also wonder, how the fact that this orientation or transportation is being mediated by the explicitly secular university could effect the process. Does this setting effect the quality of sacred-time which is being experienced thus, changing how it colours other times? This give and take, between supposedly outside sacred-time and material structures is very intriguing. Going forward, I can pursue this thread perhaps by attending the Jummah at Hart House on Friday.

Ethereal and Embodied Values, By Allan Hirchberg

Over the course of the week I had a casual conversation about my research with two interlocutors (a married couple, and both alumni of the University of Toronto). After discussing sacred time as timeless-narratives from which one derives their ethic, we moved on to the topic of values. Together we mused on what values we each hold and perhaps their sources. After I brought up what I considered to be the inherent problems with having subjects self-report what they value, my two interlocutors began to disagree on what actually qualifies as a value that one holds. Belle brought up the idea that perhaps what one values could only be determined based on ones actions. Charles disagreed, arguing that one can possess a value which one is not currently living up to. Belle responded by saying that if one truly possessed a value it would be visible in what actions are prioritized and enacted. After some back and forth Charles stated that he believed that the two of them were actually in agreement, but were simply getting hung up on “semantics.” Belle disagreed, saying facetiously “No. I’m right.” This tri-alog raised two modes of inquiry to my attention. One could simply ask someone what they value, or one could measure how a subject spends their time. These two modes could even be combined to observe patterns of synchronicity, dyssynchonicity.

Here sacred-time could be theorised as one’s ethereal value system, while one’s embodied values (in the moment of embodiment) could act as the “nodal points” (Rosa 11) where one’s daily-time, life-time, epochal-time and sacred-time harmonize and, thus, as separate structures collapse, and are no longer distinguishable. It would be interesting to investigate what affects, and results thereof, are experienced in such nodal moments.

A potential method of inquiry would be twofold. There are many techniques and tools that one can use to determine, and consolidate one’s core values. After having a subject complete this process of identifying their core values I can also begin observing how the subject bodily spends their time. As suggested in class this can take the form of having the subject track their daily-time as well as the form of shadowing.  

Sacred Time, By Allan Hirchberg

Although my initial field site and research topic was not what I finally settled on it was absolutely essential in helping me think theoretically about time. This is what I was thinking in the first week of my research project:

In the introduction to Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity Hartmut Rosa begins discussing four categories of Time or “temporal perspectives” (8) which are nestled one inside the other. Rosa writes of daily-time and life-time, which are cultivated in moral relation to epochal-time. This epochal-time is often conceived of as taking part within a cyclical and overarching sacred-time. I argue that there is always an evolving moral imperative perceived in one’s specific epochal-time that derives its ethics from the unchanging and timeless sacred-time which one inhabits. It is this moral imperative of the epoch, coloured by sacred-time, that guides the course of one’s life-time and, thus, the rhythms and patterns of daily-time. However, just as we are largely, in a Whorfian sense, conceptually limited by language we are also temporally limited by social structures (Rosa, 9). I hold that sacred-time, and the social structures which construct and mold it, is especially worthy of anthropological investigation because of the nestled nature of time, and the propensity of sacred-time to colour other embedded temporalities.

In the context of the university, several questions present themselves: Where is sacred-time? In what technologies is it materialized? How is it practiced and experienced? What, where and when are the “nodal points” (Rosa 11)? The multi-faith spaces spread across the University of Toronto seem to be a good place to start investigating, if not sacred-time as experienced in general at the university, at least sacred-time that has been officially organized and sanctioned by the university. Such spaces are in many ways constructed as outside or as a “time-out” (Rosa, 11) from the stresses of university life, and university-time, however all such spaces are always located within the physical space-time of other university buildings and institutions. For example the multi-faith space on the 8th floor in Robarts Library[1] operates on the exact same schedule as the rest of the institution, thus excluding the possibility of certain “nodal points” of sacred-time to even exist. Here arise more questions about the “chronopolitics” (Rosa, 12) of the university: Are sacred-times that are in synchronization with the university privileged and dominant? Or have such synchronized sacred-times been subsumed, mutated, and dominated by the university, thus, loosing their sacred out-of-time quality and ethical influence only to be replaced by some other ethical and sacred frame?   

I believe these questions and concepts to be a fruitful trail to follow in pursuit of an analysis and understanding of time in the university.

[1] Robarts Library is a space that very much represents and embodies the daily-time stress and drudgery, and life-time pressure present in university-time at the University of Toronto.

A University Residence Wellness Space: A Summary, By Olivia Verstraete

         For this project in ANT473, we had to study a site that was within the university and had some relation to time. I decided to study a wellness space that exists within one of the university residences. This to me was very interesting in terms of time because of the paradox of this room existing within a university. Let me explain:

         The room is a space that is dedicated to wellness within a residential building on campus. This building locks at 6 pm, so unless you have a key to the building you cannot access the room at night, but this normally can’t be done anyway because the room is locked unless one of the wellness assistants has their hours. These hours work around the schedules of the three assistants as well as not working too late in the night as all of the assistants commute, to have around 21 hours a week where the room is open (7 hours for each assistant). This means that not all students will be able to use the space due to this very specific scheduling. What is paradoxical about this for me is that it is a university (or residence) provided space to help students to relax, but the room is run of the schedules that the university prescribes to the students. The room is meant to be an escape from university time but it is embedded within university time through the students who cater the space, the hours of the residence and exclusivity to even have a key to the residence even if you belong to the college. The university and the residence in this case set up many barriers to access the room that is about being welcoming and open.

         It makes sense in a way for this to be set up this way because the room hosts many expensive items to use and enjoy with the students because if the room was left open all the time these things would likely be stolen. So it is kind of funny and interesting to be that because of trying to make an awesome wellness space with fun objects, it became very restricted by university time.

Table for One? By Jonathan Avalos

At New College Dining Hall, I witnessed something quite interesting. I originally went to see the eating practices in how students spend their lunch time, but had stumbled across something puzzling. One part of the Hall, Winston, was filled with students getting their food, meeting their friends, and sitting in a very consistent matter.

The seating arrangement at Winston Hall were of small square tables that could fit up to two chairs on each side. These small tables were placed shoulder to shoulder amongst each other, making these rows of long rectangular tables, in which two chairs were placed on each opposing side for each square table. This arrangement was constructed to mimic one large table, rather than be treated as separate square ones.

Obviously, friends sat with each other, and not with strangers. But what was bizarre 

was that everyone sat at their own square table. Students didn’t treat the seating as a large rectangular table. Distance from others wasn’t a problem, as I saw two people who didn’t know each other, sit side by side. The table itself became a marker of divide. Those two strangers were sitting on different square tables. And this was consistent in the entire hall. The discomfort didn’t come from a physical invasion of space, but a social one. And the table was an indicator of that.

It was almost as if the table was an empty space at first, and when someone sat down, it signalled other people that the small square space, with the other 3 seats surrounding it, were no longer vacant. Again, the only people who could sit in those seats were friends of the person who occupied that space. And this is further solidified by the fact that when an individual left a table, someone else would immediately sit there. Not to imply that people are waiting for tables to open, but that I had never witnessed two individuals sitting in the same square table; it was always apart from each other, or replacing each other at tables. The only time strangers shared a table was when two different groups were positioned together closely, and one friend had no choice but to sit in the table of another group to accommodate for the lack of space on his own group’s side.

Not to say that this phenomena is that bizarre. Already mentioned, people don’t eat with strangers. People don’t randomly share tables at a restaurant for example. But at Winston Hall, these tables are constructed to be treated as one individual table, since they are all bunched up together. And yet the students treat them as individual tables, every time. Just a fascinating observation that I discovered, as it shows how far people are willing to create divisions when they can. I wonder how different the seating arrangements would be if said tables were actually one large rectangle? How would people divide themselves among each other, if at all?

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.

Memes, Enemy of the State, By Jonathan Avalos

As I was interviewing one of my informants, named Megatron, she mentioned how much she hated going to Robarts. The library was one of my sites as it was a place students spent a lot of time at as undergraduates.  I was surprised, as I thought the place was okay. She told me that a bunch of students hated the Library as well, and directed me towards the Facebook meme group, “u of t memes for true Blue teens”, to see the evidence. And so I did later that day. And when I opened the webpage, I was greeted with the banner for the Facebook group being a cleverly used meme to express the distaste for Robarts.

“Oh shit, here we go again.” was the tagline, with a man facing the Robarts Library, walking towards it. Obviously, the man was not happy he had to return to the Library, to what I can imagine many students felt when they made this their group banner.

The meme above is no longer the banner for the group, and is replaced with a new irrelevant meme. But I like to think I’m a meme aficionado myself, and I can confirm that the usage of the “ah shit” meme is always in context of facing a very difficult challenge that the man would not rather do again. As well in its own original context, that being in the video game Grand Theft Auto 3, where similarly, the man has to go on another undesired and dangerous adventure.

So making this your banner is one way to confirm the distaste of Robarts. But that wasn’t all. Memes about Robarts and how it was terrible were constantly brought up. Even among the major “meme war” where PCJ vs IR students were battling each other through memes (to see which department was better), had the occasional meme about Robarts.

And it still happens quite often. On December 8, 2019, the week this blog post was written, someone wrote “robarts tap water boiling hot to remind us we truly in hell” (Sharon Luo, December 8, 2019, 2:31). And this was during an explosion of exam depression memes too. I’m at awe at the consistency that Robarts keeps getting brought up, especially with how fast certain memes live and die. And while the “Ah shit” meme is no longer in vogue, as long as students keep throwing shit at Robarts, it’ll always stay relevant in the memes.

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