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

Self Managing, Incentivized Students (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”

What is a Neoliberal Subject? By Wesley O’Hearn, Candace Baldassarre, and Mélina Lévesque

  Over the course of the project, we encountered the idea of the “Neoliberal Subject”.  This subject embodies the values and goals of entrepreneurship. In this framework, the self is positioned and groomed as a self-promoting enterprise where human capital is the objective.  Human capital in this sense can be degrees, experiences, networking, awards, and grades. We identified three aspects of a neoliberal subject worth expanding on: self-governance, responsibility and efficiency, and self-responsibility.


 Self-governance is based on the idea of governing a population.  The most effective way to control a population under neoliberal ideology is to manipulate their values to align with yours and promote self-governing.  The population will then govern themselves to fit into these values. In my project on material workspaces, the students I met used the materials around their work spaces such as analog clocks, building architecture, and paper arrangement to foster a productive environment.  Productivity being the value promoted and reinforced by the university. I also attended a student workshop promoting time management through goal setting and stress management. Both these skills advocate for student self-governance aimed at productivity. The takeaway from this workshop was less about how much time students spend studying, but about what gets accomplished during that time.

Responsibility and Efficiency:

  Commuting to campus inherently constrains students’ time. It is common knowledge that commuter students are faced with the realities of having “less time” than residence-dwellers in their daily lives. Whether it is the commute time itself, or the time spent on campus between classes or avoiding transit during rush hour, commuter students are forced to encounter these constraining temporal realities. Though the realities of commuting are experienced by the majority of the university’s population, the specificities of such realities are elided through the individualization of commuters’ experiences.

  In the provision of commuter resources, the university arguably invokes discourses of the responsible and efficient neoliberal subject. Resources are allocated in ways that individualize structural problems of commuting (such as affordable food options) onto the student whilst emphasizing the importance of community in its place. Commuter lounges are provided as an alternative space to the academic space of the library. Undergirding the presence of “homey” spaces on campus is the notion that students are expected to responsibly manage the efficient use of their time on campus in order to be a successful student.


  When engineering students are accepted in the faculty of engineering at the U of T, they are expected to “know what they have signed up for”: 4 to 5 years of stress. Notorious for their demanding weekly-schedules and stressful academic tasks, engineering students have come to accept that the weekly mayhems of never-ending tasks and high expectations for academic excellence without failure that they are “just the way it is”. They put in charge of navigating through these challenges on the basis that it is what they signed up for and, therefore, must take full ownership of what is expected of them–to work hard, suffer and survive, and wipe their tears once they reach the finish line.

  Within the faculty of engineering itself, a “stress=success” mantra is heavily engaged with. While it may be easy to share the ways in which students can get involved beyond their hectic schedule, the feasibility for students to achieve these goals is questionable. The engineering student who is organized, achieves competitive grades, and is actively involved in extracurriculars and clubs is rather an ideal image than a realistically achievable one. At the end of the day, while these students are responsible for managing their time in and outside of class, their sense of time management is controlled by restrictive expectations that dictate what it takes to be a “true” engineering student at the U of T. 

Creation of the Time-Sensitive Subject in Education, By Olivia Verstraete and Hayley Lessard

From the moment we are born, we are taught to live within a certain time bubble. As babies, we follow strict schedules that include eating, sleeping, playing, and learning. We rely on schedules and time-management, it has become an essential part of our society. After childhood, we move into adolescence, where we then typically enter into an educational system that is built to further refine our time-management skills in order to prepare us for the ‘real’ world. The structure of the education system attempts to create a person who can effectively produce a product (be it a paper or a wooden box) by the use of deadlines and schedules. From high school, daily homework and different class schedules are used to teach students to manage and deal with time stress, with the expectation that this will be a useful skill in further studies. We are expected to do work every day and present it to teachers to prove that we are constantly working on school, and time management, but are rarely told of this purpose. 

In the later years of high school, teachers tell you to expect your marks to drop 10-20% when entering university. We are taught that university is stressful and that we are meant to be and will be stressed. However, it is only when one actually attends postsecondary studies that this culture becomes apparent. Schedules become less structured, class sizes are bigger and autonomy is expected, compounded by a whole new way of learning. Once the schedule and structure that is meant to help us and train us all our lives disappear, freedom is exciting and daunting. Without the enforced structure that was given to us throughout the rest of our lives, many ‘fall apart’ and struggle to embody this new independent way of life. This is where we must learn all over again how to be a ‘time-sensitive subject’. 

When entering post-secondary studies, we are bombarded with a plethora of ‘time-management tools’ and techniques that one can use to combat the stress one faces through the lack of set schedule. Orientation week, for example, the first few days before school begins is typically aimed at giving incoming students the tools they will need to succeed and acts as a liminal, somewhat ritualistic period for students to ‘adjust’ before being thrown into it all. However, it typically ends there and students are then expected to pertain a certain level of autonomy in school, whether it be making the decision to go to classes, staying on top of school work and avoiding procrastination, or taking the step to meet with a learning strategist. The weight is now on the students’ shoulders and if they cannot become a successful ‘time-sensitive subject’, for the second time, they might not become a ‘successful student’.

Students experience this whirlwind of increasing self-responsibility and increasing free time over time through the education system and which aims to create one who is hyper-aware of their time, what they are doing with it and how to make every single minute worth it/productive, but not all students are successful in following the structure over time and being ‘time-sensitive’ can become a troubling task.

Automaton, By Ximena Martinez

Zhu (or Vicky, the western name suggested for her) narrating her first year master’s degree experience in the open questions section of a satisfaction survey wrote: “Being a grad student has transformed my life. I have learned so much of my field of study and also about myself. I never realized how well organized I could be. I learned the benefits of planning in advance, not just for me but also for my family. At home I used to do almost everything for my son, now he helps me with the home chores. He has become more independent and I feel more independent too. However, not having enough time to read him stories before bed and not being able to serve him a full dinner makes me feel some guilt. I’m not sure if our lack of family time will help him later in life. My hope is that this new life experience will force him to remain independent from a young age. At least for me, I have proven to myself that I can accomplish my goals and be a real Canadian!”   

Rose (2005) defines ‘advanced liberalism’ as a new kind of governmental rationality in which wellbeing is coded in economic terms and is achieved through individual self-realization. In this new set of relations, a novel conception of the human arises, allowing the individual to take part and become “active” in their own government. It is through the act of exerting freedom of choice that self-realization occurs. 

In times of “advanced liberalism”, universities play two important roles. On the one hand, they take a lead in producing valuable knowledge for making “good” choices, and on the other hand, the procedures and policies that shape the individuals’ experiences, constitute a technology of government for this “advanced liberalism”. The structuring of time and balancing of personal and professional life is useful in forming the autonomous individual. Through the university’s relations, rules, timelines, and deadlines, certain values are promoted while others are demonized. Efficiency is highly appreciated and expected from students, to be efficient is to remain accountable. Accountability is crucial for the wellbeing of the market; the ultimate space where an individual’s passions can be cultivated.

In the case of Vicky, the intense demands and structure imposed by university times forced her to learn how to balance family life and academic responsibilities. Her ability to overcome these challenges made her feel autonomous and empowered, as a real Canadian.  However, to be on top of assignments, and remain accountable for the university she had to compromise her family affairs.

… When Vicky finished the survey,  her answers were analyzed by a group of computational algorithms, highlighting keywords to help her create a more productive and fulfilling experience:


the university wants to enhance your academic satisfaction. We care about you and we want to make of this experience the most formidable time of your life. With a simple click you will have access to a set of resources that have been developed to support your learning:

Lack of inspiration?: Unstuck  yourself, Be S.M.A.R.T

Do you struggle focusing? Focus Booster

Are you addicted to leechy websites? Leech Block

Mental health issues? Take a Break

Do you procrastinate? Assignment Calculator

Give it a try!

How to be Successful: Advice from a Learning Strategist, By Hayley Lessard

This blog post will give insight into my informal interview with the Learning Strategist that took place at the Academic Success Center at the University of Toronto. I want to include this here because I did not get the opportunity to thoroughly analyze this interview in my paper, as my focus was more specific. This blog post will provide a broader analysis of the tools in which she recommended and their relation to success.

When beginning my interview with the Learning Strategist, I opened the conversation with the topic of control, to which the learning strategist proposed the use of a 4-month calendar. In this case, a student would be able to have a bird’s eye view over their semester and see the deadlines before they have a chance to sneak up on them. The Learning Strategist then moved on to the use of an hourly schedule, explaining how humans like to have routine in order to make sense of the world, which this tool can help establish. By using this tool consistently for a few weeks, one can gain knowledge on their personal time schedule and learn to become as productive as possible. The word ‘productivity’ was used to measure the value of time, but was not necessarily defined. However, when I did ask if the strategist could suggest a ‘good’ use of a students’ time, they suggested planning. If a student plans out their study time, they can ensure that they are covering all material and actually absorbing it, instead of passively learning the material and not succeeding on their test, exam or assignment. 

Some key components to being ‘successful’ as a student were proposed. One being prioritization, which entailed breaking down tasks and schedules in order to see what is most important to accomplish in that moment. The strategist suggested using the assignment calculator provided by the university to do so, in order to fit with your goals and achieve them. Second, the strategist pointed to balance as being an important factor in success. In this case, breaks were emphasized, and included taking study breaks, as well as treating yourself at least once a day to unwind and allow your brain to rest through all the stress. Finally, autonomy was demarcated as important to one’s success, as students are forced to be autonomous once they reach university and need to use that autonomy to reach out and receive the help that they might need. Being autonomous also allows for self-reflection, which is important to understanding study habits and where one might be succeeding/failing.

Scheduling My Every Day, Every Hour, By Isaac Consenstein

      When a Learning Strategist handed me a pile of weekly schedule templates, my heart began to race. These templates were not an ordinary calendar with a little box to write a brief to-do list, each day had two boxes per hour. Users are expected to know what they will be doing during every half hour of every day of the week. The first slot was at 7 am and final one was at 11 pm. Unfortunately, my natural rhythm starts around 9 am and ends around 12:30 am. I feared that I would have to change my sleep routine to keep up with this new life template. Her excitement had rubbed off on me, after the consultation I believed I would start to get all my homework done and go to the gym before 8 pm and then have evenings free to relax. This lifestyle seemed exciting to me, even though I had been content with my current routine. In my one-on-one appointment, my level of stress was diagnosed based on a bell-curve graph. When I told the Learning Strategist that the template increased my stress level, she assured me that once I filled out the worksheets my stress would decrease significantly, and move toward the centre of the bell curve, a point of optimal stress.

  When I got back to school after reading week, I filled out the weekly template. Suddenly, that Sunday night, I felt like I had my life together. Now that it was written down, it would all get done. That week, I completed each of my three weekly blog posts over a day before they were due, but my reading routines remained the same, and so did my sleep schedule. Throughout the week I hardly looked at the schedule. At the end of each day I would look over the day I had planned and each day I didn’t quite reach my ambitious daily goals. On the Friday of that week, I attended a time-management boot camp focused on weekly scheduling, where I filled out my schedule for the next week. This time, I highlighted time-slots where I had to be extra focused. Once again, after completing the template I felt as though my work was halfway done. And once again, the plan did not meet reality. After these two planned out weeks my routines hardly changed. I didn’t feel any guilt about my lack of change, but it caused me to wonder about notion that “planning equals success”. The schedule merely became a daunting list of tasks I knew I had to complete. The lifestyle I drew out after sipping the Academic Success Centre’s Kool-Ade included hours of focused reading, with added activities such as the gym and cooking meant to increase my study motivation.

If I had kept up with the ambitious study/gym/social calendar I created, would I feel more fulfilled? How many people effectively keep up with a self-mandated hour-by-hour scheduling? Can anyone fit in everything they hope to accomplish each week?

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