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

Theory and Time (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”

Hartmut Rosa’s Temporalities, By Agha Saadaf, Wesley O’Hearn, Kristen Bass, Alon Hirchberg

The university of Toronto is a space where the discourses and the embodiment of different temporal perspectives interact in a particularly visible fashion. Hartmut Rosa’s theorization of four temporal categories guided many of our research projects. He theorized daily-time, life-time, and epochal-time.

Students daily temporal rhythms, such as the balancing of class and work schedules, familial responsibilities and often neglected leisure, are not arbitrary. A students daily time is co-produced in the adoption of a life-time temporal perspective which is often only possible to exist within the context of a specific epochal-time. Yet, it is not just the synchronization of one’s daily-time, life-time and epochal time that concerns students. At the university subjects are constantly interacting with the temporalities of others and institutions. 

Here are a number of examples of this push and pull of temporal synchronisation and asynchronization that we encountered during our field work. 

According to Rosa, daily time can be defined as the time in which an individual goes about their day-to-day routines juggling and structuring their social/academic/work obligations. As the most basic unit of Rosa’s time structures, analyses of daily time was very prevalent in our research projects: in the study of how student-parents negotiate childcare with full-time work and part-time studies, how study time is materially managed by students to produce self-enterprising neoliberal subjects, how time is “moralized”, and how government policy related to student funding can impact daily scheduling.  

Daily time intersects with the temporal perspective of the lifetime. At this level, social actors interrogate questions of the life stage and their transition into adulthood — education, securing gainful employment, having a family, buying a home, retirement, etc. This perspective becomes particularly salient for students who often conceptualize university as an accomplishment that will benefit future career and life goals. This emerged in our research, for example, among student-parents who understood university as beneficial not just to the self, but to the future economic well-being of their family. This temporal perspective was also uniquely experienced amongst students affected by recent cuts to OSAP. With decreased funding, they will start the next stage of their lives following graduation with burdensome levels of debt, constraining their ability to accomplish subsequent life goals. They were keenly aware of how this would affect their life course.

 Epochal time is the time structure that relates to age and generation.  For Rosa, our daily and lifetime temporalities are always embedded inside epochal time.  This structure explains why generations always feel isolated from one another. “Our Time” is separate from our parents and grandparent’s time.  Epochal time dictates the values and ideologies that influence our outlook on life and as a result, our everyday life. In the case of this project, the overlapping epochal value was neoliberalism. This set an expectation of attending school solely for entering the job market, and positioning oneself as a human enterprise that can accumulate capital.  The students I interacted with used material objects in their everyday study patterns to maintain on top of assignments and maintain the status quo of “productivity”.

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.

Time as a Commodity?, By Candace Baldassarre

Pervasive throughout both this week’s readings and class time is the theme of “winning” or “saving” time. In his 2017 work, Speed Crash Course, Carlo Caduff plays on this concept in both the subject matter of his work, (teaching individuals to speed read to save time,) and in the disjointed and hurried style of the writing itself. In linking speed reading to deeper ideas of existence including death, Caduff reinforces the way that society ultimately links efficient time usage to one’s entire life cycle. By learning to speed read, Caduff asserts individuals will be poised to “win…and really exceed [in life]” (2017:15). Inherent in this conceptualization of success through efficiency are notions of the intrinsic linkage between productivity and fulfillment. As Hartmut Rosa points out, the formerly reified Protestant work ethic has been replaced by the reification of efficiency—specifically, efficiency through time management (2013:xxxiv).

I found Rosa’s portrayal of the story of the businessman and the fisherman an especially poignant example of where productivity, time, power dynamics, and capitalism are intertwined. The exchange between the two men appeared to be occurring through the lenses of two different understandings of society. The disjuncture between each other’s’ societal norms seemed reminiscent of anthropologists entering foreign field sites to conduct ethnographic fieldwork. Even more interestingly, however, is Rosa’s analysis of the fisherman’s change of thought processes. Despite his desire for quiet, leisure time (that his current fishing provides him with,) he is quickly indoctrinated into the school of capitalism. In his newfound capitalist understandings of fishing, surplus, and leisure, he feels newfound pressures of competition and the desire to be both productive and efficient.

What I find especially confounding about this example (and the larger societal realities it portrays) is that this link between efficient time use and productivity is the source of anxiety from multiple directions. On one end of the spectrum, as was pictured in the film Modern Times, the overworked and time-stressed individual often experiences anxiety when forced against the clock—they feel the pressure of the clock and seek to win time in order to achieve happiness. Similarly, however, is the individual who has managed to win time back through efficient productivity—they too are prone to anxiety. The anxiety of the over-leisured individual, however, results from the boredom of having won back too much time. Given the lose-lose outcome of pushing one’s self against the unforgiving and unrelenting clock, I begin to wonder: what would happen if this time winning mindset simply vanished? Would we turn to utter chaos, or, would the nature of competition change for the better and result in a more peaceful world?


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

Rosa, Hartmut, and Jonathan Trejo-Mathys
2013 Social Acceleration; A New Theory of Modernity.Columbia University Press.

Ethnography and Theory, By Damien Boltauzer

For his research, Damien has investigated Mindful Moments – a campus wide mindfulness program at U of T St. George. In the following blog, Damien describes his preliminary engagement with the theoretical work of Michel Foucault on the ‘heterotopia’, and how this might further guide his research in the field.  

In class this week we explored ways in which the university creates autonomized, responsiblized subjects. There was also mention of ‘counter subjects’ – the way that structures provoke counter discourses which may later themselves be incorporated into dominant institutional structures (whilst retaining traces of their counter-nature). This notion of the counter subject provoked me to look up Foucault’s thoughts on this phenomenon, and so I stumbled upon a translation of his lecture “Different Spaces” (1994), which he presented to the Architectural Studies Circle in Paris, 1967. 

In this lecture, Foucault delineates his idea of ‘the heterotopia’, an “emplacement” which “has the curios property of being connected to all the other emplacements, but in such a way that they suspend, neutralize, or reverse the set of relations that are designated, reflected, or represented by them. Those spaces which are linked with all the others, and yet at variance somehow with all the other emplacements” (Foucault 1994, 178). To engage with theory to as a means to sharpen my investigation in the field, I would like to think about how Mindful Moments might operate as a counterspace at the neoliberal university. If it is indeed a counterspace, to what degree has this counterspace been incorporated into the dominant neoliberal structure? 

I think it is possible (though I will need to work with this idea further, in the field) that Mindful Moments may indeed be what Foucault has described as a heterotopia. Heterotopias operate along certain principles. The fourth principle is that they are linked with a temporal counterpart – what Foucault calls a “temporal discontinuity” or “heterochronia”. “The heterotopia begins to function fully”, says Foucault, “when men are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time” (Foucault 1994, 182). Mindful Moments operates as a heterochronia through a pragmatic fixation with the present moment. This temporality of presence is the definitive characteristic of Mindful Moments as it is constituted through linguistic, embodied, and cognitive practices.  

A second question to explore in relation to heterotopic spaces and their temporal counterparts is the way that they operate “in relation to the remaining space” (Foucault 1994, 184). This is the sixth principle, and I think it is closely related to what Foucault describes as “mirror spaces”. Mirror spaces are between utopias and heterotopias, but they function “as a heterotopia in the sense that it makes this place I occupy at the moment I look at myself in the glass both utterly real, connected with the entire space surrounding it, and utterly unreal – since, to be perceived, it is obliged to go by way of that virtual point which is over there” (Foucault 1994, 179). This is a perplexing idea, but I think it could be fruitful to think about how Mindful Moments actually mirrors the normative unfolding of the University’s neoliberal constructions. How do subjects use the technology of mindfulness to reflect upon their own emplacement? How does an excursus into a scheduled “heterochronia” open a space of reflection upon the dominant temporalities at place at the university, whilst actually embodying itself that temporality in a paradoxical, mirror like quality?      


Foucault, Michel. 1994. “Different Spaces”. In James D. Faubion, The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 –      1984, Volume Two. New York: The New York Press.  

Untitled, By Marwa Turabi

What is a field-site? How do you know when to enter, and leave a field-site? And, where do you go when the matter you are inquiring about is as ambiguous as ‘time’? The discussion hereafter takes on these questions. 

For locating a field-site, I found it useful to begin by brainstorming a series of tensions, and concerns I had about my understanding of time. To be clear, these are not research questions per se; instead, they are the beginnings of a 3-month empirical anxiety about what it means to live within, and without, time as a graduate student. I found that generating a series of questions which articulate what your curiosity is about can help guide the ‘where’ and ‘how’ of navigating a field site. 

For me, some of these questions started with the following:

I should begin my fieldwork without the supposition (which I previously held) that time is largely a tool of/ for power. Instead, after our initial class, and during brief-introduction to the field, I began to wonder: How do students uses of ‘time’ demonstrate their own power? How is power negotiated by different uses, and applications, of time? When do these conceptions of time-management clash, and what happens to the student-university relationship when they do? How might students embody the results of this clashing of time-use beliefs? 

While having a series of questions is useful for helping you position yourself in a field, they still do not address two tensions which arise from looking for a field-site, and doing fieldwork as an auto ethnographer. First, when you decide to do auto-ethnography it is (at times) confusing to decide what spaces in your everyday life constitute ‘the field’. Second, when you are not sure what to demarcate as ‘the field’ all of the things which are part of your daily rhythm feel both remarkable, and unremarkable. So, how did I come to understand the uncertain field-site as the auto ethnographer? I decided I would treat everything as a field-site; however, I decided to do this mostly during designated hours for fieldwork. 

Certainly, one anti-climatic answer is to compartmentalize as best as you can. Of course, this too is a complicated and ambitious endeavour – how do you ‘turn off’ the researcher-self? Or, how do you leave ‘the field’ if ‘the field’ is home? For me, the extent to which this became a difficult end to achieve was most apparent while browsing through social media. So many of the motifs which web together the preceding questions were reflected in an online UofT student community I was a part of and followed. Therefore, it became difficult to disentangle the ‘ethnographer’ from the ‘not-ethnographer’ part of myself. Here, it became useful to turn to literature that considered digital ethnography as an ethnographic method. Abidin (2018) says many useful things about how not to think about digital field-sites/ethnography, but one (perhaps inadvertent) idea she poses resonated with me well. She referred to digital-ethnography – and ethnography – as a performance. Abidin (2018) does not offer an overt explanation to say what this means; however, I intuited an explanation. The slippage between ‘ethnographer’ and ‘not-ethnographer’ might be avoided by an explicit appreciation for ethnography as a performance. In the case of digital ethnography – and broadly ethnography – this performance is an engagement with everyday life that frames its’ nuances within an intellectual infrastructure. Indeed, there is a  pragmatic, and practical way of performing (digital) ethnography without losing the sense of your ‘non-ethnographer’ self. I kept my initial questions at the forefront of my thought, and in doing so the things I was seeing/hearing/feeling were in articulation with my initial provocations. This performance helps make salient what the field could be, and when we are immersed within the field. 

Internalizing the Neoliberal Student Subject, By Kristen Bass

Several scholars argue that the contemporary post-secondary student is a neoliberal subject (Estes 2011; Read 2009; Crothers 2018). This theory has origins in Foucault, who argued that under neoliberalism, the social actor is an entrepreneur of the self. A new neoliberal subjectification produces the homo œconomicus, or economic man. This subject is an “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings” (Foucault 1979/2008: 226). All action undertaken by this subject, including university, is thus understood as an economic investment in the self.

Student parents manage their daily time and frame their lifetime goals within the context of neoliberalism. In the academic institution, the ideology of homo œconomicus (Foucault 2008 [1979]: 226) largely mediates the subjectification of the student. Thus, the student has come to be understood as a neoliberal subject who is an entrepreneur of the self. This subject is a self-interested, rational, economic actor seeking personal capital gain through education.

            González-Arnal and Kilkey (2009) argue that a conceptualization of the ideal student model as a “rational economic man” excludes students with caring responsibilities who, because of their familial obligations, cannot be responsible only for the self. Although despite this incompatibility, I found that student parents have internalized these individualistic ideals. Julia, for example, explains how in between her work and parenting obligations, she schedules specific blocks of time dedicated to school:

[School] becomes number one when I have these pre-scheduled slots where it’s like, I have eight hours free, let’s say, on Tuesday during the day, and I don’t have classes. So it’s like, I have those eight hours to literally just work, and that’s on me to work.

Here, Julia emphasizes her personal responsibility to her education when she states, “that’s on me to work.” Regardless of the demanding workload of her other roles, Julia internalizes an individualized responsibility towards her schooling. Her comments suggest that a rational student would get the work done within the allotted time. Implicit in this statement is also a personalized blame if she cannot complete this task.

            This individualized personal culpability manifests as stress and anxiety when she struggles to meet the demands of school in between her other obligations. This became especially apparent as Julia described a particularly challenging couple of days. Beginning on a Thursday morning, Julia cared for her step-children and saw them off to school, did homework during the day, then worked a 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. evening shift. After sleeping only a few hours, she then attended a 7:30 a.m. appointment at the hospital for a recurring injury, which was followed up later in the day by another 4 p.m. work shift. Here, she explains the challenge of completing a school assignment in the midst of this schedule:

I had from 11 until 3 to write this essay. It was my fault for leaving it, but I don’t know. Sometimes you’re just not creative. It sounds really weird, but that’s a struggle I’ll find.  I’ll allot certain amounts of time to school, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood to do the thing that I planned to do in that time. So it creates this stress because then I just sit there and I’m like, you’re not doing anything, you’re not doing anything, you only have fifteen minutes left.

In the period between a visit to the hospital and another shift at work, Julia dedicated a set amount of time to meet a course deadline. Yet when she struggled to produce work, Julia became frustrated, blaming herself for her perceived creative lack. She explains, “it was my fault I hadn’t got it done, but because of the structure of my time, it made it really difficult.” Here, she acknowledges the demands of her other obligations, yet reinforces an individualistic framing of academic responsibility. In this way, Julia internalizes the idealized model of a neoliberal student subject and blames herself for not achieving the standards set by this model.


Crothers, Charles. 2018. “New Zealand Studenthood in Neoliberal Times.” New Zealand 

Sociology 33(2): 69-97.

Estes, Danielle K. 2011. “Managing the Student-Parent Dilemma: Mothers and Fathers in 

Higher Education.” Symbolic Interaction 34(2): 198-219.

Foucault, Michel. 1979/2008. “14 March 1979.” Pp. 215-237 in The birth of biopolitics: 

lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, edited by M. Senellart and G. Burchell. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

González-Arnal, Stella and Majella Kilkey. 2011. “Contextualizing Rationality: Mature 

Student Carers and Higher Education in England.” Feminist Economics 15(1):

Read, Jason. 2009. “University Experience: Neoliberalism Against the Commons.” 

Pp. 151-153 in Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, the Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory, edited by Edu-Factory Collective. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia.

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