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

Time-Constrained 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”

Bridging Temporalities: Student Parents in the University, By Kristen Bass

A tall white man with dark hair and a trimmed, grey-streaked beard stands in an open doorway, blocking my way into the Robarts Library Family Study Space. Seeing that the reading has already begun, I explain my research project and how a worker from the Family Care Office suggested I attend this event. With that, he smiles warmly and waves me in

I make my way towards a child’s table and perch on a toddler-sized plastic stool. A few feet away, children and adults sit in a semi-circle, some on the floor, some on a couch, facing a woman with long dark hair generously streaked with grey. She too sits on a toddler’s stool, a tote bag at her feet, picture books spilling out. She holds a book, her body angled so she can read and let her audience see. Her voice brings the characters and story alive; eye contact and an animated reading captures her audience of six children and five adults. 

One boy, around the age of four, fidgets in his seat. He stands up from the couch and wanders near my table, grabs a book off the shelf next to me, then puts it back a moment later. An area of large cushioned mats shaped like blocks, arranged as walls of a fort, draws his attention. He throws himself headfirst over the wall, falling onto the mats with a thud. The other children don’t notice, as they lean in toward the storyteller, eyes wide. 

The reader, a children’s librarian with the Toronto Public Library, opens a new book and says, ‘For this story, I need you to whistle. Can you whistle?’

‘I can!’ another little boy exclaims with a grin, although his eagerness turns to bashfulness when the librarian asks him to demonstrate. Yet when the story’s protagonist learns how to whistle, this same boy follows the librarian’s lead and attempts his own. The entire audience, kids and adults, form an o-shape with their pursed lips and let out their best whistle. 

This event, a storytime reading for student parents and their young children, was hosted by the Family Study Space in the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library. Here, in the institutional space of the university, social actors occupy the role of parent and caregiver. Here, the student parent population is made visible. Yet this is not often the norm. More commonly, these parental roles and responsibilities, along with other roles that exist outside of the university context, are unknown and unseen. By establishing the Family Study Space, the University bridges the conflicting temporalities of the student parent such that they can be both student and parent simultaneously. This act is meaningful for student parents. By offering spaces and providing supports, the everyday challenges of student parents are rendered visible and institutionally validated. Indeed, when a marginalized group is recognized, their struggles validated by the University, this may positively shape their educational experience.

Prioritizing the Triple-Shift Burden: Student Parents’ Time Management, By Kristen Bass

Emerging from my data is a story about conflicting temporalities. Student parents occupy two roles simultaneously, sometimes more. They are never only a student, never only a parent. Temporal demands often overlap, intersect, or conflict, as student parents manage their daily responsibilities. For the student parents in this study who were also full-time workers, this emerges a triple-shift burden between school, work, and home. Throughout the day, the student parent makes conscious and intentional decisions about how to prioritize their time between school, work, and family. For both interlocutors in this study, family is always the priority, then work, followed by school. When asked if she has devised strategies for combining school and motherhood, Sarah described how she does her assigned readings on the subway during her daily commute or sacrifices her own sleeping hours to finish work after her daughter falls asleep. She explains, “I work on my work stuff or school stuff after she’s gone to bed so that she doesn’t feel like I’m not around for her.” For Sarah, her relationship with her daughter takes priority over other responsibilities. Julia prioritizes her time in a similar way:

We have [the kids] basically four days of the week. So those four days, they are the priority. And then the other three days, I’m able to not make them the priority. Those other three days typically work becomes the priority. School never really is number one.

Here, Julia emphasizes how for her, family always takes precedence, except for those days when her step-children are with their mother. Even then, school is prioritized last.

However, sometimes assignment deadlines alter Julia’s normal daily rhythm. She states, “Last night, for example, I had something due at midnight. So, after dinner I went straight upstairs, and I closed the door, and I worked.” In this case, school became the priority. Her husband and kids understand this, she assured me. When the demands of school peak, student parents may have to sacrifice family time, as in Julia’s case. This causes conflict between roles. She negotiates her ability to fulfill parenting obligations against her student responsibilities. Between these two roles is a seemingly constant, recurring two-way pressure. Julia describes how this pressure can manifest into feelings of guilt:

I always have the fear that I’m being either a shitty student or a shitty parent when I prioritize one too much over the other. It’s no doubt that sitting in a room for four hours [doing schoolwork] is not being a good mom. […] Let’s say that [my husband] randomly had to work a Sunday then it would be tough because I inevitably would be kind of a bad mom and kind of a bad student because I’d do just enough to do both. You know? So I think that’s where there’s a lot of conflict. I think with school, I put things off a lot, because I’m busy and it doesn’t feel like the priority. So I feel like I don’t necessarily do a great job with it all the time or I feel like I should be trying harder. But I can only try so much, so I kind of allocate [my time].

In this statement, Julia indicates how she allocates her time in a way that inevitably compromises both parenting and schooling. Experiencing an internal conflict, this causes her to feel she’s not being a good mother. Although not all student parents are mothers, Estes (2011) suggests that student mothers may experience this conflict more acutely. Normative gender ideologies regarding women’s caregiver role, and the ideal model of intensive mothering, may produce “a greater pressure on [student] mothers to manage the parenting side of this equation successfully” (Estes 2011:208). This suggests that the experience of student-parenthood is not gender neutral.


Estes, Danielle K. 2011. “Managing the Student-Parent Dilemma: Mothers and Fathers in Higher Education.” Symbolic Interaction 34(2): 198-219.

A day in the life, By Mélina Lévesque 

After spending a day with Louise and following her Friday school routine at the beginning of October, I decided to keep the schedule that she had sent as a reference for future shadowing opportunities. During my time with Louise, I remember being particularly struck by her linear algebra class that ran on Friday mornings at 9. While this class was only 50 minutes long, I remember feeling very lost in regard to not only the content that was being taught but at the speed that the professor spoke. With this in mind, I told myself that I probably felt this way due to my alien status as a Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Political Science student in a class filled with engineers. Regardless, I decided to give this class another go as a part of my research in exploring the “day-by-day” hustles of engineering students. 

I woke up early, once again, on a Friday morning sometime at the start of October. I was headed to the same linear algebra class that I had gone to with Louise just a week prior. As the class began, I felt consumed by the equations written on the board. From the perspective of someone who had absolutely no experience with classes like this one, the equations seemed to be infinite. The professor taught at a fast-paced, asking questions and then responding to them on his own. There really wasn’t much time for student engagement or involvement. By the time I checked the time, there were 10 minutes left of class. 

Based on what Louise and her friends shared with me last week, this was a particular class where students felt as if they were short on time due to the fact that the very class itself operated on this dynamic. Based on the comments of students from last Friday, this class appeared to be quite a challenge for students and not the most popular fan pick. Most importantly, missing this class puts students at a major risk of falling behind, according to Louise. These students did not hold back in expressing the challenges of this class, ranging from the way the professor talked very quickly to the speed of which things were written on the board. As an observer of this class, time did seem to zoom by very quickly. You really had to know what you were doing to follow up with what the professor was saying, but even then, it was still a challenge to jump from one step to the other without taking a breath.

I focused on a particular student that was sitting next to me in a “thick observation” style. At this point, I had begun to familiarize myself with the way the professor spoke and, most importantly, at the speed in which the professor spoke. The student next to me was dressed in sweatpants and a sweater with a big cup of coffee and a water bottle in from of him. From what I gathered, he seemed very overwhelmed by the speed at which this professor was talking. I had to remind myself that this was not an abnormal occurrence and that this student had probably gotten used to it at this point. Throughout the 50 minutes of class, he would stop what he was doing several times, lean back on his chair, drop his pen on his desk, and let out a big sigh/breath as he rolled his eyes and took a sip of water; an indication that it was essential to take a couple of minutes during this class to recuperate and refuel. This class really did feel like it passed by at the speed of light. While this was supposedly an environment where students were taking in information and learning, the ability to do this appeared to be out of control of the students themselves. Falling behind was very much a possibility, even by being in class. 

Survival of the Fittest, By Mélina Lévesque 

Early in November, I had the chance to sit down and speak with someone in an administrative position in hopes of gaining a deeper insight into how the engineering student identity is understood within the faculty itself. For the purposes of anonymity, I am going to call this person Mr. X. As students had shared their struggles with me pertaining to impacts that their stressful programs had taken on their mental health, I was curious to learn about the other side of the equation—the faculty and what they had to say. Based on another discussion that I shared with another person in an administrative position, regarding student involvement in extra-curricular, I asked Mr. X to what degree he believed that students had ample opportunity to attend to other responsibilities and activities outside of the classroom. His first instinct was to respond with a question tending to student mental health. Mr. X said that workload and timetable-related stress were areas of concern that the faculty was working on. When it comes to getting involved outside of class and stepping outside of one’s academic bubble for a breather, Mr. X admitted that while the options were out there, it definitely was not easy. He said that while students are encouraged to reach out for support, he realizes that there are many that may not feel like it’s worth it. While setting up a student task force to address the importance of mental wellbeing was in the talks, the project would only last 6 months. I thought to myself, why the temporary nature of such a project? Would establishing a permanent task force as such be impeding on greater academic priorities set out for students? 

There had recently been a social event hosted by the Faculty for students, giving them a chance to meet and speak with other administrative staff within the faculty. While there were several tables set up, each dedicated to particular topics ranging from “timetables” to “PEY opportunities” (professional experience year), Mr. X sat at the “mental health table”. He mentioned that many of the students that joined him at the table were from engineering science, a rigorous program in itself. I had seen some of my closest friends work their way through this program over the past couple of years and had witnessed many late-night breakdowns. Mr. X said that many of these students shared their concerns about the workload and high levels of stress and anxiety that they were experiencing as a response to the program’s expectations. While he reassured them that there was an option to transfer out of the program, Mr. X said that many of these students rigorously shook their heads, signifying “no way”. These students were quick to refuse, saying that they would never even consider this option. When I asked Mr. X why his answer was simple. “Keep up the good work”. He said that the nature of the students who are attracted to engineering programs such as engineering science, to begin with, are usually “up for a challenge” and “want to go here because it is the hardest”. However, while the “status” behind staying in an exceptionally challenging program was recognized as being quite a negative aspect, Mr. X reminded me that it can also be interpreted as a positive thing because “students want to challenge themselves”. 

When it comes to the “sink or swim” attitude of engineering programs, through the eyes of students, I wondered what exactly drives this “survival of the fittest” mindset amongst students. What calls for this “tough it out” attitude even though the option to alleviate themselves from the stress of these programs is doable? For students, if stress really did equal success, in the long run, the more stress that they endure, the more certain that they are “doing the engineering identity” appropriately. While the faculty seems to be aware of this mentality shared amongst students, the greater message of taking care of oneself by reaching out for support and doing what is best for oneself is blurred by commanding the “stress=success” status quo that overtakes these positive messages of encouragement.

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.

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