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

What is the University? (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 the University? By Ali Azhar, Damien Boltauzer, Sarah Chocano Barboza, and Charlotte Stewart

As students, each of us is positioned within a nexus of experiences and impressions that allows us to answer easily for ourselves this seemingly straightforward question. As researchers, we have operationalized the concept of “the university” in our field notes, reflections and discussions. To understand time in relation to this concept has been the reason for our work together; “the university” has been, consistently, the elephant in the Ethnography Lab room. Yet what, precisely, do we mean by “the university”? 

Dictionaries and theorists offering definitions abound. Yet what is interesting is that this concept has had currency amongst us without clear definition. At risk of being too rudimentary, then, what can we say we know about this powerful, contested, material, socially constructed entity? 

The who: Myriad students, faculty and staff making decisions informed by the institution that form the institution. We have seen and been puzzled by the apparent disjunction between the good intentions of individuals and the bureaucratic harshness that arises in and through their work. We have sought and discovered the often overlooked pockets of community. We have navigated knowing and identifying strongly with our interlocutors, with all of their struggles and passions; we have taken ourselves as representational data points and instruments of research. 

The where: Hundred of buildings at different life stages; thousands of classrooms, boardrooms, multi-purpose spaces, library nooks. All woven into the core of downtown Toronto, and extended into Mississauga and Scarborough – bound up with the character and geography of the massive, cosmopolitan, and driven GTA. All on colonized land, under multiple treaties. We have seen people consider and challenge their relationship to particular buildings, the distance between their homes and their campus, and their presence in this nation-state. We are concerned about what is lost and erased.

The when: The 21st century, the tertiary education episode in our lives, and the daily grind. We have considered how the institution has evolved through and is situated in time; how individual, collective, and institutional timelines morph and jangle. We have thought about how traditions are maintained over decades and shape the future, even while the narrative of innovation is emphasized. 

The why: To educate, to create knowledge, to make money. We have considered this question from several angles, coming to more and less cynical conclusions. We don’t know, we realize, much about what emerges from the top down; we imagine and feel power we can’t put our finger on. We sense that we are emerging scholars, basic income units, complex individuals living our lives together in an intense time and place. 

In un-conclusion, we have discovered through and mapped our research onto different interpretations of what can be meant by “the university”. Although we possess a nebulous shared understanding of this concept, through our individual fieldwork we have found that “the university” is more of a question than an answer. 

University is an Uncertain Space,  By: Isaac Consenstein, Sarah McDonald, Leslie Saunders

My ethnography of the university considered time management pedagogies, while Sarah and Leslie’s ethnographies considered physical temporalities on campus. As we spoke about our findings, Sarah and I began to reflect on the age gap between ourselves and Leslie, who has been a social worker for many years and recently began her PhD. Sarah and I are recently completed our undergraduate degrees in anthropology and before engaging with our unclear futures, chose to pursue our master’s studies this fall. Neither Sarah nor I have committed to a PhD, a 5+ year time commitment. Sarah and I approach university as training for a future career. We are motivated to complete our twelve-month master’s program based on our curiosity for anthropology as well as an opportunity for a more hopeful future.
Grant (2019) notes that pedagogical practices based upon efficiency support student’s notion that school is an investment. Professors embrace students’ rush to get out, as they frequently change teaching practices to ensure material doesn’t become constraining or overly ambiguous. Anthropology is treated by many as ambiguous, as it is a rigorous social science rather than a professional degree like teaching or finance. However, universities constantly highlight a practical, professional uses for any program. Efficiency and practicality of schoolwork is reassuring for Sarah and I and is more of an afterthought for Leslie. For Leslie, becoming a social worker only caused her to realize that professional life is just as ambiguous as the pedagogy she was introduced to in university. As she has now begun her PhD studies, school feels like a luxury; an opportunity to make meaning out of what is taking place in her social work office through critical discussion and exposure to theory. Years of professional work is both a blessing and a curse for Leslie, as university challenges her to (re)consider the principles of the spaces she works within. Our different attractions to school muddle the growing perception that university is meant purely as a professionalizing pursuit.
Perhaps our approaches to education informed the ethnographic spaces we chose. As I am excited to see what life will be like as a working professional outside of school, the Academic Success Centre was an opportunity for me to learn some “success” skills, and to find out what values are considered useful for “success”, while reflecting on my own progression through university. Leslie’s excitement for her PhD, and my new excitement with school has made me feel as though professional life will not satisfy me. Leslie’s exhaustion with her office space, caused her to focus on physical temporalities. Her observation of Hart House’s antiquity in tandem with its push for futurity create an affective space of uncertainty. As I concluded my ethnography, I noticed my inability to keep up with ambitious time-management skills. My introduction to practical university pedagogies encouraged me to manage social life, personal life, and school. These practices caused me to feel as though I can never manage my professional and personal pursuits. Despite our different approaches to understanding time in the university, informed by our temporal positions in life, Leslie, Sarah, and I can all confidently accept that university is a highly uncertain space.

Grant, Barbara M. (2017). On Delivering the Consumer-Citizen: New Pedagogies and Their Affective Economies. In S. Wright & C. Shore (Eds.), Death of the Public University? Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy (pp. 138-154). New York: Berghahn Books.

The Institutionalization of care: The University as the Pastoral Apparatus, By: Priya Saibel & Solomiya Draga

We live in an era of the expanding pastoral apparatus. A generation ago, the university looked like a different place than what it is today, albeit another pastoral apparatus. This term is derived from the historic notion of the church as the pastoral (Foucault, 2007), delivering social welfare programs and services through the pastors. Ample examples of these types of care-taking initiatives exist across the university, ranging from support-based initiatives that encompass a wide range of social services, to institutionalized centers like the Healthcare clinic. Take for example the free flu shots that were offered in November 2019 to students, staff and faculty or the ongoing health and wellness initiatives: mindfulness workshops, yoga and the various workouts offered across campus. Through researching pastoral care at the university, we can see the institutionalization of care, and its existence in both highly funded, professionalized departments, and through voluntary initiatives.  

For instance, in the Family Care Office (FCO), the staff are enabling and promoting self-care (Jones, 2018) of the student parent. They do so in a responsive way by attempting to address their needs, and in a tactical way by ‘teaching’ and ‘promoting’ the methods of care to the student parent, thereby equipping them with the tools to be self-sufficient. The FCO was founded in 1993 and is well-funded by the University. They are also comprised of several professionalized personnel, have a clearly defined reporting structure and have a definitive mandate. Their motto is ‘Every family belongs’, and the staff work very hard to make sure that they are catering to all family needs that arise at the university. In the office, there is a large common area with a corner of toys, literature on support programs and initiatives within and outside campus, and several books on parenthood. Plenty of resources are displayed to support families, and there are workshops that deal explicitly with parenting. The peculiarity is that the FCO is undertaking topics and tasks that were previously dealt with privately; that is, in the home and with other family members. Thus, familial forms of care have fallen under the rubric of university services. 

We can see similar pastoralist trends in Grad Minds (GM), the mental health group under the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students Union (UTGSU). GM arose in 2013 when the UTSGU recognized the need for mental health resources on campus and has become one of UTSGU’s largest groups. It is comprised of around a dozen student volunteers who plan and administer mental health workshops, educational sessions, and advocate on behalf of the graduate student body. Unlike the FCO, GM involvement is completely voluntary, and their members are elected annually through a democratic process. GM, as the “voluntary pastoral,” focuses on filling in the mental health gaps that exist for graduate students. The group members are dedicated to the cause and work extremely hard to ensure the effectiveness of the group on attending to the graduate community. However, the voluntary nature of the group poses certain issues. For instance, high turnover is a particularly salient barrier to fulfilling their mission. Although members often join with enthusiasm, many quickly get frustrated with the lack of change, lack of funding and the inability to follow-through with proposed initiatives. Thus, this group is less institutionalized than groups such as the FCO, and as a result faces unique challenges in their efforts to provide the student body with pastoral care. 

Despite the differences between the structure and level of institutionalization of the two groups, their functions are largely the same. Both the FCO and GM work to foster a sense of community and belonging, provide students with much-needed services, and support the university community by providing resources to maximize student wellness. Thereby, these groups extend the reach of the pastoral through professionalized and voluntary undertakings. 


Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Senellart, Michel (ed.). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jones, Lorelei. 2018. ‘Pastoral power and the promotion of self-care.’ Sociology of Health & Illness 40 (6):988-1004.

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