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

Governed Autonomy: The Struggle for Control in a Time-Managed World, By Hayley Lessard (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

It is 10:00 a.m. at the University of Toronto. You are on your way to class across campus. As you walk through the busy sidewalks, you try to wiggle your way through the crowd, hoping that you will not be late to your lecture. You think about how great a coffee would be right now, but there’s no time. Would not want to risk being late to lecture. It is now 10:05 a.m. and you are stuck at a crosswalk. You see an opportunity to j-walk and take it. Waiting might make you late to lecture. As you push through slow-walker after slow-walker, you can see the building in the distance. 10:08 a.m. and there are still four flights of stairs to go up. No time to wait for the elevator. At 10:09 a.m. you run up the stairs hoping you will not be late for lecture. 10:10 a.m.; you take a seat in the lecture hall and get started. For the next one to three hours, you sit quietly in lecture, feeling your pulse slow and your sweat dry as you focus on taking notes and listening to what your professor says. You must make the most out of lecture time. After this class, you must be on your way to another one to three-hour lecture, and then hopefully there is room in your schedule to get food. Your schedule, which you worked so meticulously to plan out, constricts the times in which you can eat, study, learn and socialize. But, if you worked so hard on this schedule, why are times for some of the basics of everyday life, such as eating and socializing, left out? And why is so much priority given to learning and studying? These are some important questions we must ask ourselves as university students in order to understand the importance of time-management and why it is so prominent in our everyday lives.


As university students, we are expected to act in autonomous ways, such as managing our time, seeking out resources and services, and making sure we are not forgetting anything in our busy schedules. While maintaining this autonomy, we are expected to act in accordance to the ways the University prescribes, by working through stress to achieve success and become contributing members of society, or simply by following the schedules they provide to us. For the purpose of this paper, I will refer to the ‘University’ as one entity. It is important to note that the University encompasses many different actors and entities, ranging from faculties and colleges, to student centers and recognized groups, and that the ways I express the University does not reflect the ideologies of every individual player. By grouping everything together, I can better elaborate and express the important role of the University in this research. I will also be using the term with both a lowercase ‘u’, when generally making reference to the university experience.

To begin to understand the questions that were posed throughout this research, one must first understand the puzzle. The most prominent pieces in this puzzle are the University, the time-management tools that are provided, and the students. Time-management tools can encompass planners, schedules, syllabi, and exam schedules, to name a few. I became intrigued by the types of tools that are used by students on a daily basis in terms of how they change students’ perceptions of time. As a student myself, I was both witnessing and experiencing the stress of university and how students learnt to cope with this stress, and began to question these methods. Since the beginning of my time at UofT, there has always been the assumption that in order to achieve success, students must be able to effectively manage their time. I have experiences of upper-year students saying later years will be easier, based solely on the fact that they have gained the ability to plan and manage their time in the best way that supports their academic schedules. They have become the “ideal” student in the eyes of the University, and have been rewarded with success. So, how exactly do students manage their time? 

I first began my inquiry at the university bookstore, where I found the promotion and sale of agendas, planners, journals, and calendars, all with ‘University of Toronto’ plastered on the front. Initially, I thought of this as a means by which the University infiltrates the personal world of its students, as all of these tools are typically independently used by the student to plan their time on their own time. By putting the words ‘University of Toronto’ on these items, the University is being brought into all times of their students’ lives. I quickly realized that the University is present within the personal realm of time of its students in many ways beyond that of planners, journals and calendars. It became apparent that on greater scales, the University worked to assert a level of control over their students’ time, such as through having an enrollment period and examination period. By these means, the University was managing time outside of ‘school time’. Realizing the impact that the University actually has on its students’ time, and how students react to this, led me to pose the ultimate question: what practices do students use to assert control over their time? 



This question enables me to look more deeply into the time-management tools that are provided by the University, how and why they are used by students, and what effect they have on students’ perceived control of time. It also allows me to question why students feel the need to practice control over their time and to assess the governing position that the University takes on. Looking at how the University attempts to govern student conduct was crucial to understanding the overall landscape of my research. Governmentality, as defined by Foucault entails a new form of power which is held by various agencies that attempt to govern populations. It is important to note that government does not work through force, but rather works indirectly to shape its population in ways that many times go unnoticed (Foucault, 1991). It relies on a compliance from the population, in a way that is shaped to seem like individuals have some say in the matter, when in reality the government typically does not have the concerns of individuals in mind, but rather focuses on the needs and well-being of the population as a whole (Foucault, 1991). If we think of the University as a governing body that works in this way, holding the ideals of governmentality at its core, we can quickly see how the University enables control over its ‘population’. Through promoting the use of planners, calendars, and journals the University is putting the responsibility of time-management into the hands of the student, even when the time being managed is dependent on the University’s schedule. This undoubtedly works to shift the burden onto the shoulders of the student, making them believe that they are making a conscious decision to manage time in their best interest. This, in effect, works to dislodge the University’s position of power which it holds over its students.  In reality, however, it is clear that the University acts upon almost every aspect of a student’s time. As one interlocutor told me: 

My entire schedule is created around school. When I eat is affected by my classes, when I can go home or when I sleep is too. When I study vs doing other things is affected by my work and upcoming exams. When I had a job, it was surrounding school

It is important to note that students do seem to realize that the University holds so much power over their time, and they attempt to regain some amount of control through meticulously planning out their time. The University allows this as students who enter university do so willingly, going out of their way to ensure good grades, possibly moving to a new city, and paying large amounts of fees for tuition, books, housing, etc. Seemingly, one of the goals of university is to create ideal subjects for the neoliberal world that we reside in, in which autonomy is desired. The University as a governing body acts as a mediator that does not want to hold responsibility over their students’ actions, and therefore pushes its students to act autonomously. If we understand the university experience as a liminal period within a student’s life, we can better understand how students are being led to believe they are living an autonomous life and how the University works to enhance this.

The idea to look at the university experience as the liminal period in a rite of passage first came to me in a book written by Carol Delaney called Investigating Culture, which posits university orientation as a rite of passage from high school into university (Delaney, 2017). Based on Van Gennep’s schema, rites of passage have three distinct periods: rites of separation, rites characterizing the liminal period and rites of reaggregation (Delaney, 2017). Within the framework of my research, looking at the time a student spends in university as the liminal period in their rite of passage into the ‘real world’ is very helpful in understanding the University’s role here. The liminal period is distinguished by its emphasis on the ordeals a new student goes through when entering university (Delaney, 2017). Ordeals can include difficult tasks, such as planning classes and extracurriculars, meeting new people, and learning your way around a new campus. In order to successfully make it through the liminal period, one must successfully overcome these ordeals. On a greater scale, combatting the stress of time constraints by learning new time-management skills is one way to measure the level of success that a student has had in getting through the liminal period, as they successfully overcame the ordeal of time. By framing the university experience as a liminal period, some amount of autonomy is expected of the individual, as they must map their way through a new plain, develop skills in understanding the new content they are learning and potentially live on their own for the first time. In this case, however, autonomy in the sense of time seems to be key for student success, as it is expected that they have already learnt the skills for living on their own before entering university.

It is important to express autonomy here as ‘temporal autonomy’, as the term autonomy can be very broad and refer to many different categories. Temporal autonomy refers to the ability of controlling how you use your time (Goodin, 2008). This seems to be an important aspect in students’ lives and to the notion of governmentality. Students attempt to regain their temporal autonomy by meticulously planning out their time. It seems to make them feel as though they have the ability to control time and that their burden of tasks is not as great as they may have initially thought (or potentially have the opposite effect). The University seems to value the idea of autonomy within its students, even if it does partake in the lack of temporal autonomy its students have. Essentially, the University holds control over their student’ time, whether it be during the school year or outside of it, through deadlines that monitor payment and enrollment, and waiting for the release of schedules and such. These all factor into how students can use and plan their time, without students realising. For example, the university’s Academic Service Center and Accessibility Center provide workshops on time-management and procrastination, which all emphasize some level of temporal autonomy. The students attending were thanked for choosing to spend their time at the workshop, and emphasis was put on the use of tools and tricks that students could utilize on their own while doing work. The University thus instills the idea of temporal autonomy in its students’ minds, which renders students blind to the power that the University actually holds over their time. As Graham Burchell states in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, “They are most profoundly affected when the way they are governed requires them to alter how they see themselves as governed subjects” (Burchell, Gordon and Miller 1991). They, in this case refers to the population being governed, which at UofT suggests students being governed by the University. By promoting temporal autonomy, the University is shaping students’ personal narratives around how they are being governed and ultimately blinds them to the powers that be.


Methods and Analysis 

This research relied on various ethnographic methods, which include interviews, participant observation and auto-ethnography. It was difficult to concretize a field site where I could observe students enacting control over their time, therefore I decided to use the tools themselves as my site. To do this, I separated the tools that were most prominently used into three categories and analysed them in terms of how both the students and the University interact with them. The first category includes tools that the student can interact with autonomously, with no participation from the University, such as planners, journals and calendars. These tools enable the student to attempt to control their time and act autonomously, and do not necessarily have to include strictly school-related activities. My interlocutors expressed these types of tools as their main method of time-management and acknowledged how they give them some sense of control in their busy lives. The second category, made up of tools such as assignment calculators, timetables and time-management workshops and worksheets, include partial autonomy from the student. These tools are ultimately provided by the University, but are made for some sort of controlled interaction from the student. For example, students have the ability to enroll in a variety of time slots for a given class, but these time slots are provided by the university, based on a number of different factors. In this case, there is a collaboration taking place, and the time in question being controlled is most limited to school-time. In contrast to the first category, my interlocutors did not express feeling a sense of temporal autonomy through the use of these tools, but instead felt that when they used these tools, their time was controlled even more. The third, and final, group is that in which the University holds most power. These tools, which namely include syllabi, exam schedules and enrollment periods, go beyond the realm of school time, working to have some control over students’ personal time off as well. For example, UofT’s enrollment period, which takes place during the summer, provides very specific times in which students are allowed to begin enrolling in courses. This may cause students to have to take time off work to guarantee their place in a required class, or risk not being able to take said class. In this case, students must once again plan their time around the agenda of the University, during a time outside of school time. These tools do not typically allow for any contributions from students and have seemingly been normalized to the point beyond question. Students interact with these tools on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis in a way that shapes their perceptions of time, and thus I made these tools, as well as the ways students interact with them, my field site. 

My main means of interacting with my student interlocutors was through interviews. As a student myself, I could interact with many students around me on campus, however I found this difficult considering I did not have a spatially defined field site. Therefore, I decided to reach out to some fellow students through social media and conduct interviews online. This worked out in favour of both my interlocutors and myself, as we were all feeling the time constraints put upon us from the University. Taking this approach not only worked in favour of time, but also allowed my interlocutors to reflect on their own time use, as one of my interlocutors stated: “Objectively, the subject of this research is self-reflective and allows me to analyze how I am using my time, and identify what maybe needs to change”. The student interviews in which I conducted were a means by which I could assess the role of governmentality within the University. I was looking to see the effects that result from students feeling the pressure to manage their time, and address the reasons why they feel this. I also wanted to explore students’ relationships with the different levels of tools to asses how the power structures within the University are experienced. I also conducted one in-person interview with a Learning Strategist at the Academic Service Center, where we had a casual conversation about the importance of students controlling their time, and means by which they could do this, as well as the importance of student autonomy. 

All three student interviews that I conducted aligned in various ways with each other. Firstly, all interlocutors used some sort of planning device, whether it be a physical planner or an app on their computer, in which they included mainly school related tasks. All emphasized how they did this as a means of “not falling behind” and to cope with the time stress that they were feeling; as a means to gain control of the ever-moving pace of time, and claim autonomy over it. However, this only seemed to apply to the first group of tools, which I outlined at the beginning of this paper. The other two groups of tools were not outwardly acknowledged by my interlocutors as time-management structures shaping their time. Structures from the second group were seen more as tools that could be utilized to help students better map out their time, rather than a means by which they could gain control over it and utilize it however they like. These tools were linked solely to school activity and not to personal tasks. As for group three, students seemed to look at these not so much as time-management structures, but more so as measures of planning within the University. These tools are understood as being part of the clockwork that runs the University and people rarely question their presence and effects on time. From participant observation I have grasped the sense that students wait upon the release of syllabi and the exam period, possibly causing stress, but do not look to these as directly controlling their time, for example. This is an expression of the naturalization of power.

Fear of not succeeding was also prominent. Students felt that if they did not plan out their due dates, they risked forgetting, which could result in a bad grade or a fail. Emphasis on success was a theme that recurred prominently throughout my interviews. Success, which we have seen is the main driving force behind time-management, pushes students to become time-managing subjects, working towards a goal that the University has set for them through expectations. I have witnessed these expectations, which can include attaining a certain GPA, attending grad school or being able to successfully manage your time, through my own experiences, by speaking with a Learning Strategist and through analysing the products that time-management tools produce. 

All in all, students at the University of Toronto live in an environment where they are constantly experiencing stress and pressures to succeed, not only from the University, but also possibly from family and peers. Within all this stress, students are expected to hand in assignments on time, attend all classes and tutorials and finish tremendous amounts of reading or homework each week, all the while maintaining social connections and personal time. For many students, time seems to be beyond their grasp, so they use time-management tools to concretize it and gain control over their time, thus resulting in a greater sense of temporal autonomy. 

For this research, the Learning Strategist works as a sort of liaison between the University and the students. As an extension of the University, which one might consider a service, Learning Strategists provide support and resources for students who are struggling to attain the level of success they would like. Much of the service is centered around combatting procrastination, setting goals, and being productive with your time. This seems to be the perfect formula to being a successful student. As I settled into my meeting with the learning strategist, it became evident that the conversation would focus on tools and tricks that are provided to students through the Academic Success Center. In light of all the stress that seemed to fill the air on campus, the Learning Strategist seemed very cheerful and happy to help. Throughout the interview, I noticed some big themes which all seemed to be interconnected: goals, prioritization, balance, and autonomy. These were all laid out as pieces in the puzzle that, when put together, create ideal time-management skills. Success, as defined by the Learning Strategist, is most attainable through the development of good time-management skills and resistance to procrastination. Success first starts with goal-setting. This can be large, long-term goals or smaller goals which you attain over a period of time. It is important to set goals as without there would be no drive to get any work done. The next step would be prioritization. This includes breaking down large tasks into smaller tasks and making the distinction between being unproductive vs. being unrealistic. It is important that students acknowledge that it may take them longer to accomplish a task which they set out to do. The problem with this recommendation is that in reality, students are many times pressed for time and have too many tasks to accomplish at once. The Learning Strategist seemed to acknowledge this, and as a means of combatting this issue brought up the assignment calculator that one can find online through the Academic Success Center website. It allows you to set a date in which you would like to finish your paper (your goal in this case) and breaks down each task, telling you what days you should work on what. Next comes in the balance. Balance seemed to be an important factor in the Learning Strategist’s eyes, as it consisted of carving out space for breaks. She emphasized that it is often times difficult for students to balance school life with everyday life, and that it is essential that students “take breaks” between studying and treat themselves everyday. This notion assumes that students have time for breaks, which is often not the case. As one of my interlocutors stated “there is no prescribed balance”, with referral to balancing school and social life. This brings up questions of whether or not the Learning Strategist holds an unattainable ideal of what a student should be at UofT. Are these ideals that a student should yearn for? Or should students be practicing these methods to become the ideal? To me it seemed as though the Learning Strategist pointed towards using these practices to become less stressed, and therefore more successful. However, I believe that the Learning Strategist, and perhaps the University as a whole, has unattainable expectations for their students, as I have noted how many feel like they do not have the time to practice these simple methods of ‘de-stressing’ and ultimately become more stressed. Finally, and possibly the most important factor in success is autonomy. Autonomy in this case is essential for students to develop time-management skills. Some sense of autonomy is needed for a student to visit the Academic Success Center, where they can gain access to helpful tools and advice. Autonomy is also needed for the student to ensure that they are setting goals, prioritizing, and balancing their time, and thus the weight of their success is put on their shoulders. It seems as though the Academic Success Center and Learning strategists are operating similarly to the University. They have all these tools available, and are very willing to help, but the responsibility of attaining this service is ultimately put on the shoulders of the student. 

Finally, a big component of my research involved auto-ethnography. Throughout my three years at the university, I have constantly encountered failures and successes with time-management as a student. Therefore, I have personally been experiencing the race for control over my time and have seen it within those around me. During my research, I have been able to refer to my own experiences as a student many times, and have been able to look at my interactions as participant observation. I also attended a time-management and procrastination workshop as participant observation to better understand the ways in which the University wanted to promote time-management.

  Figure 1

Figure 1 represents the relationships between the players that enable autonomy and those that diminish it. The University is the governing structure that ultimately controls students’ time, and the tools are representative of the practices that students use to gain control of their time. When we look at both through the lens of theory, we see the University as both a government and as the liminal period in a rite of passage, and the tools as visual managements of time and a means to express temporal autonomy. The graph represents the ways in which the University and the tools interact and work together to shape the embodiment of governmentality. When the University is expressed as a form of government and we have the visual management of time through the use of tools, we see an expression of governmentality. The visual management of time, which is expressed through all three groups, generally works to make students feel as though they are making autonomous decisions, when in reality they are guided to make time decisions around the narratives of the University. This on its own is an important factor in governmentality, and it is clear in many other ways how the University is a governing structure. Even by simply looking at how the University can control students’ time outside of the school year with the course enrollment period shows governmentality. On the other hand, when the University is expressed as a liminal period, and we see how temporal autonomy is created by the students who use time-management tools, we see an oppression of governmentality, meaning its effects are naturalized and seemingly invisible to the public. Based on my research, I believe that it is reasonable to say that the strength of oppression outweighs that of the expression, and that this results in the naturalization of power structures within the University. I say this because it is clear that the university as an institution works as a form of government and that ideals of governmentality are present, however, on the surface these are difficult to pinpoint. The University’s ability to control its student’s time has become naturalized and many do not outright make the connection. When one digs more deeply into the means by which students perceive time within the university and how they act upon it, one can uncover the thorough means and methods that the University uses to control its students’ time. By having actors such as Learning Strategists work to help students gain better time-management skills in the name of success, the structural issues at play here are being ignored. There should not be so much focus on changing students’ habits to fit the narrative of the University, but rather the University should be consciously acting to make success more attainable to its students. After all, if the main component of governmentality is ensuring the well-being, good health and overall success of its population, then why are UofT students so riddled with stress and time-constraints? 


In conclusion, I believe that my initial question of what practices students use to control their time has been effectively answered, however this is just the beginning of inquiry into the greater powers at play. This research, although I believe to be thorough, only begins to skim the surface of the relation between time, control, and perception. By mapping out and grouping time-management structures that I have found within the university, I was able to assess the relationship between the structures and students. I explored how the use of these tools can shape students’ ability to feel some control in a world where they lack it and how they affect students’ views of the University, as government or not. By looking at the University as expressing governmentality, I was able to better observe its powerful hand and see how students are a means by which the University can pass on responsibility and negate its role in student success, as in most cases students are expected to be ideal time managers to reach success. Power structures within the university have been disguised through the ways that temporal autonomy is promoted, and students have suffered tremendous stress as a result. The means by which the university experience is presented as a liminal period between high school and adulthood, where one is pushed towards getting a job, buying a house and starting a life, takes some responsibility away from the University, as this time should be a means by which students can prepare for their reaggregation into the ‘real world’. Therefore, some autonomy is expected, and this heightens the burden that students feel during their time in university. In the end, I believe that more research should be done on this topic on a greater scale, where the importance of time-management skills can be understood in terms of our neoliberal society beyond what one experiences in the university. Looking at time is a great way to better understand power structures, as power is enacted through time constantly in our Western society, and deconstruct them. 

Works Cited

Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller. 1991. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Delaney, Carol. 2017. Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell.

Foucault, Michael. 1991. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, 87-104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goodin, Robert E. 2008. “Discretionary time and temporal autonomy.” In Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, by Robert E. Goodin, James Rice, Antti Parpo and Lina Eriksson, 27-50. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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