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

Lunchtime at the University, By Jonathan Avalos (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”


I was sitting down one day at Sydney Smith Patio, around noon. And I saw someone by themselves on a bench, eating their lunch. And after 5 minutes, they finished eating and promptly left. Nearby, I saw a group of friends sitting at a table, as they were eating and talking. They stayed there for about 50 minutes before finishing their food and then left too. And a thought popped into my head. Why are these two eating times so different? Is it simply preference among individuals for how long they wish to take eating? Is it due to responsibilities plastered on by the University that varies among individuals? Is it where they sat? The atmosphere? I wanted to get to this question, this question of…

How do students’ eating practices relate to their experience of time at the University?

The feeling of going through University as a student; managing classes, jobs, homework, extracurricular activities, etc. A place of knowledge finds itself affected by the curse of efficiency, by the need to finish all these tasks to graduate in a fixed amount of time. A question that always intrigued me then was how people ate at the University. Food was an afterthought; it was always about getting to the next class, or handing in the next assignment. Although people still had to eat, or else they wouldn’t have enough energy to do any work at the University. So where exactly was this time to eat? Where was the space to accommodate this time? The institution needed to provide students with eating spaces, and so we have cafes, cafeterias, food trucks and even dining halls at U of T.  And how did people perceive this eating time? Was it something they wanted, or something that could even be accomplished at the University? I needed to understand the experiences of students with their lunchtimes.


Most of my ethnographic fieldwork was done through direct observation. I watched students in their eating practices, generally who they ate with, how long they took, where they ate, and what they ate. This was also accomplished within public spaces; my field sites were the food trucks in front of the Bahen Centre, Sidney Smith patio, Robarts Cafeteria, Rotman’s School of Management, OISE Building, and New College Dining Hall. The times I would commit observation were around 11:00am – 1:00pm for at least three to four times a week, over two and a half month period.

I also utilized interviews, late into my ethnographic work. Most were attained through a snowball method. Interlocutors recommended me to certain students on campus who were willing to be interviewed. Most of these interviewees were also from OISE, and many student perspectives written in the ethnography portion of the paper will be from an OISE background. Interviews were held in private rooms, and lasted for 10-20 minutes per interviewee. Each signed a consent form as provided by the Course Instructor. All students mentioned in this paper are under pseudonyms.

Lastly, I also used online ethnography. I went to different University administrative and services websites to get a glimpse of how the University portrays itself to future and current students, which includes how each location on campus is expected to be used. Social media was also used to get a sense of how students interpret U of T and its services, positive or negative. Most of my information on this aspect comes from the Facebook meme group “uoft memes for true Blue teens.”


The framework I will be using as a background setting is Bourdieu’s Practice Theory. Bourdieu theorized that the system of structures that produce and reproduce rules and regulations are able to be played with by individual actors (Bourdieu 1977:9). Rules become norms, where they aren’t fully followed to the letter, but used strategically to an individual’s needs or to achieve a desired outcome. An individual can’t escape this system, but they aren’t completely bound by it either. The University can be seen as this system of structures that controls the scheduling and management of school-related activities practiced by students; the actors of that system. On the focus of time, setting a schedule for students to abide by would be these rules and regulations i.e. a time table for classes, financial deadlines, pressure to participate in co-curricular activities, etc. Lunchtime is usually not dictated by the University, but determined differently in each department; in which the student can play with the rules in deciding where and when to eat. For example, if a student has classes from 10am-12pm, and again at 1pm-3pm, then lunch time would be ideally placed between 12pm-1pm, by the student, if no other activities are scheduled. Again this differs by department for time and place. Rotman’s School of Management has different expectations for work and break time than at OISE. All of these places have different rules they expect students to follow, in which students differently strategize for their own needs.

Nielsen’s ‘subject oriented time versus standardized policy time’ can help expand the understandings of student eating time. Subject oriented time is defined as the time an individual agent can fully and independently explore a subject/activity; while standardized policy time is the externally defined time-frame to complete an education (Nielsen and Sauraw 2018:158). Neilsen’s argument explained the contrast between how long a student needed to take in completing a task, against the Universities’ dictated amount of time a student was supposed to finish. For example, if a student needed six months to fully understand trigonometry, but the Math Department only offered a three month program. This can also be applied to the smaller scale of eating. A student may prefer a 2 hour lunch, but their schedule could only afford them an hour lunch break. In most cases, it is the consequence of University standardized policy time that affects the student’s subject oriented time of eating, rather than being in direct conflict.

Lefebvre’s idea of ‘arrhythmia’ expands upon the feelings students have when coming into conflict with Nielsen’s concepts of the University’s standardized policy time versus a subject-oriented, or ‘personal’ time. ‘Arrhythmia’ is the inability for an individual to balance and perform their actions when experiencing different temporalities, leading to dissonance and stress (Lefebvre 2004). Relating to the University, some students are able to sync up their own personal time with the required University time limitations, having them in rhythm. For example, a student who is able to complete a three month trigonometry program, is able to keep up with the work, and does not feel bogged down, would not experience ‘arrhythmia’. But for those that can’t sync up, Nielsen (2018) described it as students superficially engaging with an assignment due to external responsibilities which limited their own time (161). Similar then with eating, students who would prefer a longer lunch time, but can’t afford to, would be considered in ‘arrhythmia’.

Finally, Auge’s concept of the ‘nonplace’ will be used. It helps shed light on why students prefer to eat alone, when given the opportunity to perform social eating. The nonplace is a type of liminal spacetime; a transitional part of an individual’s day that goes quickly and is impersonal (Auge 1995:101). It can be compared to an airport lounge, where its a space and time occupied in between the location entering into the airport, and before getting on a plane. The non-place is never the final destination on someone’s journey. In general, eating time at the University can be seen as this sort of place for many individual eaters. If they find it necessary to eat in between classes, then eating is simply a transition that happens before and after actual locations. The idea of the nonplace also contrasts with ‘familiarity’ experienced at the University. The idea of familiarity is where an individual’s identity are formed through the acts of socialization. The nonplace will also be used to look at the instances where individuals prefer a solitary place.


My findings at my five field sites will be recounted in this section; divided into the three main factors relating student eating practices to their experience of time at the University. Space, Time and the How students view this Space-Time for Eating. 


The first observation I made early on in my fieldwork, related to the time differentiation of eating, was the contrast of choice based on seating arrangements. At Sydney Smith Patio, individual eaters would often choose to sit on a bench, while social eaters would often choose to sit at tables. The Bahen Centre was similar, where individual eaters only appeared at the window seats; rarely did any socialization happening. Individual eaters rarely sat at tables, and when they did, they would quickly leave when a stranger sat in the same space. In either case, individual eaters always took less time to eat due to the seating arrangement. On tables, one can easily rest their food, but a bench requires one to hold, meaning a bench has students quickly consume food. But what about choice? Why would individuals rather eat on benches than on tables? Megatron, who ate at Sydney Smith Patio, claimed that a table was a social space. When sitting at a table, you are either near someone or facing someone, making it awkward if sitting with a stranger. A bench by contrast has a person staring into nothing, even if someone was sitting next to them. An illusion of privacy can be created on a public bench, but a table demands socialization. Megatron felt it was necessary to start up a conversation with another person at a table, meaning that more time would have to be spent in that space. In this way, space affects eating time, as it can dictate whether someone eats alone or with a group.

The way space changes affects the way eating time changes, as well. At OISE, I found space to be limiting for proper eating. My OISE interviewees told me that eating was a hassle. The ground floor lounge was the main area to eat food, as it was near the OISE cafe. And yet the lounge was always filled with students; most were just relaxing, or waiting for their classes. The alternative was the Nexus Lounge, which was usually empty, also on the twelfth floor of OISE. It’s why it was empty, as no student would care to take the elevator or stairs to get there. These realities aligned with my observations of student eating preferences. People would usually have a coffee or quick snack due to this limited space, and didn’t spend much time on their lunch. The inability to spend time on lunch was dictated by the sheer inability to find a space to have lunch. Because students still had to eat, it affected what they ate. Foods like a sandwich or coffee didn’t require a seating area, and could be eaten on the go or consumed in a space that didn’t require much time. As one could imagine, most students at OISE also were individual eaters.

But students had the ability to play with their space, and change their surroundings in order to increase their lunchtime. Actors have the ability to strategize with the rules produced by the system of structures (Bourdieu 1977:9). OISE produces ‘rules’ which dictate the space available for eating in the department. OISE students understand that there is no space to have a lunch, as evident by my interviews. So instead they created their own space. On the second floor, I witnessed many students eating in empty classrooms. Classrooms were, obviously, intended for teaching not eating. But during noon on certain days, no classes were held, so students who had classes before or after this period took the opportunity to have their lunch in the empty classrooms. They had proper lunches, and would sit and eat for the entire hour before their classes started. Social eating was also committed, something I rarely saw at OISE. Meaning that lunchtime was a lot longer due to the socialization aspect. The norms of a University classroom were strategically changed by students to increase their eating time.

OISE also very much changed the physical space of places: the OISE cafe for example is in renovation, and cuts off students from the cafe lounge. Time spent in that space, eating or not, had been eliminated indefinitely. And what’s to be placed there is a more open space, with a reduction in seating. Based on the Community Consultation Report (2018) as well as its Updated Lobby Design (2019), a living green wall is planned, as well as more sleek couches and an increase in window seats. The green wall indicates that OISE wants students to spend more time at the lounge, as these walls are supposed to relax people. Yet reducing the amount of couches, and increasing window seats means that students aren’t expected to spend their time eating at the lounge. I suspect most of this time will be spent on doing schoolwork, although I can’t prove that. But an increase in window seats, and less couches means less ability to socialize. For some students who found food to be a sacred event, less socializing meant a smaller lunch time, as they usually ate with people. And so how much time spent on food changes based on the space in which eating happens.


But what about lunchtime itself? Why do students feel that no space equates to no lunchtime? Does something limit this available time? At Robarts I was able to see how conflicts of time with other responsibilities at the University determined how much people could actually spend time for lunch. For example, most lunchtimes are in-between classes. For these students, lunch varies, and what results is the student who can eat for 5 minutes versus one who can eat for 50 minutes. The former had class immediately, and the latter had an hour between classes, speaking hypothetically. It is this 5 versus 50 example that affects students differently based on how much time they need to eat. For the student who usually doesn’t eat for long periods of time, a 10 minute window between classes seems fine, but some require the full 50 minutes. But University classes wait for nobody. And so the student’s subject oriented time comes into conflict with the University’s standardized policy time (Nielsen and 2018:158). Someone who is able to sync up their own personal time with the University’s time schedule may be more prepared to eat a larger lunch and use the full 10 minutes to their advantage. But someone who isn’t synced up, may find it disheartening, and quickly buy a snack. This student experiences arrhythmia (Lefebvre 2004) as they are unable to keep in beat with either their own schedule or the University’s, having to sacrifice a proper eating time.

But 10 minutes is shoddy for even the most rhythmic student. It doesn’t allow for much strategy. Students who have a 50 minute lunch time, but still require a larger time frame, can at least maximize how they wish to eat. It’s not only the conflicts of time that determine eating time, but also trying to find a location to make the most of that 50 minutes. Linked to space, students maximize their eating time by reducing the other factors during conflicting periods of the day. Megatron, who ate at Robarts Cafeteria, stated that it was their location of choice due to convenience; it was near their last class, and the cafeteria was on the ground floor. Less time is wasted in finding a place, ensuring more of it is spent on the actual food. But this maximization also depends on different forms of what I call ‘waiting time’: the time spent preparing to eat food. This includes waiting in line for food, waiting for seats to open, or waiting for a friend to arrive if performing social eating. She also told me that Robarts had a lot of space for sitting and the lines at the restaurants weren’t very long. ‘Friend Waiting’ was observed a lot at New College Dining Hall, where I mistakenly thought someone was an individual eater, when a friend shortly came by after. So trying to find a location convenient for both individuals, that also had enough space for two, was another aspect to cutting down on ‘friend waiting’. Students, like my interviewee at New College, very much try to make the most out of their 50 minute lunchtime, so as to maximize on actually eating, and not on preparation.

Finding the Right Space for the Right Time

Convenience is but one factor. Some students would gladly spend more time on finding a location in which they thought was appropriate for lunchtime. And sometimes, convenience isn’t a factor at all. Some students go to certain places because they have to, but have negative feelings towards said place. Perceptions of an eating place can differ between a University Department and students, creating conflict in how that time is wished to be spent by either party. The Robarts Cafeteria is seen as a place to have a study break, and have a chat with a friend (Robarts Cafeteria 2019). The department responsible for Food Services at the University see the Robarts Cafeteria as a place to socialize during study sessions. But Megatron didn’t see it that way. The in-between study sessions is relevant, but is seen as something negative, and not a place for socialization. She would rather take more time to go to another place, reducing her eating time, if it meant not eating at Robarts. The place was depressing for her; a feeling shared by many other students, as the Facebook group UofTMemesForTrueBlueTeens constantly berated Robarts for being a prison (uoft memes for true Blue teens 2019). It’s banner used to be of a meme that displayed student detest towards Robarts, so it was probably hated by a lot of users in that group. This conflict between the structure and the actors creates a misunderstanding to how individuals should spend time within the eating space at Robarts. 

But again, some people spend more time looking for a place they find appropriate to eat at. Consistent among all my interviews, and to what I observed across all my sites, was that people usually only ate in their own departments They found it to be a place of familiarity; one where they have history there and where an identity is created. Essentially, a place that you always seem to find yourself in. Interviewees would never eat anywhere they didn’t know. It’s why OISE students will still eat at OISE even if space is limited. It’s why my interviewee decided that Robarts was a convenient space to eat. Even though across the street is Rotman’s Exchange Restaurant. It wasn’t as crowded, had nicer atmosphere, and healthier food. But it was placed in Rotman, an area Megatron was not familiar with nor find herself eating at that place. She didn’t like Robarts, but at least she was familiar with it. Lunchtime really wouldn’t have changed for her; but her perception of what counted as appropriate eating space made her decide where she wanted to spend her lunchtime.

But that isn’t to say the right space is always the familiar. Some students choose to eat in the opposite of the familiar. This is known as the non-place: a space where history and identity are not formed. It can be considered a temporary or liminal space. Auge (1995) described it as imagining an airport lounge where you inhabit that space only because you know there’s another destination along the way (95). Lunchtime can be interpreted as a non-place, especially at the University. But that assumes students don’t see eating time as precious or important. As I’ve witnessed and already recounted, a lot of students try to get the most out of their eating time, and seemingly don’t appear to want to treat lunchtime as a transitional one. Whether it be changing space or maximizing the actual time used for eating, students happily play around the limitations the University lays out, all so they can increase their lunchtime.

But again that’s not true for everybody. Some people would rather eat in spaces of liminality. At New College, for example, the Dining Hall is split into two spaces for students in Residence to use, Wetmore and Wilson. Wilson has a lot of students socializing while eating, and is the favourite of the two. Wetmore isn’t liked very much; it’s not as large, the lighting is bad, and students don’t feel a sense of community there (Innovation Hub 2019:2). It’s essentially a ghost town, but some students prefer this. They want this quiet non-place of interaction; where they can eat there quietly too. And interestingly enough, this time usually lasts longer than most social eating; I’ve seen people have their lunch for over 2 hours while doing other activities. I wonder if this is still considered a non-place; how much time is needed to define a history of a place? Similarly, at Rotman School of Management, the Executive MBA students, everyday at 11am, eat in the middle of the hallway where they are provided ‘EMBA only’ food. So their lunchtime is publicly performed in front of other Rotman students who use the hallway as a hallway. The other students see it as a non-place, where they walk from class to class. And yet the MBA students use that time for networking, for social eating; to display prestige and status. A place where they showed off enjoying their time, where other students couldn’t spend that time; a paradox of the non-place being used for a space of identity; or at least differentiations of class identity.


What eating practices relate to the experience of time? A lot of practices pertaining to the way space changes, to the way external time scheduling conflicts with eating time, and the way students, and the University, understand how certain spaces must appropriately be used for lunchtime. Students are varied in how long they eat and why, due to the limitations that arise from these three factors. A lot of these limitations seemingly are produced from the University’s demands of efficiency and workload responsibilities. And so to make the most of their lunchtime, students try to play around these limitations in different ways: physically change the space around them, minimizing any time to find an eating location and in preparing food, or picking a spot that they would enjoy eating in.

I personally find this conflicting as a student at the University of Toronto, and as someone who finds that food should be enjoyed to the fullest. I’ve attended the University for over four years now, and I’ve never had much of a problem with eating time. But this is because I’ve usually gone home to eat and rarely ever find myself eating at the University. So to see students being faced with limitations such as space unavailability and conflicting schedules, only to then have the responsibility of working around these limitations… It seems silly that workarounds have to be performed, and I’m a little disappointed on the University’s behalf. A place of knowledge should want to cultivate its students, which includes a healthy lunchtime. Or else the University of Toronto only exists as a place to churn out tired and stressed out students.

My disappointment not only stems from my findings that I have recounted here, but also in what I haven’t mentioned. There are many students who don’t use classrooms as eating spaces, or can’t find a convenient or comfortable place to eat. There are students who don’t have lunchtime period at noon due to classes, and may have it later in the day. Worse yet, they may find it more convenient to skip an eating time altogether. It shouldn’t have to be said, but when eating is not performed, the body takes a toll. And when eating is not performed properly, so does the mind.

A happy lunchtime makes for a happy student. The University should be taking its time to provide students with a proper eating schedule, or at least ensure that enough time is available for students to properly eat. The Engineering Department could probably sacrifice a coupe of mandatory classes for undergraduate if it meant they had any time to have lunch. I originally started with the curiosity of why students had the varying degree of 5 versus 50 minute lunchtimes, but it wasn’t primarily to understand why this degree existed. But rather why anyone would permit themselves to only eat for 5 minutes, rather than 50.

Reference List

2018. “Robarts Cafeteria.” University of Toronto Food Services. Last Modified 2018.

2019. “Uoft memes for true Blue teens.” Facebook. Last Modified December 11, 2019.

Auge, Marc. 1995. Non-places. An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

GOW Hastings Architects. “OISE Lobby Renovation”. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. 2018.

GOW Hastings Architects. “Updated Lobby Design”. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. 2019.

Innovation Hub. 2019. “New College Dining Hall Redesign.” Toronto: University of Toronto.

Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. Introd. By Stuart Elden. London and New York: Continuum.

Nielsen, Grit B, and Laura L Sarauw. 2018. Tuning Up and Tuning In. “In Death of The Public University? Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy”, edited by S. Wright and C. Shore. New York: Berghan.

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