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

The Marginalized Majority: Time as a University of Toronto Commuter Student, By Candace Baldassarre (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”

To begin, I would like to pose the reader with a question: 

If I have an exam that ends at 9pm, another the following morning at 9am, and it takes me two hours to commute each direction, what resources could my university provide that could be of help to me?

While you ponder your solution to this predicament, I will inform you of the University of Toronto’s answer: community. 

Located centrally in downtown Toronto, the University of Toronto (U of T) is one of world’s top ranked universities. Both its academic prestige, and its situatedness in Toronto (a city easily accessed from other cities through multiple transit systems,) make the university a destination for many students from both near and far. Founded in 1827, U of T has three campuses (Mississauga, Scarborough, and St. George,) and is governed by a collegiate structure (as will be later explored).

As a U of T student who lives off campus (a “commuter student”) myself, my time is often fragmented and constrained by the realities of my commute. A common trope echoed across the university and my interlocutors is that commuter students have “way less time” in their day than non-commuters. As a commuter student, I was intrigued by this assertion: if residents and commuters both have twenty-four hours in a day, how can I have less time? What is implied by this? To unpack this puzzling statement, I conducted ethnographic research to explore U of T commuter students’ relationship with time. Given the enormity of and diversity of the commuter student category, (at the St. George campus alone, nearly ninety percent of students commute,) (University of Toronto e:2019), I decided to shift my focus away from commuter students’ individual experiences of time, and instead, explore the way the university frames and addresses the commuter student’s predicament of having “way less time” than residence-dwellers. 

To unpack this puzzle, I posed the research question: 

How is the temporal predicament of the commuter student addressed at the University of Toronto? 

To propose how to answer this question, I decided to break this question into five smaller constituent questions:

  1. How are they addressed? (resource form and formation)
  2. What is the temporal predicament of the commuter student? (how time affects the commuter student)
  3. What is “the commuter student”? (explore category itself and its emergence)
  4. How are commuter students addressed at U of T? (specificity of the university itself)
  5. What is the temporal predicament? (explore the singularity of the group’s problem)

To answer these questions, my data formed a natural divide into two major areas: the construction of the commuter category itself, and the common ideologies guiding the university’s provision of commuter resources. 


From my data, I quickly realized that community was foregrounded in the form and formation of commuter resources. To unpack the community-centric approach to commuter temporal predicaments, I theoretically ground my work in both Benedict Anderson and Nikolas Rose’s theories of community. Anderson’s seminal work Imagined Communities explores the concepts of the nation and nationalism (1983). Anderson argues that nations are imagined communities insofar that “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (1983:6). The imagined commonalities between individuals of a nation, he argues, allows for the emergence of nationalism (1983). Nationalism arguably links to my exploration of the university given the nature of the university as an imagined community, and the similarities between the rhetoric of nationalism and those of “school spirit” and “school pride.”

Whereas Anderson examines communities that are premised on the imagined connections between individuals, Rose asserts that community has emerged as a “third space” of governance in contemporary society that is premised on a sense of intimacy and “affinity [which makes the community] appear more natural” (1999:177). Rose depicts this “government through community” in emergence of the “community care” model in the 1960s (1999:176). The community care model constructs communities as targets for professional management—governance through community occurs when community “is made technical” through the designation of communities  as “zones to be investigated, mapped, classified, documented, [and] interpreted” (Rose 1999:175). The conception of community as form of government that hinges on neoliberal “self-management…identity construction…and collective allegiances” will be incredibly useful when exploring the relationship between the neoliberal student subject, the institution, and the collective student body (Rose 1999:176)


Between September and December of 2019, I conducted ethnographic research at U of T’s St. George campus. At St. George, undergraduate students are assigned membership to one of the seven colleges on campus—in this paper, I will refer to these colleges as C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7. A major research decision I chose to pursue was to explore commuter resources across colleges. The fact that university-funded commuter resource quantity and quality is so variable within the university demands anthropological attention. Rather than focus on a single college’s commuter resources, I chose to obtain a broader understanding of the range of resources available to commuter students at the university (and the implications of the university’s collegiate system itself). 

My research was multifaceted, yet predominantly rooted interviews and participant observation. I conducted formal and informal interviews with: students in commuter-leadership roles, commuter students, and a high-ranking faculty member responsible for student life (who I will call Molly). On campus, I collected my ethnographic data from attending commuter events, and frequenting commuter lounges. Though I did explore all colleges’ lounges, given Molly’s employment at C1 (and her considerable knowledge of the formation of C1’s commuter resources,) I chose the commuter lounge at C1 as my primary field site.

In addition to my interviews and observations on campus, a key component of my ethnographic exploration was conducted in the virtual space of the internet. I spent considerable time studying two different types of websites relating to U of T commuters: 

1) Official U of T websites (such as C1’s official commuter guide page) 

2) Non-university websites regarding commuter realities at U of T (such as Reddit)

Interestingly, as I will explore, this division between official and unofficial university websites is far from rigid. Rather, social media pages for university-sanctioned resources emerged from my data as a grey area wherein unofficial means were used for official ends. 

“Commuter” Student

Though the word “commuter” elicits images of traversing longer distances, any student who lives “off campus” (even if just across the street from the university,) is categorized as a commuter student. In order to understand this notion of a “commuter resource,” it is necessary to problematize both the identity and prioritization of the commuter student by the university, as well as the assumed naturalness of  the “commuter student” category in general. In reality, my data shows that commuter-focused resources have only emerged on U of T’s campus within the last few decades. Contextualizing the commuter student category’s emergence at the University of Toronto, as well as providing linguistic analyses of the etymology of the “commuter student” category will help to unpack the specific aims of these university-sanctioned initiatives. 

The commuter student is linguistically-constructed as a modified form of the student. The commuter student is inherently defined in their existence as separate from students who reside on campus (known as students). Therefore, by definition, commuter students are not-quite students. Implicit within this construction of commuters as not-quite students is the underlying logic that the ideal university student is a campus-dweller. Arguably, U of T’s commuter resources are designed as a solution to the liminal, “in-betwixt” existence of the commuter student.

Given the massive size of the group, commuters’ experiences (both as students, and as commuters) are highly variable. In my conversations, I heard tales of commutes ranging from two hours each way from Burlington, to a three minute walk down the street. Beyond differences between commuter students’ commutes themselves, there are vast in-group differences regarding individuals’ social relationships, independence, economic status, and university experiences. Clearly, the experience of a first-year commuter student living at home in Pickering is inherently different than a third year commuter student living ten minutes from campus with a group of friends she made living in residence in first year. Reiterated by many of my interlocutors, upper year commuter students who spent their first year in residence are understood to find and access opportunities and social relationships with more ease than commuters who never lived on campus. In this reification of this commuter student’s previous residence experience (and the implied hardships of the commuter student’s,) the marginal identity of the commuter student is reinforced. 

In analyzing the form and formation of commuter resources, it is important to recognize the imaginary nature and constructedness of the category itself. If the group is so diverse, and the construction of the category is premised on the commuter student’s marginality, why are commuter students addressed by the university as a “community” at all? The commuter student community is arguably an imagined community (as described by Anderson). Just as most members of a nation will never actually know their fellow members, commuter students will only ever know a fraction of their fellow commuter students (Anderson:1983). By analyzing the design of commuter resources at U of T, I can better problematize the perceived naturalness of the commuter category, as well as its positioning as an object of the university’s concern.  

Resource Design

The university’s commuter resource apparatus is comprised of personnel, places, and programs that are funded and administered and funded at the college level. Personnel includes any individuals whose official role is to support the commuter student, including: faculty (such as Deans of Students,) and students (Commuter Dons, Community Coordinators, Off-Campus Student Directors). For the purpose of this paper, I will term all these students “Commuter Dons” in order to ensure my interlocutors’ anonymity. Commuter Dons are responsible for organizing events, hosting office hours, decorating lounges, and maintaining social media platforms. Places include any spaces designated as “commuter,” such as commuter lounges, or spaces advertised on official university websites as commuter-friendly. Finally, programs broadly encompasses all resources that are neither people or places—this includes things such as: special events (like C7’s Pancake Wednesdays,) commuter orientations, Commuter Dons’ office hours, and online resources.

Despite college-level administration of, and variation in resources, the overall form and formation of commuter resources across the university were decidedly similar. From my data, I found there to be six main features/ideologies undergirding the design and execution of commuter resources at the university:

  1. Intentional use of term “commuter” 
  2. College-run 
  3. Non-academic and “homey”
  4. Premised on own limitations 
  5. Aimed to be personal
  6. On campus, associated with university’s hours 

Intentional use of term “commuter” 

Throughout my research, I stumbled upon the question: What is the intentionality behind the instrumentalization of the “commuter student” label and category if it describes the majority of the student population? Furthermore, what makes a resource specifically “commuter”? Though some of my interlocutors argued that specific features (such as microwaves or sofas) enabled their spaces to be classified as commuter lounges, these features were not wholly indicative of what makes a commuter lounge commuter-specific. A clear example of the ambiguity surrounding what makes a commuter lounge a commuter lounge can be viewed in the comparison of the C1 commuter lounge with the undergraduate anthropology lounge. Both rooms have substantial light, are centrally located on the University’s St. George Campus, and have kitchenettes and communal tables as well as sofas. How is it, then, that the C1 lounge is uniquely designated as a commuter resource?

When I posed this question to Molly, she remarked that though there are many unmarked places on campus filled with commuter students, naming the lounge a commuter lounge “fills the niche of the commuter student that feels invisible and unseen…it’s a place that you can go that’s me, I know that’s me, I can go to that space.” The designation of a resource as “commuter,” though often unnecessary (as asserted by many of my interlocutors,) was aimed at creating visibility for the commuter student community on campus. 

Just because a space is designated as “commuter,” does not mean that commuter students will necessarily feel a sense of membership to such community. The following screenshot of a Reddit forum response exemplifies such discomfort. The lounge and community that this student feels separated from is paradoxically the same lounge that Molly described as a place for community and visibility. 

In spite of this rhetorical creation of community through the labelling of spaces as “commuter,” community clearly does not automatically emerge. One of the most glaring experience of “community” differences between commuter lounges emerged from my observations on a rainy October day. On this day, I chose to conduct observational comparison between C1 and C3’s lounges. Though both rooms did possess similar material items (such as sofas, a kitchenette, and college memorabilia,) and both were designated as a “commuter lounge,” it was clear that these two spaces were starkly different. C3’s lounge’s lights were off, boxes of miscellaneous items were strewn across the floor and on top of the foosball table. A lone student stood microwaving his lunch, clearly surprised to see another human present in the room. When I asked him whether he was a member of the college and whether he frequented the space often, he remarked that he was, but typically only uses the lounge for its microwave on the days he has class in the building. Further, he mentioned that the space was “sort of just an extra storage space” for student leaders to keep programming materials. 

The C1 lounge, by comparison, was lively and bright. Far larger than the C3 commuter lounge, the C1 lounge was bursting with colour—bulletin boards and artwork lined the walls. The room had at least thirty students in it—some were working, some relaxing, some engaging with friends. Nothing about the students’ usage of this space felt remotely similar to C3’ lounge. Why is it then, I wondered, that both spaces were promoted with similar zeal upon official U of T webpages? Furthermore, it reminded me of the question: what makes a “commuter” lounge? In my later analyses, I will draw on Rose’s conception of community as a third space of governance to explore this intentional naming of resources and spaces as commuter (1999).


Paradoxically, resources oriented toward promoting the commuter student community were premised upon its population’s fragmentation; commuter resources are administrated at the college level. Official university websites for prospective students note that one’s college membership is often “one of the most important factors in [one’s] student experience” (University of Toronto c:2019). Furthermore, colleges are described on these webpages as “unique communit[ies]…[that are] like a familiar neighbourhood” (University of Toronto d:2019). From my data, I found there to be a great disjuncture between this official rhetoric and my commuter student interlocutors’ experiences.

The university’s idealization of the modular student who studies and forms relationships on campus and feels a strong connection to one’s college is antithetical to the actual realities of U of T. Whilst the management of residence halls may make sense on the college level, commuters’ university experiences are typically far less marked by their membership to their college. As asserted by one of my student interlocutors, “as a commuter, I really don’t care at all about my college. I don’t even know why I am forced to be part of one.” This indifference was echoed by a Commuter Don for C4; she described the college selection process as a “lottery system” wherein “lots of students just end up at C4 whether they chose to or not,” and that “some colleges are obviously more prestigious than others.” 

Whilst university websites herald one’s college membership as one of the defining factors of an individual’s university experience (University of Toronto a:2019), its impact on students’ lives is clearly varied. Though college membership inherently impacts commuter students (such as in differential funding for scholarships, different resources,) my data showed that these college “communities” were imaginary at best for most commuter students. In addressing commuter students’ needs at the college level, the collegiate structure of the university (and students’ membership to their college,) is both naturalized and instrumentalized. Through the college-level administration of commuter resources, the collegiate system legitimates communities as more than simply “imagined” and faceless—the design of commuter resources intends to make college membership more real to non-residence dwellers. By fragmenting the massive commuter student population into naturalized smaller groups, there is greater chance that this diverse group can form real interpersonal ties (a necessary factor for effective governance through community) (Rose 1999). 

Non-academic and “homey”

Given that college membership “does not restrict your academic choices,” official university literature promotes college as a space for pure community (University of Toronto a,d:2019). Consequently, commuter resources on campus are distinctly non-academic. Building on official rhetoric of one’s college as a “familiar neighbourhood” and a “home away from home,” commuter resources are not only non-academic, but also, designed to be “homey” (as reiterated by both Molly and my Commuter Don interlocutors). In the C4 Commuter Don office, this is materially evidenced by the sign reading ‘bless this home’ adorning the doorway. 

While I did observe many students doing work within the C1 commuter lounge, Molly asserted that “it’s not explicitly intended to be a quiet study space, because that already exists on campus. It’s more focused on community.” This non-academic presentation of resources is seen in the materiality of commuter resources. Commuter lounges all had material elements that were described to me as “non-academic,” such as sofas, kitchenettes, and recreation items (games, art supplies, etc.). Despite commuter lounges’ situatedness on campus, one of my Commuter Don interlocutors paradoxically described the lounge as “a bit of a break from the university.”  

As will be discussed later, in the formation of commuter resources as non-academic, academic supports/needs of commuter students are elided in favour of community-based welfare solutions (Rose 1999). This foregrounding of community, is premised on the construction of the responsibilized, self-managed neoliberal student subject (Rose 1999). 

Premised on own limitations 

In my research, the common theme of realistic expectations recurred throughout both the design and execution of commuter resources. The realistic expectations involved both understanding the time constraints of the commuter (in dictating when events would be held, and which events are possible,) as well as understanding the problematic nature of the commuter student group itself. 

My interlocutors informed me that they all underwent the same training as residence dons during the summer. By definition (and in their training itself,) these individuals are inherently constructed as modified versions of residence leaders. This theme of the commuter version of a residence ____ was ubiquitous throughout my research. Just as the commuter student is a modified version of a student, commuter resources are premised on their existence as a limited/adapted version of residence resources. My student interlocutors exclusively described their roles as Commuter Dons in reference to the role of Residence Dons and described commuter lounges as comparisons to residence rooms and lounges. 

Furthermore, both my interlocutors as well as official university webpages explicitly state assumed inferiority of the commuter student’s university experience, and the provision of resources as a means of attaining a modicum of the residence dweller’s student experience. For example, under the “commuter” section of C1’s official webpage, the words: “orientation week is over. What now?” and continues on to explain how the commuter student can be a member of the college’s residence community for a “small fee” (University of Toronto b:2019). Implicit in this statement is the assumed marginality of the commuter student’s university experience: after orientation week, their university experience is assumed to be less fulfilling and less community-oriented than residence-dwellers’.

From both my extended observations and informal interviews within the lively C1 commuter lounge, I was struck by the paradoxical community generated within the space. While the lounge was explicitly labelled a commuter lounge and heralded for its “accessibility and inclusivity” (according to Molly,) only a small number of commuters actually were part of this community.  Despite the massive commuter student population, my Commuter Don interlocutors reiterated that commuter resources typically were only accessed by a handful of the target population. As described by one of my interlocutors, “we have four Commuter Dons and four thousand commuter students; there’s no way we can reach them all. We don’t even try to—our goal is to just make the commuter students aware that they aren’t alone in their experience.”

Aimed to be personal

While some university officials are tasked with concerns of the student experience, I was immediately struck by the lack of non-student personnel within the apparatus of university-sanctioned commuter student resources. Described by Molly as  spaces with “student-peer based support,” commuter lounges are spaces occupied exclusively by students. 

Though the lounge atmosphere and student occupation of the space differed greatly between colleges, it was at the lively C1 commuter lounge that I was able to observe the ways that commuter lounges make the “imagined community” of the commuter student more real (Anderson 1983). Real community, as depicted by Rose, is community premised on intimate connections and relationships (1999). Over my repeated visits to the C1 lounge, I began to recognize familiar faces. This familiarity felt reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s concept of familiar strangers (1972). Milgram argues that in everyday urban life, individuals encounter “familiar strangers” regularly. Though individuals have no intimate connection or knowledge of the other, they see them often enough that they recognize them as a familiar face (Milgram 1972). My interlocutors regularly echoed the importance of seeing familiar faces on campus as a means of feeling a sense of community membership. 

Beyond commuter lounges, my data also indicated other ways in which commuter resources are premised on personal connection. One of the main places I saw the personal instrumentalized as a means of creating community was online. In the online space, I found two common ways of invoking the personal. The first way commuter resources were made “personal” was by the inclusion of Commuter Dons’ photos alongside their names on official university webpages detailing commuter resources. By including these students’ photos on official webpages, these students are inherently cast as approachable actors that are distinct from the university, and their faces are made familiar. This familiarity arguably helps to construct the college’s commuter community as one based upon personal connection and intimacy. According to Rose, affective intimacy between individuals is necessary for community to be an effective third space of governance (1999). 

The second major way I saw the personal used online was in the Commuter Dons’ use of social media as a point of student contact. When I inquired why they chose to use social media to connect with their targeted commuters instead of university webpages, one of my interlocutors responded: “Facebook makes it more personal…if you move through U of T central, you sort of just become a number, so then you can’t really identify with a university of 70,000 people.” His colleague added that using Facebook “helps [commuter students] to understand that we’re not just this commuter ambassador, we’re a commuter student as well. We’re friends to them.” 

On campus, associated with university’s hours 

Despite the centrality of the personal in the form and formation of commuter resources, and my interlocutor’s assertion that the commuter lounge is “a bit of a break from the university,” it is important to recognize that this separation is purely imaginative. Whilst commuter resources are predominantly administrated by students (rather than faculty,) this image obscures the involvement of the university. The university, (as an assemblage of actors, interests, bureaucracy, and financing) ultimately dictates the nature of commuter resources. This interconnection between the seemingly-autonomous commuter resource apparatus and the university is illuminated by discussing resources’ hours of operation, resource funding, and the selection of students for commuter leadership positions.

In my exploration of commuter resources, I began online. Whilst non-university websites offered a variety of tips and advice for commuters, very little of this type of information for commuters was available on university-affiliated websites. Rather, university sites heralded commuter student resources that were available on campus. Furthermore, though my interlocutors stressed the importance designing resources that are “accessible and approachable for the commuter student,” this narrative obscures the clear connection between resource hours and the university’s: they are the same. Though commuter lounges are reified as non-academic spaces, free of faculty presence, these “homes away from home” are only operational during the institution’s academic operating hours. Furthermore, Commuter Dons’ office hours are established around the student leaders’ own academic schedules.  

Beyond discussions of lounge hours, it is important to explore the university’s financial role in the form and formation of commuter resources. As discussed earlier, the college-level administration of resources results in uneven commuter resources across the seven undergraduate colleges. By invoking notions of the “commuter student” as an imagined community, “actual inequality and exploitation that may occur” within the group (between colleges,) is masked by the rhetoric of “horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 1983:7). In addition to discussions of funding differences between colleges, it is also important to note the institutional control over resource funding. My Commuter Don interlocutors stated that their budgets were highly restricted by “The University” and were intentionally made to be opaque to the leaders themselves. A C2 Commuter Don remarked: “the Dean’s office is very hush hush about [commuter resource financing]. I don’t really get to know where they are putting their money, or how much we will get.”

In an interview with one of my Commuter Don interlocutors, she mentioned that she was “selected” to become a Commuter Don. Upon further questioning, she explained that the selection process involved submitting an application and the university selecting “good” candidates from the pool. After being selected, these students are then required to complete “necessary” training programs to equip them for their role. Though commuter resources did differ between colleges, all student personnel underwent the same training and performed a comparable portfolios of duties. While this Commuter Don mentioned that she applied at the urging of a staff member in the Dean of Students office (an explicit form of the institution influencing the commuter resource apparatus,) I draw on Rose’s theories of community to assert that U of T’s entire commuter resource apparatus is designed as a form of “government through community” (1999:176). 

Though resources present the autonomous student commuter community, this autonomy from the institution is purely fictive. U of T is clearly instrumental in the form and formation of commuter student resources (and the construction of the category itself). By creating specific types of spaces, selecting specific types of leaders, and controlling resource funding for specific programs, the university “render[s] community technical” and consequently invokes governance through this “third space” of community (Rose 1999:176-177). In discussing this third form of governance, however, it is necessary to address who is being governed and why. In this situation, arguably, the effective creation of the satisfied, involved commuter student is the desired outcome of this community-based approach. The why of this community-based approach will be explored in the following section.

Concluding with Community

When structuring my research question, I chose to use the phrase temporal predicament to indicate importance of the university’s subjective definition and diagnosis of the commuter student’s problem (and category) in the formation of its solution. Rather than address needs commuters express they feel are unmet, my research problematizes the university’s concretization of these individuals as a community in the first place.

Though many of my interlocutors asserted that the commuter student’s temporal predicament was associated with “not enough time” because of their commute, my data allowed for me to reframe this understanding: commuters do not have enough time spent in the right place. The right place for a U of T student to spend their time (as is shown from my data) is on campus. Consequently, by definition, the commuter student is constructed as a non-ideal student in comparison to the student who resides on campus and engages in an immersive university experience. Inherently problematic, this idealization of the students living in residence disregards both the structural barriers that prevent many individuals from being real students (such as limited on-campus housing, the cost of residence, etc.), as well as obscures the logic underpinning this reification of the modular student. My research demonstrated that U of T’s commuter resources were designed to remedy the implied inadequacy of the commuter student’s existence through community. 

Why did community become the focus of the university’s attention when discussing questions of fragmented and constrained time? Instrumentalizing Rose’s critique of community (as an intentional construct and vehicle of contemporary governance,) is helpful when examining the emergence and prioritization of the commuter student category at U of T and the decidedly community-centric nature of U of T’s commuter resource design. Ultimately, community is linked to time in the actual construction of the commuter student and their temporal predicaments. By denaturalizing the category of commuter, we are able to question its existence, and why it took prominence as a target of the university’s attention. 

Proposed as a solution to governmental inadequacies, the third space of community has emerged as a discourse that is “simultaneously…a description of certain…ills, a diagnosis of the causes of these ills and a solution to them” (Rose 1999:170,173). In this governance through community, institutional failings and interests are masked in favour of discussions of affective, real community. Community as governance capitalizes on both the individual’s feeling of community membership as well as their sense of being a individual, neoliberal subject (who has the freedom and choice to be part of a community) (Rose 1999).

Given its nature as a large, urban, research institution, university funding for non-academic endeavours are not prioritized, yet paradoxically, we live in a time where student wellness and work-life balance are reified as necessities for becoming a productive citizen. The marginality of commuter students’ construction is problematic to the image of the university in context of a world that prioritizes student life/experience in the wake of mental health concerns and U of T’s longstanding reputation for having very little social life. 

Whilst the U of T commuter student community is purely imaginative at first (as defined by Anderson,) commuter resources aim at concretizing these communities and explicitly are designed to create/reinforce a sort of commuter identity (as both a commuter, and a specific college member). By invoking community (or lack thereof) as both the problem and the solution to the constrained temporal realities of commuter students, other structural problems are obscured from view. A community care model (as characterized by Rose,) U of T’s community-based approach to commuter resources arguably yields highly visible, yet admittedly not “high-impact student services” (as described by Molly). 

Arguably, this foregrounding of the visibility of the commuter community is an attempt to create a lively university and college image—both of which are key in attracting alumni funding as well as prospective students. Just as nationalism has the ability to transform nations (as asserted by Anderson,) commuter resources aimed at establishing community instrumentalize students’ imagined commonalities as a means of transforming students’ university experiences, and in turn, students themselves.

The visibility of commuter resources gives the illusion of helping commuters (who are seen as short on time) whilst simultaneously reinforcing their neoliberal subject position. Though the conception of students as individualized, neoliberal subjects may appear to be inherently opposed to the sociality of community, this is an oversimplification. Rather, as is seen through U of T’s commuter resources, individual students are positioned as further responsibilized by the “choice” of engaging with a community. The materiality of commuter resources imply that commuter students are provided with all necessary academic resources needed to succeed, consequently, students are rendered individually-responsible for their own time-management and navigation of the structural realities of commuting.

Though time is invoked in the discussion of scheduling of events and time spent between classes, there is a clear stance that positions time (and time-management) as the responsibility of the individual neoliberal student rather than that of the university. Commuter lounges are spaces where students to can choose to remedy their predicament of not enough time spent on campus. The rhetoric of the “choice” of participating in commuter resources avoids conversations of systemic (temporal) needs of commuter students. Such individualizing discussions of choosing to access college resources obscures intercollege differences in both resources and funding. Though commuter students at U of T are provided with resources to remedy impediments to their socialization, the form and formation of these resources actively reinforces the commuter student’s inherently marginalized construction.

Perhaps the most poignant way to expose, challenge, and remedy this marginality would be to return to my original question:

If I have an exam that ends at 9pm, another the following morning at 9am, and it takes me two hours to commute each direction, what resources could my university provide that could be of help to me?

As I demonstrated through my ethnographic research, community is proposed as the problem and solution for the University of Toronto commuter student. Though my research clearly demonstrated that community is important to the undergraduate U of T experience (and the community-centric commuter resources are beneficial to the students that choose to access them,) it does not adequately address the above question. Reiterated by nearly all of my interlocutors was the need for on-campus rental beds, extended commuter lounge hours, and exam schedules that are more conscientious of commuter temporal realities and predicaments. 

Consequently, in future research, it would be useful to compare the construction and formation of resources for commuter students at other large, urban universities with those at U of T. For example, a simple internet search reveals that Ryerson University (another large Toronto university,) has affordable hotel-style rental rooms for students who need to remain close to campus overnight.  Rather than view U of T’s widespread reification of community, (and its perception as being apolitical,) community (as both the diagnosis and solution) for systemic problems must be viewed as both subjective and a form of governance. It is only once we begin to question the nature of the resources themselves that we can illuminate structured marginalization of specific students. 


Commuter life/lounges at U of T. Electronic document,

Anderson, Benedict
1983 Imagined Communities. USA: Verso.

Milgram, Stanley
1977 The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. The Individual in a Social World.

Rose, Nikolas
1999 Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

University of Toronto
a College Identities. Electronic document, 2019.

University of Toronto
b Be a House Associate. Electronic document, 2019.

University of Toronto
c Choosing your College. Electronic document, 2019.

University of Toronto
d The College System. Electronic document, 2019.

University of Toronto
e Quick Facts. Electronic document, 2019.

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