My “Field”, By Hayley Lessard
Throughout my research, I struggled to find a physically set field site where I could see students control their time, for obvious reasons. Working with such abstract ideas, I decided I would work with a more abstract field site as well.
To do this I created three categories in which I could place the time-management structures that I identified within the university: the tools controlled mainly by the students, the tools controlled by both the students and the university, and the tools controlled by the university.
I describe the first category as being the tools students utilize to help them ‘control’ their time and create a sense of autonomy. In the first category, I include planners, agendas and journals. The second category, which namely includes the UofT assignment calculator, the UofT timetable and time-management workshops/worksheets facilitated by the university, is defined as the tools that can be utilized by students, but on the terms of the university. They allow some autonomy from the students, but for the most part they control their time. The third, and final, category is defined as the tools that completely control a students’ time. There is little space for collaboration and these tools can even control students’ time outside of the university. The tools in this category include the syllabus, the exam schedule and the enrollment period, to name a few.
By doing this, I was able to better understand the means by which the University’s control over its students’ time functions. I was also able to better map how students perceive (or do not perceive) this control through their descriptions of the tools they think exist and their use and recognition of them. Looking at tools as a field allowed me to assess the interactions between the time-management structures, the students and the university, and how these interactions shape perceptions of power.
How to Engage with a Field Site, By Wesley O’Hearn
Below is fieldwork I conducted earlier in my project and represents the point of transition between focusing on digital online spaces via procrastination and material workspaces as it relates to self-governance. This also represents a critical learning experience for me as I was still learning how to conduct participant observation and struggled here with capturing relevant data. The problem was that I did not go into it with a set question or focus other than “watch students interact with their laptops and watch for signs of procrastination”. This failed because without a goal or question, data became based on assumptions. I did however stumble on the eventual path of my final project through my observations about the clocks. This experience was referenced in my final report but not laid out in full.
“I decided to foray into the field and spend a few hours at Gerstein Library. While I was there, I struggled to find anything relevant to take note of. All the students I observed were acutely engrossed on their laptops or in a book. Nobody had any separate clock for keeping time. Perhaps they were doing this through their phone or laptops but that is not something I can “observe”. I wasn’t quite sure the best strategy for approaching somebody at random to inquire. It also felt inappropriate to do that in the library. I can follow up with keeping time via phone or laptop through my current interlocutors.
My interview from last week did get me thinking about the architecture of study spaces though as one of the students talked about how “ascetically pleasing” buildings facilitate productivity for her. While at Gerstein, I kept this in mind as I scanned the interior. One thing that I found interesting is that there is a lack of clocks in study areas. I walked around the building through several study spaces, and I could only find a single clock which was behind the administration desk. Why is there an absence of clocks in spaces where time management is engaged? It’s as if time is absent or still in these spaces. Perhaps this is merely a coincidence, but I plan to follow this up with other libraries around campus.”
Observing in the Field, By Candace Baldassarre
Following feedback from Professor Li and my peers, I took this week to really focus in on observations within my field site. Given the previous vagueness I had constructed my field site to be (the commuter student herself,) I was advised to concretize my site in a physical place. Consequently, colleges’ commuter lounges are a prime focus for my observation. Given that these lounges are a facet of the university’s imagination of the commuter student, I narrowed my research in on these spaces this week. Spending approximately ten hours between C4 and C1 commuter lounges, I immersed myself in thick ethnographic description. I now have many pages of observations over multiple visits.
The following notes are some of my observations from the Wednesday I spent in the C1 lounge:
The room itself is somewhat segmented into different sections—all really appear to encourage interaction and collaboration. There are two couch clusters around coffee tables, larger conference-style seating tables, a countertop, a refrigerator and microwave, a toaster. There is a bathroom, some lockers, a U of T phone charging station, and a big shelf full of board games. To my right, there is a e group of six students—they are watching a loud video and laughing. A boy to my right moves onto the couch and reclines, ready to take a nap. “We have the most random kitchen supplies here,” a student exclaims as they dig through the kitchen for a spoon for their yogurt. The girl to my left scrolls through Instagram. She informs me that this is the perfect place to stop on her break between classes when it’s raining. “I don’t know when I discovered the room, but it’s been a good place to hang out when on campus. I don’t love being here for too long because time kind of stands still, but it is a nice place to come that isn’t totally silent. Also, it’s nice not to have to spend money here like I would at a coffee shop.”
I had multiple informal conversations with students using the commuter lounges, and I have set up meetings for formal interviews with the commuter organizers (that are responsible for the set up and programming within the rooms). Using the materiality of the space, I am looking to elucidate what the university imagines the commuter student’s needs to be. For example, the comfortable furniture and lack of individualized workspaces implies these lounges are meant as something different than the silence of the library.
Going into reading week, I have an interview set up with the head of commuter affairs for C7. Furthermore, I intend to spend time looking into the emergence of the commuter category on U of T’s campus. Finally, I plan to really start integrating theory more concretely into my work. Given that it is reading week, observing within the lounges is not feasible—the fact that my field site only exists during a specific time frame imposed by the university is important in itself.
The University Bookstore: A First Encounter with the Study of Time, By Hayley Lessard
This blog post is a reflection on my first visit to the University of Toronto bookstore after encountering our research topic of ‘Time’. I was initially interested in the representation of physical time-management tools that were being promoted by the University and thought that the bookstore would be representative. Furthermore, here is a look into my first encounter with ethnography in this research:
I made my way to the UofT Bookstore to identify any possible structures present there that may be helpful data. Upon entry, I quickly noted the wide array of “University of Toronto” notebooks displayed throughout the store. This style of UofT merchandising extended to binders, agendas, calendars and a large selection of clothing articles. What I found particularly interesting however, was the ways in which these items were specifically marketed. For example, for agendas only, there were three separate sections all labeled differently, such as “U OF T AGENDAS”, “ACADEMIC AGENDAS” and “Agendas”. To me, there was no distinct difference amongst the three, except how there were a small number of mini-agendas with the University’s emblem on it in the section labeled “U OF T AGENDAS”. The presence of these three categories led me to question whether students are more inclined to look at one section over another, and if this made them feel more inclined to participate in the time-management regime at play here by purchasing and using one of the agendas.
One last thing that caught my eye when looking through the bookstore was the presence of UofT laminated calendars. As a first-year student, this calendar is typically recommended as a great planning aid by academic advisors as it is re-useable year to year and is a visual planner. What I see in this calendar, however, is a visual representation of UofT’s hold on your time. Students who choose to participate in the purchase and use of this calendar are constantly reminded that UofT controls their time, now physically as well.
This first immersion into field work allowed me to pose further questions such as whether or not the purchase of these tools made by the University changes how students perceive and value their time, and whether or not students partake in the time-management activities dictated by the University. I am thankful for this first trip to the bookstore as it allowed me to further develop my research inquiries and shaped the outcomes in which my research yielded.
What is a Field Site? By Wesley O’Hearn
For this post, I will cover my experience and early project struggle with defining a field site. A field site is important because as an ethnographer, you are trying capture a social group in a particular place and time. Changing sites changes the context of your subjects. This makes analysis more difficult. When I began my research, I entered the field with a vague idea of procrastination and online spaces. How was I to define a site though? I felt that a library setting would be appropriate as many students go there to study, and surely procrastinate! The dilemma I came across was discriminating one library over others. I had this idea that a site must be singular. With the assistance of Professor Li, I altered my site to encapsulate “libraries” on campus in general. I would study student experiences with procrastination in library settings across campus. This presented new challenges as I struggled with carrying out participant observation. I could observe students in a library setting but how was I to learn more. I found it inappropriate to approach students during their study time and inquire about their study habits. Observing also presented problems as without my participant’s voice, I could only make assumptions about what they were doing on their phone or laptop.
It was past the 1/3 point of the semester when I had an epiphany. I was performing participant observation at one of the libraries on campus when I became aware of analog clocks and architecture. This got me thinking less about digital technology and more about materials. Over the course of several interviews and in class brainstorming, I altered my research question to account for material workspaces and how students interact and perceive them. This prompted a change in my site. As libraries didn’t quite capture the environment I was going for, I zeroed in on individual workspaces as a field site. My site would be the individual workspace and material assemblage students like my interlocutors created for themselves. This allowed for me to compare and contrast different workspaces and analyse the human-material bond present in them.
The most important takeaway from this is to think of ethnographic field sites beyond the typical singular location in time in space. My site moved with my students. Another project in our class looked at time management structures for a site and how time is used to alter student behaviour and subjectivity. The most important aspect is selecting something that multiple subjects interact with. Whether that be physically or digitally.
Ethnography takes time! Figuring out a temporally-appropriate research question, By Miya Draga
When I first started exploring research sites in the beginning of September, I had a general idea of the types of things I could study on campus. Having a background in the non-profit sector, I initially tried to find groups on campus that worked with non-profit agencies in Toronto. I found a promising one: The Centre for Community Partnerships. This organization partnered students with charities around the city, where they conducted projects and learning initiatives as part of their education. This year’s research theme of “temporality” was front and center in my mind, and the first thing that I thought of was my experience of time and temporality in the public sector. Work was often rushed, time was limited, and resources were scarce. Thus, my idea was to look at how students involved with the Centre worked within the temporal confines of these “external” agencies. How did they convince their community partners that collaborations were time well spent? How did they balance their activities, such that they were mindful of the various deadlines that non-profit organizations have, such as major grant deadlines, reporting deadlines, and fundraising events?
Having explored these options a little more, I realized that these may not be the right questions to ask within this specific context. I remembered that I had participated in community-engaged learning projects with two different charitable organizations during my Master’s program; and, while there were some pressure points around asynchronicity, this was not a truly pressing issue. In my experience, goal mis-matching was far more of a problem. I was placed within these organizations with a purpose. In the first one, I was there to learn qualitative research skills; this resulted in me conducting a mini-research project that was not actually useful for the organization. In the second one, I was there to learn about non-profit board governance; this resulted in me conducting a mini-research project that, while useful, was not what the organization initially wanted me to do. I was seeing a similar pattern here: the language around being involved in community partnerships centered around engaging, training, and educating the students. While this is an admirable goal, I didn’t think this focus on students boded well for my interest in asynchronicity between students and organizations.
I decided to switch gears. At first, I started to explore student mental health on campus; later, I focused on student groups that worked to improve mental health on campus. I attended meetings, went to events, and even participated in starting a small mental health group within my own department. I tried to think about these groups in a temporal manner; that is, how did these groups emerge? What allowed them to do so? How did they gain momentum? What did this mean? However, I quickly realized that to me, momentum meant “having a significant impact on the student community.” Again, I realized that this was not the right question to ask. The two groups I was involved with, after all, were small, struggling, and had limited resources. Did they have significant impact on student mental health? I was not convinced.
Having almost run out of time in the semester, I realized that I could not drastically shift my focus once more. This was fine; I had a substantial amount of rich, deep data on student mental health on campus. I decided that all I needed was to re-focus. I re-read my memos. I re-visited my documents. I thought about what I had experienced. Soon enough, I was able to come up with a question that I felt was meaningful, interesting, and something that I could delve into with the data that I had. I put my temporality-lens cap on, and asked, is the University of Toronto’s narrative of mental health being a “shared responsibility” evidence of stagnation (being “behind the times”), or is it evidence of progress (“catching up with the times”)? To answer my question, I focused on student group organizing, arguing that student groups are an important resource that, given the opportunity, could take on a substantial portion of the “shared responsibility” of student mental health on campus.
As scholars-in-training, it is sometimes difficult to let go of your aims, your prior assumptions, and your plans to conduct research on a specific topic. In ethnographic research, you have to let the data guide you where you need to go. In my case, it took me to a very different place from where I started back in September. But, that’s ok. I think I learned something.
Making Sense of Surprising Findings: How time challenges student organizing on campus, By Miya Draga
A few months into the process of figuring out an appropriate research question, I stumbled onto an interesting one: how do student groups at the University of Toronto help manage student mental health? In my exploration, I discovered Grad Minds, the Graduate Student Union mental health committee. I initially assumed that Grad Minds has been operating as part of University of Toronto for a long time; however, I discovered that the group itself was founded only in 2013. Although their mission statement states that Grad Minds is meant to support the graduate student population through education, advocacy, and collaboration, at this point in time they’re mainly focusing on education. This includes programming to help improve mental health literacy, reducing stigma surrounding mental health, and encouraging students to practice self-care, and seek help when needed.
Although Grad Minds has been operating for over 6 years, the group is only now starting to gain meaningful traction within the university. This stems partially from the fact that the group is run by graduate students, many of whom join the committee in the first year of their Master’s program. While these members are initially excited to make changes on campus, they quickly burn out due to piling schoolwork and other responsibilities. They stop showing up to meetings, and by their second year, most of these students want to focus on finishing their theses. While Ph.D. students are able to stick around for longer, many burn out at a similar rate; in the past several years, several Ph.D. members left the group after becoming frustrated with the lack of change, low turnout rates at events, among other things.
This brings about a really interesting question regarding leadership and retention. On the one hand, students in the group face competing pressures, trying to balance their role on the committee with school responsibilities. Masters-level students can participate for a maximum number of two years (after which they graduate), and Ph.D. students often join the group in their third year (after completing their courses and comprehensive exams). While many traditional organizations work hard to minimize turnover and maximize worker retention, high turnover is an inherent part of a student-led group. Knowledge, culture, and practice retention and propagation across time are therefore both particularly important in this context, and particularly challenging. Additionally, there are temporal boundaries for action that this sort of organizing imposes.
Despite the fact that these constraints make perfect sense, I had never before thought of them. To me, this was one of those findings that is both intuitive and surprising; one of those moments when, as a researcher, you cry out “of course!” and then lower your face into your palm, remiss at the fact that you had not realized this before. Although this was a finding that I did not end up focusing on in my final project, it was one that I appreciated; it was a moment where I experienced particular curiosity, and appreciation for having asked a question that had led me to this discovery.
How I Both Did and Did Not Conduct Ethnographic Research: Paradoxical reflections from a qualitative researcher, By Miya Draga
One of the things that surprised me the most about taking this course is that, although the course started in September and ran until early December, it took most of us until mid-November to come up with, and settle on, a research question that was specific enough for us to then pursue with greater focus. I started with a question about campus groups that collaborate with external agencies (through consulting or volunteerism); I later found myself studying mental health groups on campus and how they gain traction.
As a student without any background in anthropology, I wasn’t expecting this. I did my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Sociology and Psychology; and, while I conducted qualitative research for my Master’s thesis, I had entered my Master’s program with a clear set of research questions, and I never deviated from them. Therefore, I never thought of my research as “ethnography.” I conducted interviews, collected documents, and learned how each of the non-profit groups I was studying functioned in the community. In my mind, this was interviewing “with a bit of extra stuff.”
As such, I found the process of “stumbling through the field” in search of a research question wildly unsettling. Perhaps my expectations were different from my classmates, many of whom were anthropology students with prior training and prior understanding of what we would be doing in the course. The first few months of the course were incredibly stressful. I felt like I was behind, like I was not working hard enough to find “the right thing” to study. I felt like I was stumbling in the dark, bombarded with unlimited potential directions of research, unlimited questions, and unlimited ways of collecting data. Perhaps everyone else was feeling this as well; however, it wasn’t until early November that it became clear to me that everyone was in the same boat as me. Research questions around the room changed; some drastically, some only a little. It was comforting to feel that comradery amongst my classmates.
This process made me re-think the research I had conducted in the past. After my undergraduate degree, I had started working at a non-profit organization in the city. I had a general interest in non-profit organizations, as I recognized them as vital to healthy, well-functioning communities. In my role as a Data Coordinator, I spent two years learning about the information the organization collected on their clients, the methods they used to store data, and the types of information that they used when making decisions about the programs and services they offered to their clients. I became familiar with the databases, with the storage rooms, with the variety of meetings held between different levels of managers and workers, and how the organization responded when things went wrong. From there, I developed my research questions: how non-profit organizations utilize the data that they collect from their clients to inform service delivery? With my research questions in hand, I applied for a Master’s program in Sociology.
Because of this fragmentation, from worker to student, the research process became equally fragmented in my mind. I never gave much thought to the fact that it took me two years of intense, daily field experience to come up with a meaningful research question. It was something that I took for granted. Thus, one of the most useful things I gained from this class is enough insight into the ethnographic process to realize that this is the exact methodology that I used in the past. For those two years that I was a worker, I conducted this type of research intuitively, driven by my own interest, without thinking of what I was doing as “research.” When I started conducting research for my Master’s thesis, I was already three quarters of the way there. That last twenty five percent of research was important, but it was not what made my final product interesting, insightful, or engaged with the realities of the non-profit sector. And in this, I think, is a gold nugget of insight: it is important to study phenomena that you are deeply passionate about as a researcher. To do anything else is to do a disservice to the research that you produce.
What makes research ethnographic: making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, By Ali Azhar, Sarah Chocano, Mélina Lévesque, Charlotte Stewart
We will delve into this topic, looking first at the etymology of the word ethnographic. Ethnos comes from Greek meaning people, nation, class, caste, tribe or more generally groups of people living together. It could be read as ‘race’ or ‘culture’. Graphy is from the French -graphie or the German -graphia – meaning the process of recording, writing or describing.1 The term could thus be glossed as a description of culture. Emerson (1995) describes conducting ethnographic research as ‘firsthand participation in some initially unfamiliar social world and the production of written accounts of that world by drawing upon such participation.’ (Emerson, 1995, p.1) – one may distinguish the modus operandi from more experimental forms of research, in ethnography’s commitment to study people as they go about their daily lives.
One stream of thought that crystallises the experience of such research is on ways of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It entails grasping a complex situation without falling under the fallacy of reductionism; to notice and present in a way that highlights the concrete and sensuous nature of interactions. Indeed, Emerson writes: “Ethnographers learn to experience through the senses in anticipation of writing; to remember dialogue and movement like an actor; to see colors, shapes, textures and spatial relations as a painter or photographer; to sense moods, rhythms, and tone of voice like a poet.” (p. 35)
We could draw on an eighteenth century travel writer, Laurence Sterne, for reasons one would engage in such an endeavor: ‘to learn languages, the laws, and customs…of other nations, — to acquire an urbanity of behavior; …and by showing us new objects, or old ones in new lights, to reform our judgements — by tasting perpetually the varieties of nature, to what is good — by observing the address and arts of people, to conceive what is sincere, — and by seeing the difference of so many various humors and manners, — to look into ourselves and form our own.” (Sterne, as cited in McDermott, 2015, p. 14)
Our ethnographic research delved into interrogating structures of time in the University in various sites. We were interested in exploring time structures as enacted by the University in the daily lives of their students. As such, we took an approach borrowed from Buroway et. al. (1991) that highlights how structures of the wider environment are implicated in interactions within local sites. How we did this was varied and variegated:
One of us, Sarah conducted participation observation by shadowing student leaders throughout their busy days. Charlotte conducted interviews and marched alongside interlocutors in a protest. Mélina spent a day shadowing students by taking part in their classes from 9 to 5, in order to gain a deeper perception what their day-to-day schedules looked like. Ali walked around Toronto, enacting the travel journey of an eighteenth century writer and took the novelists work as a research site, to shed light on interactions in a seminar. And none of these ways is quite like the other. We are inclined towards ethnography as our research method for the openness it offers in how we can understand concepts and sites of our choosing. For us, it is an art form as much as it is a scientific tool. It is up for grabs, and being about the lives, facts, acts and opinions of people, it is infinitely generative.
Burawoy, Michael, Alice Burton, Ann Arnett Ferguson, and Kathryn J. Fox. Ethnography unbound: Power and resistance in the modern metropolis. Univ of California Press, 1991.
McDermott, Ray. “Yorick’s Ethnographic Journey,” Sterne, Tristram, Yorick: Tercentenary Essays on Laurence Sterne, ed. Melvyn New, Peter de Voogd, and Judith Hawley. Newark: Delaware, 2016. Pp. 169-186.
What is a “field site”?, By Hayley Lessard, Alon Hirchberg and Agha Saadaf
“Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight. Since you take up your abode in the compound of some neighbouring white man, trader or missionary, you have nothing to do, but to start at once on your ethnographic work.” (Malinowski, 1922). This iconic quote, present at the beginning of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, has been used widely as a means to express what we think of as a field site. This work, one of the first to dip its toes into fieldwork and participant observation, and moving away from armchair anthropology, expresses fieldwork as a very physical practice that requires full immersion into a concrete, existing space. For decades, this has been the expectation for fieldwork; interactions with interlocutors, time spent in a physical space and full-immersion into a ‘culture’. However, as anthropology has evolved, some have attempted to move away from this, blurring the lines of a structured field site, and moving into the more abstract.
For many, the anthropologist is he who leaves his prestigious European institution of higher learning to study the “primitive” people of the colonized world. In studying the university, we are denied access to the full authoritative power of the entrance narrative. In beginning our research, many of us in fact attempted to enact a similar narrative. We entered seemingly clearly bounded spaces at the university that we had never entered before. Quickly, we learnt that not all social phenomena are consigned to physical space. In bureaucratic institutions many social phenomena occur in text. For example, upon entering the career exploration space, one is immediately directed elsewhere, to flyers, calendars, and specifically to the website. Many students do not have time to attend career planning programs, attend social events on campus, or even attend class. For these reasons many of us had to seriously consider the textual lives of students at the university.
For more abstract projects that are centred on more political/ethical or organizational analyses, situating a singular, clearly defined field site in the classic sense was often times more difficult. As such, while collecting data through the lenses of our initial broad research questions, our projects many times ended up incorporating multiple smaller and unconventional “field sites”. We explored a blend of multiple spaces looking for a thread of commonality and difference such as application and counselling processes, documents and texts, notice boards, and scheduling material (agendas, planners, sessional date calendars) as “spaces” of inquiry. Our understanding of what it means to “have a field site” was challenged, leading to the exploration of different research methods and techniques to acquire a breadth of data.
With this, it is not always so clear cut as to what a “field site” is, or should be. Through this research, many of us have discovered different means by which to classify more non-conventional “field sites” within anthropology and have found this to be very useful to our research. It has allowed us to move into a more contemporary method of conducting ethnography and has allowed us to enrich our results greatly.
Untitled, By Marwa Turabi
Forming a research question is difficult. During my work in this practicum, I found this to be particularly true because I have so many questions. Here, the problem with overzealous curiosity is that it is disorienting. These questions push, and pull, the ethnographer in so many directions. And, consequently, at times propels us into, what I have learned to call the: “I could not tell you what I am even studying anymore” abyss. This is especially an issue if your time in the field is incredibly limited. But, how do we use the plethora of provocations we encounter to produce a ‘good’ research question? To put this “overzealous curiosity” to use, I, as inspired by this practicum, leaned on Michael Burawoy’s advice for doing ethnography. Burawoy, as cited in the ANT6200 Winter 2019 Syllabus, suggest that “it is imperative you record all your experiences around entry – all the resistance and all the anxiety [because] this is not a pre-play, this is the act.” I took this to suggest that “your experiences” include the questions you meditate with, and on. Therefore, it is important to record your questions as they emerge. This may seem obvious. However, despite previous ethnographic projects, it was in this practicum that I chose to practice scribbling down all of my questions as they arrived. My hope was that eventually one of these questions would act a research question. However, instead, I discovered another benefit to this practice. Towards the end of my fieldwork, I could follow these questions to see the trajectory of knowledge that I was pursuing all along. In simpler words, they hint at your research question.
For example, these are some of the questions that emerged at the start, and middle, of my project:
I was inundated by the elusiveness of ‘time’: is it an experience? A possession? Or, perhaps an impossible resource?
Should we think of digital media as propelling “life-negating habitation” (Duclos 2017: 22) for students? Or, by articulating the act of immersing oneself in digital media, and speed, as ‘life-negating’, do we neglect a possibility that ‘inhabiting media’ is one-way students reckon with – or, “pull on the emergency brakes” (Caduff 2017: 19) to stop – acceleration “[which appears as a] form of overstimulation and task overload” (Rosa 2013: 15)?
How do students uses of ‘time’ demonstrate their own power? How is power negotiated by different uses, and applications, of time? When do these conceptions of time-management clash, and what happens to the student-university relationship when they do? How might students embody the results of this clashing of time-use beliefs? Is space a negotiation of different-temporalities?
Do other faculty members also differentiate the ‘sane and humane’ from the ‘indoctrinated academic’ when thinking about how to manage time, especially in the face of personal crises (large, or small)? What is being indoctrinated? How does this ‘indoctrination’ produce different ways of seeing time? Why, and how is it, that I understood – and agreed with – what they meant when talking about the importance of finding time for SSHRC as ‘indoctrinated academics’?
In all of these inquiries, it is evident that I am preoccupied with how the graduate student community embodies, and performs, ‘stress’ by overwhelming their schedules. From analyzing these questions, I could distill a research question: What do graduate student time-use practices suggest about success? And relatedly, how does the “stress=success” ethos affect graduate students management of time?
Indeed, in this way, my research question was actually baking throughout the execution of my project. I found that by heeding my curiosity and collecting my questions in my notes made them: (1) less overwhelming; and (2) useful for forming my final research question. Perhaps, then, these questions are as telling as ethnographic material.
Topic: Choosing a Topic, Contributors: (lead) Sarah McDonald, Jonathan Avalos; Isaac Consenstein
During the second week of the course we brainstormed ideas for our respective projects and brought a list of the most viable options. With the theme being a broad and conceptual one like ‘time at the university’, the ideas ran the gamut. After spending weeks digging into and refining our chosen topics, it’s fun to recall the original ideas and reflect on how our topics were shaped. Performing ethnographic research, the methods we used – observation, qualitative analysis; textual/ photographic analysis – influenced which topics were the most workable.
Needing a space to observe ‘time’, topics where observation was difficult began to shuffle out. Because of the size of the site, Isaac gave up on studying sports venues/ events and moved onto student services; focusing on time management, a topic he could better observe and relate to the course. Isaac also pivoted away from the Writing Centre, and instead observed the Academic Success Center – offering a more tangible space for his research. For Jonathan, hoping to observe a campus videogame club, the obstacle to his observation wasn’t a lack of space but a lack of time. Having to fit our research into nine weeks, Jonathan made the call that he would be unable to gain access to the group and observe its prolonged rituals. For an idea to be ethnographically rich it has to be more than interesting, you need ample opportunity to observe how it’s expressed.
Once we settled on topics it became easier to see these time/space constraints as generative rather than limiting. Remaining thoughtful about which sites would allow us to best conduct our research, we began to actively engage with our proposed topics/ sites to determine which was the most ethnographically rich. Because of the richness of our chosen sites, our topics developed (and even changed) once we began our research. In Sarah’s investigation of a campus renovation, the focus of her topic jumped around as new things were revealed about the construction project. Initially interested in looking for ways renovations were making spaces more time-efficient, what she ended up finding was a ‘revitalization’ project attempting to define itself through advertising and public spaces. Exploring this site took her in multiple directions until she was able to consolidate her observations.
The expectation that projects will morph and transform as your research progresses makes the process of ethnographic research gratifying. Examining our respective topics from beginning to end showed us how our understanding of ‘time at the university’ has developed and deepened over the course of this project, helping us reflect on our research processes. Instead of beginning with a complete research question and shaping data to fit, letting the data guide us made our research much more rich.