A Hunt for Language Labs … Leads to University TV

Posted by Christine Mitchell

Because I’ve exploring the media-technological conditions of possibility around the poetry series, I’ve had to be creative about how to find information about technology use at SGWU. What I discovered was that while the university maintains a lot of historical records, it doesn’t seem to preserve much evidence of its own media use. (An important observation in itself, and which I intend to follow up.) There is a big splash whenever some new tech is installed—press releases, etc.—but it’s hard to find technical details or info about day-to-day routines. One hopes campus machinery will run smoothly so it can be ignored. When tech is mentioned, it’s often a tale of technical snafus.

In my interviews with long-time technical staff at SGWU, these stories were supplemented by recollections of hacks, workarounds and bandaid solutions they’d devised to make things operational, despite (and because of) inadequate budgets. This was certainly the case with SGWU’s language laboratories, a new installation of which opened to much fanfare in 1967, but which required enormous new wiring, replacement TV sets (bought downtown at Eaton’s) and other home-grown solutions, combinations of older equipment with new, etc., to make it operational for student and faculty use. I could only find a few fuzzy pictures of the language labs, and mainly of the new section that ended up being significantly altered. Reel-to-reel decks were used in the language labs and played the master language tapes for students to work on at individual positions (carrels / workstations). Mark Schofield, long-time Director of Technical Services, recalled that one of these decks may have been used to tape later poetry readings. The language lab was essentially the headquarters for campus sound recording—this was where the tape recorder and tapes had been stored and where the poetry tapes had been edited and dubbed. Was there any way to get a closer look at this rack of tape decks, or the control booth of the language lab?

I was excited to come across a series of 16 mm films from 1967 in Concordia’s Visual Media Resources database called “T.V. Lectures,” with one called “The Humanities.” Maybe this episode would show the  language laboratories? No luck. Still, I was intrigued to see featured in the program some of the professors I’d read about—Neil Compton and Sydney Lamb—who were chairs of the English Department at the time of the poetry series. I watched a few more of the “T.V. Lecture” episodes out of curiosity, hoping to find more English professors, or perhaps a mention of the poetry series in the episode “The Evening Division.” Incidentally, Wynne Francis, a poetry series organizer, appeared in this episode, essentially a roundtable discussion about the experiences of part-time evening ed students and  activities of the Evening Students Association. The poetry series was not mentioned.

While not directly related to my research for SpokenWeb, I felt I’d uncovered an important artifact that showcased a unique encounter between media and the university. Given heightened interest at Concordia, and in media studies circles generally, in investigating media histories in institutional contexts, I felt it was an excellent time to share these films with the broader community.  The films call attention to many of the same questions we hear discussed today—questions about the shape and purpose of humanities education, about the role of the university, about reading, time pressures and information overload, about balance between teaching and research, between job training and social critique, and questions about administration: whether the university should be run by faculty or “businessmen.”

I later discovered from documents at Concordia archives that the series was not from 1967, but produced and aired in 1961. An article from The Georgian claims the program would “present the first English-language experiment in televised education at the university level.” Even more interesting, therefore, is that these questions were being raised in the context of experimentation with TV as a new distribution channel for higher education. In fact, this television program, a live television broadcast produced by CBMT-TV (CBC Montreal) with the cooperation of Sir George, and overseen by Bill Rice, a former Sir George student who had worked on educational TV for the U.S. Army, was intended as a practice run in two senses: it let the university get a feel for being on TV, and it let the broader public get a feel for the university.

The stated aim of the series was to “depict the University as an academic and community institution in seven half-hour documentaries.” Its seven episodes aired Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m. starting November 10, 1961. A memo of congratulation from Dean Rae upon completion of the series states “I hope that we can now go on to other uses of this medium, which I am sure has an important contribution to make to our educational goals.” And indeed, Sir George did go on to offer courses via television for the next three years, for non-credit viewers (who could pay a small sum to receive course readings by mail) and on a for-credit basis. A course on Shakespeare was offered starting in September 1962, a course in Economics was featured the following year, and Introduction to English Literature was the last of SGWU’s for-credit TV offerings, in 1964-65.

This experiment in university-by-television obviously has a lot in common with ventures today into online course delivery. It’s a good time to observe and reflect upon this 53-year-old artifact, in which the university both contemplates itself and explores its self-presentation in new media. I brought the films to the attention of Charles Acland and the Media History Research Centre, which is based in Concordia’s Department of Communications Studies, and which he co-directs with Darren Wershler (of SpokenWeb/English).

SpokenWeb is proud to support a public screening of two episodes of the series—The Humanities and Role of the University—followed by a panel discussion featuring Judith Herz, Professor of English, Howard Fink, Professor Emeritus, English, Bill Buxton, Professor of Communications, Nancy Marrelli, Archivist Emeritus, to be moderated by Charles Acland, Professor of Communications.

Visual Media Resources determined that the 16 mm films were too fragile to screen, so they’ve since been transferred to DVD. They can be viewed at any time at VMR in the Hall Building… except on March 7, when we’ll be watching them on the big screen in the Visual Arts building. Details are in the poster below, which I designed, and which features a screenshot from the episode The Humanities.


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