Concordia Looks Back 53 Years with University TV

Monday, March 3, 2014

Christine Mitchell, Department of English, Concordia University

The Concordia University community will take a peek into its past later this week when its Media History Research Centre holds a screening of two half-hour television episodes produced on the university campus in 1961.

The programs were part of a seven-episode series that was shot live in temporary campus studios and aired on Sunday mornings at 10:00. The episodes featured faculty, students and administrative personnel in mock classroom situations and in dialogue with host Syd Davidson and focused on university life. The program’s topic is summed up in its simple title: University. Campus newspaper The Georgian described the program as “the first English-language experiment in televised education at the university level.”

Today’s audience may be surprised to discover its forebears concentrating on and grappling over many of the same concerns that abound on Canadian university campuses today. The episodes to be screened, The Humanities and Role of the University, raise questions about the value and shape 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.”

Even more interesting is that these questions were being raised in the context of experimentation with TV as a new distribution channel for higher education. The program, produced by CBMT-TV (CBC Montreal) with the cooperation of Sir George Williams University (as Concordia was called prior to its 1974 merger with Montreal’s Loyola College) 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 accustomed to being on TV, and let the broader public familiarize itself with the university. The stated aim of the series was to “depict the University as an academic and community institution in seven half-hour documentaries.” Crucially, Sir George was planning to use television as a medium for credit course delivery in subsequent years, and went on to offer on air for-credit courses in Shakespeare, Economics, and English Literature from 1962 to 1965.

This experiment in university-by-television thus demonstrates a long-term commitment to experimentation with course offerings using new media at Concordia and across Canada. These and other contemporary resonances regarding the state of the humanities and higher education will be addressed in a panel discussion following the screening, moderated by Charles Acland, Professor of Communications, and featuring Bill Buxton, Professor of Communications, Howard Fink, Professor Emeritus (English), Judith Herz, Professor of English and Nancy Marrelli, Archivist Emeritus.

The event also represents a point of contact for the study of institutional media archives and media use currently underway in diverse corners of the university. The hosts of University TV look forward to gathering as a community, to observe and reflect upon this artifact, in which the university both contemplates itself and explores its self-presentation in new media.

Christine Mitchell is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the SpokenWeb digital poetry archive project in the Department of English at Concordia University. — Follow  her on Twitter @christletine


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