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  • Writer's pictureRon Finnigan

University Then and Now

Picture of 3 young, female university graduates in caps and gowns holding their diplomas.

This article was originally published in September 2015 as a blog on the Carleton University Communications Undergraduate Student Society's webpage ( under the title "UNIVERSITY TODAY VERSUS 1980". They liked the article so much it was republished through CUSS's Facebook page in August 2016.


What is it like to be a First Year Undergraduate at Carleton University and a senior citizen surrounded by students whose average age is 18 years old? Good question. I’d like to start my answer by comparing what I see at Carleton to what I experienced at Ryerson in Toronto 30 years ago.

When I attended Ryerson in the 1980’s, I was the first student in my Business Writing class to use a computer. It was one of the few Apple II computers setup in a converted classroom with a newly painted sign that said Computer Lab. The monitors only displayed illuminated orange or green text on a black background – no graphics. And what you typed and saw on the screen was not what you saw when you printed the document since changing characters to bold or italic or underline meant adding in hypertext characters before and after the word or words you wanted to emphasize. In the end, I succeeded in teaching myself how to use the system, and the quirky word processing program called Wordstar, and handed in the only paper with fancy computer formatting, including embedded graphs. My professor was quite impressed since my paper stood out among all the others that had been typewritten, and I scored an A. Today I imagine it’s the typewritten paper that would stand out.

At Ryerson, students had no cell phones and all notes were taken manually, or recorded on a machine called a tape recorder. Students could then review the lecture recordings later and take notes from that, or check the accuracy of the notes they had taken. Sometimes the recorders were used to tape a lecture that a friend had to miss, so you would pass the tape to them when you were done.

PowerPoint slides? Mpg movies? At the time, there was no Google and the Internet was a primitive text-only curiosity available only at the University. Microsoft was more involved with MS DOS, not Windows, and had net yet released their first version of Office. Professors were stuck using blackboards. Occasionally one would roll in an overhead projector and might use professionally prepared transparencies. Just as frequently the overhead projectors were just used as light boards for professors to manually write notes, show equations or draw things like graphs.

Without the Internet, you had to buy all your books. There were no classes online or submitting your papers online. Submitting a paper meant printing it off or typing it, binding it and then dropping it off at the professor’s office before the deadline.

Enrolling for classes meant getting a copy of a telephone-book sized catalogue and visually scanning the offerings to choose the classes you wanted. Then you would fill out a multi-part form with your class selections and bring it to the Registrar’s Office. After manual verification there were no conflicts or courses selected which you were not entitled to take, the document would be passed to a clerk who manually added up the total for your tuition and then tore out one copy, stamped the rest, and sent you to the Finance Office to pay your tuition. That office would process your payment, stamp all copies paid, take another copy, and hand you back the two remaining copies of the multi-part form. You were meant to carry one copy with you to classes to show that you were registered for the class in case the professor asked. We didn’t have student cards, just a student number and that form which confirmed not only the student number but our legitimacy in being in that class. The final copy was for “your personal records”.

I remember smaller classes at the time, but my discipline was Business Administration, an area that was not as popular as the new Computer Science and Journalism / Broadcasting departments.

Almost every class had some kind of team activity that counted towards your final grade. In one class, one of my professors declared that we would decide our own grades. The team members would democratically vote who got what grade as long as the average still came out to the grade assigned to the paper by the professor. In our case, our paper got an A average and we had to assign the top grade an A+. This meant 1 person could get an A+, then the other marks would be A, A-, B+ and B-. In voting the grades, our team gave the person who devoted the least effort the B- and, because of my computer experience in formatting an attractive computer printed report, my team members voted me the A+. Overall, we were all pretty pleased with our grades, but we heard a lot more grumbling from other groups who only earned an average team score of B or B- since they too had to assign one high mark with the others getting lower grades.

But at the end of the day, Carleton is still a university that, although much larger, still strongly resembles the campus of its 1980’s predecessor. The halls are still crowded with noisy, enthusiastic, energetic youths thronging to classes, making new friends, and just generally enjoying the university experience.

In 1980, Ryerson did not have the diversity I see at Carleton today. At the time, students seemed to cluster together in their respective clans, defined mostly by race or religion. Today at Carleton I’m pleasantly amazed how these dividing lines have mostly disappeared. In the residence cafeteria or the fast food court you can see good friends of different colour, cultures and religious backgrounds enjoying a good joke, arguing about sports or just sharing good-natured teasing. The truly wonderful thing about Carleton is that it is the embodiment of Pierre Trudeau’s dream of a peaceful multicultural society, which is in stark contrast to the most violent conflicts we see in other parts of the world today.

Four or five years from now, most of you new students will be graduating into the real world. Work hard, make new lifelong friends and cherish the brief time you’ll have here. Before you know it 40 or 50 years will have passed and you’ll be nostalgically telling your kids, or maybe even your grandkids, about how your years at Carleton were the best years of your life. And if they can put their damn iPhone 6000’s down for a second, they might even learn something.

Rondyn Musings Copyright © 2016 - all rights reserved.

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