Skip to main content
i remember …

Graduates and faculty recount the changes over the years.Youst/Getty Images/iStockphoto

From sustainability to school spirit, much has undergone changes over the years.

The art of reading

Students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels read much less literature today than they did 10 and 15 years ago. Today they are given theoretical material to read and are taught to use it as frames against which they can juxtapose almost any work of art. Or even things that are not works of art like television commercials.

That is, they are given social science theory, anthropological theory, feminist and queer theory, theories about race and class, and a huge number of theories about how to interpret and even deconstruct literature. But they are not asked to read the core literature itself – the novels, the poems, the plays. And when they are asked to read a specific work it is usually simply used as an example for how to utilize the theories.

That is a real loss to thinking, to understanding how art and artists and creative ideas contribute to the world. Indeed, creative writing courses per se are among the few remaining areas where literature as literature is really still taught: literature as an aesthetic and verbal construct.

Another point about the writing of papers is that it now seems to be more of an exercise in cutting and pasting things from the Internet rather than a way of developing specific knowledge and specific thinking and writing skills. It may surprise people to know that many students today now ignore books almost entirely in writing their papers. If I want them to open a couple of books, I have to specify that as part of the assignment. That's a huge change from over two decades ago.

– Patricia Keeney Special assistant professor Creative Writing Program York University, Toronto


Over the years, Dalhousie has made great advancements in its commitment to adopting and enhancing sustainable practices and research. The Office of Sustainability was formed in 2008, to focus on sustainability in campus operations.

Since the office's creation, a number of strategic plans and policies have been implemented, along with multiple projects. For instance, our green building policy aims for LEED Gold or higher on new buildings.

Existing buildings are seeing major waste, energy and water efficiency retrofits, from equipment to systems to envelopes, along with the addition of renewable energy. We are implementing climate-change adaptation and mitigation plans with measures such as biomass co-generation, vegetative storm-water systems and transportation demand management programs.

Regular reporting and tracking is part of our efforts.

Dalhousie has also made sustainability a key component of its curriculum, creating Canada's first College of Sustainability.

The college provides Dalhousie students and professors an opportunity to engage on issues of environment, sustainability and society. It provides an interdisciplinary, studentfocused forum for collaborative teaching and learning driven by the pressing concerns of our time.

– Rochelle Owen Director, Office of Sustainability Dalhousie University Dalhousie, N.S.


I first came to the University of Alberta in the fall of 1988, as a business student straight out of high school.

After four years, I left, not with a degree, but with a hard lesson in the difference between high school and university.

Fourteen years later, I came back as a mature student – in more ways than one – to earn an English degree.

I found the campus much as I had left it, from the green oasis of the north campus to my familiar haunts in the eateries of HUB Mall and the quiet study spaces amid the books in Rutherford Library.

My degree soon led to a job as an editor and writer, which eventually took me back to the U of A again in 2011, as an employee. But this time I found a campus transformed, with gleaming new buildings announcing the university's growing stature on the world stage.

I remember how awestruck I was when I first came to this place, and I wonder how new students must feel when they see it now. It feels like a place where anything is possible, a paradoxical place where you can feel safe in taking the biggest risks of your life.

– Sean Townsend, former University of Alberta student now employed as a writer-editor in the university's Marketing and Communications Department


At the core, students outside of the classroom are essentially the same as they were 15 years ago. They question the status quo, they have a desire to understand themselves in an ever-changing world, and they wish to belong and to be part of something meaningful. On the surface, however, there are a host of differences between students now and then.

They have more varied backgrounds, they are younger, they have less disposable time, and they appear to be more serious.

But the largest difference I find is in how students communicate. Fifteen years ago, there was no Facebook, no social media platforms, no smartphones, no tablets, no e-commerce, no texting, very primitive wireless service, and laptops were the size of a phone book. (Not that any student today knows what a phone book is.)

As a result, the University of Toronto functions differently today. And yet the students don't lack for ambition.

On May 1, 2001, I became general manager of Hart House and was given the opportunity to revitalize Hart House Theatre, transforming it from an ancillary rental facility and returning it to its roots as an active producing theatre, serving the university and the greater city.

I assembled a team of eager students and alumni to assist me in the early months.

By September I had laid out a season of four plays, two fundraisers and three student festivals as well as hiring two additional fulltime staff. It was this successful collaboration of students, alumni and staff that inspired the future course of Hart House Theatre.

Students received mentorship and training from our alumni, working on and off stage with professionals from varied backgrounds, challenging them to stretch and to create. By keeping the play selections youthful and relevant we attracted new audiences from across the city. This unorthodox method of producing theatre became the formula for its success.

That same formula has been used successfully for nearly a century at Hart House. By blending students with alumni, faculty, staff and the broader community, students are able to attain greater heights, discover new worlds and develop new skills while sharing in the joy of learning.

Facebook aside, that much hasn't changed.

Paul Templin, Director of meeting and event services, Hart House, University of Toronto

Learning Environment

The contemporary transformation of university and college classrooms is often illustrated by the enormous technological changes affecting pedagogical practices. Moving beyond overhead projectors and videos to PowerPoint and YouTube, to paperless courses where syllabi and assignments are submitted, graded and returned on course Web pages, classes are carried out in ever-larger venues and sometimes conducted entirely online.

But another transformation, not entirely disconnected, is less visible.

As postsecondary institutions lose public funding, they increasingly turn to private individual and corporate donors and rely more and more on student tuition as sources of revenue. The cultural changes rendered by this are sometimes subtle but convey clear messages to students and their families of the accelerated consumerist nature of the exchange.

Depending on the labour of sessional contract instructors and graduate students to teach courses, the learning environment is rendered precarious.

Still, students arrive on campus prepared to learn and instructors receive them prepared to teach.

Cultivating a love of learning and the creation of knowledge are historic objectives to be reaffirmed, sustained and repositioned to meet the challenges posed in the current environment.

– Joan Simalchik Program co-ordinator Women and Gender Studies University of Toronto Mississauga

Research resources

Back in 1993 as an undergraduate I was very dependent on going to the library for research. I remember having to consult microfiche to search archives and make requests for books that I could pick up at a later date. Internet usage was non-existent. Registering for courses was still largely done over the phone. Searching for articles was very arduous. Course textbooks were complemented by books of photocopies that had to be picked up at the bookstore.

We still had to print our assignments and papers and physically hand them in to profs.

I returned to McGill to do a graduate diploma in 2001.

By this time technology was much more advanced yet still not to the level of today. Even though registration was done online and some materials were available, Internet speeds were very slow and cumbersome. The amount of data or material available was nowhere near today's levels.

I was still dependent on the library and bookstores, but much less. E-mail usage was limited as was contact with peers through social media.

Forward to today as I returned for an executive MBA program and I have access to so much information, course materials and lectures through my iPad – my main tool for reading, research and preparing presentations.

Our course has gone paperless aside from some textbooks or books needed.

This is a huge improvement.

By uploading material to a server and to iCloud, I have access to materials on my tablet, phone, laptop and PC – any time.

– Steven Vetrone Returning student, McGill University, Montreal

School spirit

When I convocated in 2001 at historic Grant Hall, there were fewer students than there are now and the systems on campus were still trudging slowly out of analog into digital and online.

My cellphone at the time was an indestructible Nokia that didn't do anything fancy, and had nothing to do with my academics. I talked to people on it. I talked, not texted. Profs used e-mail at that time, and I even took a few online courses. But they were clunky, requiring lots of phone follow-up and in-person support.

The Queen's spirit was kept alive in 2001 with events such as orientation week and homecoming weekend. So what's changed in 2016?

Well, for starters, I'm still working at Queen's in the Office of Advancement and also back in class. I'm finishing my final year of the Queen's Master of Public Administration program. The classes are still world-class, and the faculty both experienced and current in their delivery style and content (although one or two still pulls out the old overhead projectors). No more Nokia phones. Every student is working from their smartphones and tablets – including me – and although this can be distracting it sure helps when you are studying for exams. Hand cramps from note-taking are now a thing of the past. Library services and textbooks are online and interactive.

Online services like registering for classes are improving, slowly.

Despite greater numbers of students there are countless online forums, co-curricular clubs, thousands of student volunteer opportunities and more. These diverse platforms for engagement are maintaining the Queen's spirit in new ways, despite increased enrolment. Accessibility, internationalization, inclusiveness and diversity discussions are continuing and ubiquitous. I can't wait to see what the next 15 years at Queen's will bring.

Sarah Indewey, Manager, volunteer relations and reunions with Alumni Relations, Office of Advancement, Queen's University, Kingston


Undergraduate students used to know a few things about history, but that started to change in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now they know almost nothing and this includes Canadian history. I gave a lecture a few years ago and spoke about Bertolt Brecht as a major dramatist of the Second World War period. A breathless young thing in the first row raised her hand and asked quite innocently, "World War II. Was that the one with the Germans?" She was 19 years old. Should she have had some sense of one of the major events of the last century? I think so. Clearly, a lack of history courses means that we really are losing a sense of who we are and where we came from.

I am deeply bothered by the short-term attention span of most students today. It seems to get worse every year. Everything now has to be a sound bite for them to stay with you. That means that formal lectures are very difficult for many students to sit through. It wasn't like that 25 or 30 years ago. It wasn't even like that 15 years ago. Now you have to keep showing visual material. The ability to concentrate on the spoken word is fading quickly. Professors used to be able to profess; that is, teach their special areas as experts in the way they saw most appropriate. Now, professors have to be entertainers in a way that never really existed in earlier periods.

A couple of decades back, students went to class to learn from people who presumably had knowledge in a particular field. Somewhere along the line, students began to think of themselves not as seekers of knowledge but rather as customers buying a product, and professors as the sellers. Not every student is like that, obviously, but the sense is clearly there today that if they are paying they can opt in or out. Most are shocked when they learn there is a penalty for opting out or not doing the required work.

Undergrad education today for too many students is seen as job preparation, gathering up techniques in the service of finding work. A degree is too often seen as job certification. They are shocked when they realize it is not. Real education should, of course, provide useful knowledge, but it should also provide a basis for learning to think critically and imaginatively. But there is significant resistance to the latter these days.

– Don Rubin, a 48-year professor, former chair of the Department of Theatre, and co-founder of MA and PhD theatre studies programs, York University in Toronto

Responses have been edited and condensed.

Interact with The Globe