Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Student life, then and now

Café Verde in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Where there are college students, there are the four necessities of life: the notebook computer, the iPod or equivalent, the cell phone, and, of course, the Internet connection. I don’t know if the poorest students have all of these, but I suppose they have access to computers, printers, and the Internet in a center or at the libraries on campus.

Could today’s student imagine my college life 23–27 years ago—a lifetime for them? The only computer was a mainframe; 100 hours of use per quarter (or year?) was included in tuition, and students like me, ignorant about computers, used it mainly to play a DOS-based text game called “Adventure” (in my case, badly). More sophisticated students used it to store and retrieve data, including papers, and undoubtedly for research and other purposes, but I would have not known how to do this and was too reticent to ask anyone who might have known.

In my dormitory, there was one communal telephone in each hallway, from which you could call campus numbers. Off the lounge was a pair of pay telephone booths from which you could call your parents collect (no prepaid calling cards then). A few of us, including me, went to an event where you could get a telephone and connection from what was probably known at the time as Illinois Bell. The big new convenience was that the new jacks were modular, meaning that no wiring was involved—it was plug and play, so to speak. And my phone didn’t chirp, meow, bark, sing, or play music—it rang. The bell added to its heft and feeling of substance. Also at the time, phones were still rented from the local phone company. When you canceled your account or moved, you were expected to return the phone. At some point, I did buy mine (it was sky blue), but I no longer have it. I wish I did, because I’m enough of a fogy to prefer a loud, mechanical bell ring to an electronic chirp.

For me, portable music was a huge, now vintage, GE Superadio (which I still have) and an aesthetically unpleasing, monaural white earplug. I did not take it anywhere that I can remember other than perhaps the courtyard. The more affluent students had stereo systems. I don’t think the once-ubiquitous Sony Walkman was in common use yet.

As far as I know, the Internet was still a university/military construct and was not in wide use. When I needed to do research, I waded through the library card catalogue, drawers and drawers of typed, much-fingered, manila cards listing books, journals, and other works in the library’s collection. The next step was to locate the items in the stacks or wherever they resided in the collection. Now, I suppose students search the Internet and the electronic card catalogue, then the physical collection. It’s also probably easier to query other university libraries.

Finally, I used to write my papers in pencil, always at the last minute, then, in the wee hours of the morning on which they were due, type them laboriously slowly on a Royal Sabre manual typewriter. Some professors permitted the use of erasable paper; others forbade it. When I was tired enough, I could make mistake after mistake, and depending on what it was and where it was on the page, I might have to retype a page—sometimes more than one, sometimes more than once. Typing even a short paper might have taken one to three hours. A computer with spell check and a printer (not to mention e-mail) would have been quite handy—and would have saved some exhaustion-induced delirium.

I wonder what students today in situations similar to mine can afford or manage, for example, if they have notebook computers (which are relatively inexpensive at “big box” stores) or cell phones. I imagine that they do, because, as is typical of a product life cycle, such things have come down in price and become “necessities,” not luxuries. I wonder if having a computer would have helped me be more disciplined, given my dread of typing papers, or if I would have frittered away even more time on e-mail, instant messaging, or random reading unrelated to coursework. I wonder if students realize how freeing it must be to sit in a café comfortably; to correct mistakes instantly; to focus on rewriting, not retyping; and to focus on ideas, not logistics.

And I wonder if they can imagine how different this aspect of student life was, only 23–27 years ago. Can I even remember it myself?

Pass the Celestial Seasonings Morning Thunder. It’s going to be a long night.

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