“Mediality,” writes Jonathan Sterne, in his format study of the mp3, “is a mundane term, like literariness; it indicates a general web of practice and reference.”1 Sterne’s aim is not to delve into literariness, but he offers the analogy2 to point out that both expressive cultural and general communicational forms exist in cross-referential modes which themselves constitute the “general condition” of their own shaping, meaning and practice. Simply stated, mediality pertains to media, while literariness pertains to literary things. But what is the “general condition” of a form in which the medial and the literary are materially conjoined, as, for instance, in reel-to-reel tapes which store poetry performances from 1966–1974 for transmission to 21st century listeners as a digital poetry archive and tool for literary study? What happens to our understanding of these ostensibly literary artifacts when we try to excavate their “conditions of existence,”3 in Foucauldian mode, from a media historical perspective? Are mediality and literariness, as they pertain in this case, and to stick with Sterne’s characterization, equally mundane?
From the point of view of “strong” media materialism, it’s not an especially new question, and mediality is far less mundane (or is at least the overriding concept). Recall David Wellbery’s 1990 account of Kittlerian post-hermeneutic criticism, in which he states: “Mediality is the general condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like “poetry” or “literature” can take shape.”4 Galloway, Thacker and Wark reassert and update the claim, contending “there can be no literary theory of new media other than as a subset of something more primary, namely, media theory.”5 Questions of literariness are hereby subsumed by mediatic umbrellas, and literary criticism by media studies, the former’s autonomy or equanimity a hallucinatory delusion. In the psychedelic rock version, the literary just drops in – to see what condition its condition is in.
The following investigation, which adopts media historical and media archaeological approaches to contextualize the material remainders of a historical literary event – the Sir George Williams University (SGWU) poetry series, 1966–19746 – both supports and contests this relation between literariness and mediality. On the one hand, I demonstrate that the operation and routines surrounding the specific media and technologies that produced the SGWU poetry series recordings had very little to do with poetry. This perspective stands in contrast to work tethered to Charles Bernstein’s “Close Listening” collection, which celebrates fresh perspectives on poetic performance made available by sound recordings’ sonic streams, but which pays less attention to the ways particular media and circumstances bring performances into material existence and literary circulation.7 It likewise stands apart and complementary to other papers in this collection, several of which attend to the same artifacts I do, but encounter them already classified by their contents: as poetry and performance tapes.
My aim is to show that the SGWU recordings weren’t literary recordings for the greater part of their existence and, I will argue, didn’t become so until their discovery on the shelves of the university’s English department a few years ago. The first part of this conclusion might be trivial if the investigation hadn’t introduced a rich and productive third term between, or alongside, mediality and literariness – institutionality – and registered a media history specific to both the collegiate institutional context in which the media and technologies were deployed and the individuals who deployed them. On the other hand, therefore, I insist, as does Jonathan Sterne,8 on multiple, co-constitutive dimensions and understandings of mediality in place of hierarchies of conditions of possibility, and further suggest that “following the media” – in my case, audiotape and tape recorders – is precisely one way of locating, illuminating and interrogating such layers. In other words, I take a non- or pre-literary approach to the production of literariness, in which performance is not poetic, but technical and archival, bound up not with what is put to tape, but with tape production and tape storage: what tapes did this campus produce, how did it produce them, and what tapes does it keep?
This investigation is prompted by questions posed by Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler regarding the material “discernibility” of poetry series, characterized as complex discursive assemblages.9 I launch with tape as my most discernible protagonist because it is the principal stuff that insinuates “the possibility of the “presence” of the past in the present,” which Vivian Sobchak characterizes as a unifying motivation for media archaeology’s diverse strands of inquiry.10 But what emerges is a view on poetry recording and literary storage as a small, component activity of a much larger information processing apparatus: the production and circulation engine of the university itself. In this complex and expansive entity, media is comprehensive (in far-reaching and scholastic senses), conceived and installed as a symbol of SGWU’s cultural and pedagogical vanguardism, coterminous with its physical plant, lauded as a labour saving mechanism for accommodating and reconfiguring campus spatiotemporal rhythms, and pressed into service in efficient maintenance of that crucial circuit: the flow of students through programs of study.
To make the series discernible as an extension of institutional media practices is to provide a counterpoint to understandings of literary recording, tape exchange or composition practices specific to poetry scenes, venues and personalities that are more intimate, domestic or professionalizing. Where those readings focus on poetic creativity, reputation and scene-building through media use and circulation, or tape as a performance or writing tool, or its meaning as a literary figure,11 this study chronologizes poetry tapes in time with the circulatory rhythms of a Canadian university in view of its institutional performance imperatives, both pedagogical and preservational. Rather than focusing on tapes as vehicles for cultural and literary expression, its concern is on the artifact status and life cycles of tapes as instructional materials and instructional media, the ways they are imagined, handled, produced, played, stored and discarded.
Poetry might seem an unusual entrée into a story about past campus media infrastructure and routines. But the significance of the exploration becomes clearer when we consider the transition from tape to server and recall that the university is also an archivist and media custodian. What might campus poetry tapes tell us about how the university understands and performs these roles, and what might this portend for the re-animation of the tapes as SpokenWeb, a digital archive and tool for literary study, given material and managerial relations with Concordia University Records Management and Archives?
My point is that media theory needs to make a place for institutional histories alongside the “alternative genealogies” traced by media archaeologists.12 This study does so by concerning itself with socially realized media protocols, by seeing institutions as media systems in their own right, and by recognizing their personnel as agents who inform the use of that media and enact attendant media ideologies. This orientation helps destabilize what Lisa Gitelman has observed as the “tendency to treat media as the self-acting agents of their own history.”13 “Specificity is key,” she reminds us when it comes to the rooting of historical subjects,14 and at SGWU, in Montreal, beginning in the mid–1960s – a time when Canadian educational institutions were rushing to accommodate “the new media” into its scholastic regimens – we find a newly established Instructional Media Office engaged in day-to-day media acquisition, processing and maintenance activities, busy with training and outreach to popularize and reinforce institutional values regarding new media efficiencies, and occupied with media-technological experiments and DIY workarounds to compensate for inadequate or insufficient resources in meeting these same institutional objectives and to respond to changing institutional mandates.
Unlike other media archaeologies, I don’t go “under the hood” to derive the cultural and institutional record from an engineering standpoint. There was no hood to go under. I relied on interviews to report on and stand in for recording and playback machines relegated else- or who-knows-where, lost to time and to the institution. I fashioned a media historical tale about tape recording and media activity on campus out of silent tapes existing as lumps in boxes or registered in entries in databases and out of scarce paper fragments: poltergeists – poltern-geist, literally “sound-spirits” – in a media-technological ghost hunt. Despite these lacks, there is media history here.
Some would contend that the digitization of the poetry series recordings as SpokenWeb constitutes a media-archaeological reenactment at its most radical, opening the series’ captured sonic flows to literary scholars for nonhermeneutic analysis, in place of semantic or historiographic coding; as Ernst writes, “the real archaeologists in media archaeology are the media themselves.”15 But to attend chiefly to the sonic and technical registers of the digital archive is to miss a co-constitutive history of institutional processing that is worth exploring – and not only because it offers up SpokenWeb in its present form, but because it offers up SpokenWeb at all.
The Language Lab
It makes sense to begin tracing tape at SGWU where the poetry recordings were made, by which I mean that place from which the equipment and technicians that recorded them hailed. Tape made its most frequent appearance not at campus poetry readings, but in the language laboratory, those memorable, freakish classrooms divided into cubicles, outfitted with headphones and audio apparatuses and designed for foreign language instruction. These labs were testing grounds for the “audio-lingual” method of language learning, which had rejected the longstanding, book oriented “grammar-translation” approach and replaced its text materials with exercises pre-recorded on tape and delivered by “model” voices for mimetic and anxiety-free emulation. Rooted in 1950s behaviorism and structuralism, the audio-lingual method was said to better simulate natural language acquisition by putting oral comprehension and expression before reading and writing, and to expedite linguistic habit-forming through “pattern drilling” that fostered automatic listening and response. The aim of what was also called the “mim-mem” approach, for mimicry and memorization,16 was to reproduce the teacher-student, “transmitter-receiver” dyad in machinery and programmed exercises in such a way that interference was reduced (poor or variable teacher performance, unanticipated student responses) and error eliminated.17
While audio equipment had been used in pedagogical activities on university campuses since the 1920s,18 the language laboratories of the 1960s and 1970s, such as those at SGWU, were the offspring of a wartime pedagogical success, the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program, which devised an intensive oral-aural method to train personnel in languages and dialects for which more typical pedagogical materials – manuals, textbooks – and teachers were not available.19 Steady growth ensued, and language laboratory installations exploded in 1958 with the passing of the U.S. National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which made significant financial and ideological commitments to the promotion of second language learning. Alongside this government support, as David Morton points out, tape and tape recorder manufacturers were active in ensuring their products had a place in the educational market, adopting similar strategies in promoting tape as the educational film and phonograph salespeople had before them – from lobbying to direct advertising to elaborate demos.20 A mix of governmental, commercial and tech educationalist imperatives had helped make schools and students primary consumers and popularizers of sound recording. This wasn’t altogether new, as phonographs for education had long been marketed for home use, to homemakers for purposes of their own, and their children’s, self-administered intellectual cultivation.21 But while tape culture is first and foremost associated with music, the comprehensive uptake of reel-to-reel language instruction by educational institutions suggests that audio, as Acland and Wasson have demonstrated for educational film, “has also been useful, at times involved more with functionality than with beauty”22 (or, we might add, literary avant-gardism) and used to instill ideals, regulate social practices and shape citizens.
With the exception of a lab built at the University of Laval in Quebec City in 1946 (considered the start date of the modern language laboratory movement23 ), the general uptake of language laboratory installations in Canada came later than it did in the U.S., responding to different pressures, but taking advantage of the technical improvements, standardizations, miniaturizations, variety and lower prices that had resulted from so much activity south of the border.24 Guy Plastre’s Directory of Language Laboratories in Quebec shows a total of 123 language laboratories in 1969, equipped by 22 different manufacturers, mostly U.S. companies with dealers in Canada.25 Laboratory gear varied, though generally consisted of furniture, recording and transmission equipment and tape “software,” either commercially or locally produced. Classrooms were divided into partitioned listening stations called “positions.” A main console regulated the whole, transmitting master tapes and giving instructors listening access to each position. Stations were equipped with headphones and microphones, sometimes with recording equipment or dial-up controls for self-serve selection of programs from a central rack of master tapes.
While the NDEA backed language training innovations for purposes of defense and an urge for cultural leadership, Canada’s interest, focused on English and French, stemmed from a lack of “native language” teachers and strived more for internal harmonization. Canada’s 1968 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, for example, stated that “every training college or university should have a language laboratory,”26 remarking that any such installation “demands a complete reorganization of the language course.”27 Unfortunately, the Commission’s report revealed that some of the most widely used audio-lingual courses in Canada were American and French imports, including one developed with NDEA funds and another for the U.S. Army, some with minor adjustments made for Canadian cultural content.28 Given my concern here for the way the university sees itself as a media institution, it’s important to note its subordinate place vis-à-vis media histories’ “usual suspects,” as it accepts media hand-me-downs from the military and is peer pressured into trendy purchasing from tech manufacturing. Underling status is exacerbated still further in the Canadian context: first comes the military, then commercial industry, and neither are domestic.
The desire to reconfigure the curriculum around newly acquired educational technology was pressing, not simply due to the lack of Canadian content, but also to McLuhanist contagion with “the new media” and parallel to new demographic pressures as Canadian student populations exploded beyond what small faculties and cramped campus spaces could handle. The interest in teaching aids, including language labs, was acute for SGWU, which was busy with designs for a new, landmark university building in downtown Montreal to handle its rapidly growing undergraduate clientele, which included day and evening enrolments of approximately 3000 and 6000 students each. The size and significance of SGWU’s evening division reflected the history of the downtown university, which had its start as the Montreal YMCA, then became a college to offer formal education, vocational and evening programs to Anglo-Montrealers, many of whom were already employed. Early 1960s distance education experiments and closed-circuit course delivery, such as that being attempted at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough College,29 seemed promising for this student body, and SGWU had itself experimented with a version of these, collaborating with the CBC to produce credit courses in English literature and economics that broadcast Saturday and Sunday mornings from 1962 to 1965. Novel technological applications were worth exploring at SGWU, whose curriculum was built around a core of so-called “pandemics” – large introductory courses with up to 1500 students in several sections.30 To investigate the latest design developments for academic instructional spaces, the SGWU Building Committee embarked on a fact-finding tour in early 1963, visiting an experimental classroom at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. and consulting with Donald P. Ely, Director of Syracuse University’s Centre for Instructional Technology.
The Building Committee decided all classrooms in the new building should be fitted with audio-visual aids and that a faculty member should oversee these aids in addition to technical staff, “a person quite capable of explaining the use and limitations of the various machines to other faculty members and know what types to recommend.”31 George Albert Baker “Ab” Moore, who would eventually oversee the media unit for the first several years of The Poetry Series, was hired for the job, having recently completed an MA at Syracuse as a commuting evening student from Port Dover, Ontario, where he was a United Church minister. The only Canadian of four applicants,32 Moore was a part-time consultant at the United Church’s Berkeley Audio-Visual/TV studios in Toronto, and had learned of the job search through Ely, who had been his thesis advisor. Moore’s appointment in 1964 marked the establishment of SGWU’s Instructional Media Office (hereafter, IMO), with the immediate mandate to prepare a plan for introducing new media into the university, to work closely with faculty, especially large-class faculty, in doing so, and to move ahead with AV installations in the new Hall Building classrooms. “It is in this context,” Moore writes, “that I inherited the language laboratories.”
Prior to Moore’s bequest, a single language laboratory in SGWU’s Norris Building had been owned and operated by the French Department, since at least 1960. This estimate derives from a 1965-66 budget statement that set aside $350 for language lab repairs and spare parts, cautioning that “Machinery will be over five years old, and will presumably require more attention.”33 And while minutes from a meeting of the University Committee on Development state that this equipment “will not be used in the new building,”34 that laboratory, its tape recorders, console and partitions, was eventually moved to the Hall Building to supplement a brand-new language lab there installed, a $40,000, 68-position “Omnilab” acquired from an eponymous provider in Wisconsin. While administrators and Montreal newspapers described the Omnilab as “highly sophisticated,” “the core of language instruction” and “possibly the major source of information for students in future decades,”35 SGWU technical personnel, who ended up taking over the installation from the visiting Omnilab engineers, were far less impressed. It was “a monstrous piece of equipment,” recalled Mark Schofield, an IMO technician who was later named head of the university’s AV department, and who presided over The Poetry Series’ technical arrangements as of 1968.36 Nick Ostopkevich, also formerly of Technical Services, explained that its wiring was unworkable and the fiberglass moulding dividers provided no soundproofing – nothing to muffle the barrage of pulse-fire emitted as program dial-up codes were sent from each position’s push-button keypad through a massive, poorly designed telephone exchange switch system that would find the right tape deck and play the desired language recording. The old laboratory’s “Soviet-style” furniture and perforated metal partitions, Ostopkevich recalled, at least contained soundproofing material.37
Despite the novelty of the new Omnilab, audiotapes and tape recorders had been around before the Hall Building upgrade. A 1961–62 report on the use of AV equipment registered a 214-hour increase in instructor use of tape recorders from the previous year (from 284 to 498) and a 36-hour increase in student use (from 60 to 96).38 A 1963 budget for capital expenditure includes $300.00 for “1 Tape Recorder,” and a 1965–66 Preliminary Budget Statement for Arts sets aside $300 in “Tapes, reels, labels, etc.” for Modern Languages—Laboratory. The same document budgets $600 for “tape recorder, teaching machines” for English composition and $60 for a conference mike “to use with Phillips Tape Recorder” for Applied Social Science. Unfortunately, there is no similar register of activity performed with the tape recorders over that period, nor any tapes to consult. The new lab, with its centralized controls, was an industrial departure from these lone tape recording units, the installation overtaking two classrooms, adjoined by a control room39 that housed a rack with several 4-track decks and a small office used as a recording studio.40 Students could choose from 48 different programs at once, the main decks holding eight programs for each of six courses,41 each program lasting either 7.5 or 15 minutes. (This curricular abundance loses some sparkle when it’s realized that the total duration of audio running on this complex apparatus falls between six and twelve hours.) The Omnilab was “Audio-Active,” meaning students could listen to drills and hear their own responses through headphones, but tapes were out of reach and recording and playback features were unavailable at individual positions. The ultimate goal was pedagogical efficiency through practical and temporal freedom. Having “random access” labs optimized time and space resources and relieved teachers from repetitive drilling; students could work in different languages simultaneously and at their own pace.42 But the design suggests secondary objectives of centralizing the audio repository and keeping tape out of students’ hands while subjecting them to regimented rhythms during “free” study time. For those in control – from interested faculty, to educational technologists and university administrators – the installation promised more than audio-lingual benefits, which were still controversial; it provided a testbed for imagining and experimenting with new forms of course delivery, such as sending students home with taped materials or connecting to students’ living rooms and kitchens via television and telephone, and inspired talk of an “electric library.”43
When the language laboratories moved from the Norris Building to the Hall Building, administrative authority over them transferred from the French Department to the IMO, whose broad mandate was unique in Canadian higher education institutions, being “the first centralized unit with inclusive university wide responsibility for instructional media.”44 The jurisdictional transfer of the bulk of the university’s tape playback equipment might seem insignificant in this grander media shake-up, but the shift in responsibility over that equipment, from a language department to a media department, and the shift in mandate with respect to that equipment, from language instruction to general instruction, detached tape from the close listening and speech performance imperatives emphasized by language departments, and repositioned it in terms of general course delivery and registering of campus affairs. It was by now all but guaranteed that The Poetry Series would be recorded by the IMO.
The shift in lab orientation, from language practice to learning protocol, is substantiated by a Montreal Star headline from January, 1967, which reports enthusiastically on the newfangled Omnilab, but overwrites the laboratory as a more classically scholastic setting by leading with the librarian’s plea: “Ssh! Minds Are Busy Behind The Headsets.” The headline paradoxically insists on silence in a room designed for listening and speaking, reassuring readers that learning is indeed happening though reading is not. The language laboratory isolated and showcased listening as a new learning modality while the vocality of professors’ everyday verbalizations went unrecognized in campus lecture halls. It was the efficient and private looping of ears to automated mouths that was prized – taped voice was repeatable, predictable and promised endless “ideal” variability. The article subheading, “Tapes ‘Teach’ at Sir George,” promotes SGWU’s long-range plan: automated, taped Q&A applied across the university curriculum:
The student listens intently to his headset. Behind him in the control room, the unseen tape machine whirs softly as the recorded voice asks him another question. Around him, other students are listening to other tapes—French, history, physics, the whole range of university courses taped and instantly available.45
Furthermore, as VP Academic Douglass Clarke explained, imbuing in former minister Moore’s new duties a suitably evangelist resolve, it was hoped the IMO would “act as a kind of missionary to convert faculty members to the use of new and more sophisticated teaching aids than the traditional blackboard and chalk.”46 Media would cease being transitory classroom accessories, dredged up when necessary from “Room 69” – a tiny equipment closet in the Norris Building basement – and become one of the university’s life-support systems, a connective tissue on the order of the new Hall Building’s electrical, air conditioning and vertical transportation systems. Instruction would be take place via permanent installations of closed-circuit television, overhead and rear-screen projection, everything operable from a lecturer’s console in every classroom. Video and audio feeds would be transmitted to Hall Building televisions in classrooms and hallways from the central studio in the basement and vice versa. The dream was to build an autonomous educational engine that both produced educational content and shuttled it effortlessly via hardwiring. The laboratory, audio and visual (the Omnilab boasted television monitors at ten positions) was a working prototype – the future campus in miniature.
But the multi-media vision, remarkable as it was, was not delivered on the Hall Building’s opening day. A commemorative section in the campus newspaper on October 14, 1966, announces SGWU’s AV facilities as “best in country,” but notes, too, that completion of the system would be delayed until the following fall; a single 4th floor classroom was fully functional, visual materials controllable “with the touch of a finger.”47 Among five areas listed as making up audio-visual operations – film service, television facilities, recording service, equipment reservation and technical maintenance (into which organizational scheme the language laboratories were not easily slotted), it is television that is highlighted as “one of the most popular aspects.” But before any instructional content might be produced, let alone delivered to classrooms from a central studio, major modifications had been necessary. As Mark Schofield recalled,
the installation was done during Expo [’67] and anybody who could operate a pair of screwdrivers and wirecutters got a job. The project with the university was pretty low priority. So, in fact, we discovered pretty soon on in the 1960s that nothing worked. I arrived in the spring [of 1968] and over the summer everyone was panicking because the previous year the Hall Building had opened and it was a big fanfare and they switched switches and plugged plugs and nothing happened.
IMO technicians set to rewiring the entire building, removing massive bundles of cable, which stretched up McKay and along Sherbrooke Street, and replacing it with standard, professional telephone wire. Schofield continues:
And it is probably still in the walls if you look in the electrical room. So every classroom had an audio feed, a video feed and an RF TV feed and a phone, which was all fed to a central operating area and this is how people got their videos played back. So if you wanted a video or a film even in your classroom you had the option of having someone wheel a projector in or it’d be played back from a central office.
Despite facilities for seamless content delivery, players and projectors continued to be delivered to classrooms, whether due to preference or lack of programming, and the task of moving equipment across the vast vertical acreage of the Hall Building in its few available elevators presented added difficulties. A notice from the IMO beseeched that the “Indulgence of faculty members with our staff will be appreciated by the instructor to whom the equipment is destined.”48
And despite enhanced accommodations for audio playback and the desire to have faculty trained in materials production of all kinds, a sound studio had not been part of the new Hall Building’s grand design. Corroborating the bias in the campus newspaper, Mark Schofield points out: “everyone wanted to do TV, of course.” While elaborate plans were drawn up for the basement television studios, the language laboratory was equipped with basic sound recording and editing equipment to continue to make tapes for language courses. A small, separate office inside the control room, only big enough to fit two people, was used as a recording booth, even though it was an exterior room with windows, and therefore not soundproof. The producer would set the recorder in the control room, watch the levels, alert the reader(s) through an intercom – “You’re on!” – and they’d proceed. Alice Foster and Heather Dau were hired as full-time producers, to work with professors to make master recordings and edit tapes, and alongside a supervisor to oversee day-to-day operations. These were “mature, experienced and technically well qualified women” whom Moore had known from the audio section of the United Church’s Berkeley Studio in Toronto and who were seeking employment as part-time students at SGWU. Language lessons – the lab’s stock in trade – were first recorded on high-speed, professional grade ¼” reel-to-reel machines, then copies were made to be played on the multi-deck rack, individual tapes playable by students on a “self-serve” basis and at a distance using desk-mounted push-button keypads. Meaningful self-service meant keeping the laboratory widely accessible – open for fourteen hours on weekdays, and eight on Saturdays. About twelve more employees, part-time students, were hired as lab monitors to load tapes onto tape decks, assist students, provide general security, and give the shared, permanent headsets daily wipe-downs with alcohol.
They also recorded poetry.
And so it was that there were language laboratories in SGWU’s Hall Building that needed monitoring and servicing and content for their tape decks. And so it was that a Uher 4000 Report-L machine reel-to-reel recorder49 came to be in the Hall Building, a portable machine favoured by journalists, about 5–10 pounds, used to record special events outside the language lab, and possibly also for language laboratory exercises. And so it was that service requisition forms were filled out with dates, times and other specifications regarding the taping of readings by visiting poets on Friday nights. And so it also was that the language lab production staff prepared reels from tape pancakes in preparation for those recordings. And so it was that part-time language laboratory staff were shown how to use the machine, and were sent out, with machine, lavalier mike and PA system on a rolling trolley, to deliver the apparatus to one of four Hall Building locations50 and commit poetry performances to magnetic tape. And so it was that the Uher was later replaced by a Crown 800 or some other machine that was engaged in much the same way. And so it was that the wiring of Hall Building auditoria (planned before its opening, but functionally realized some time later) and the presence of a large jack field in the learning lab allowed audio feeds – including poetry readings – to be recorded remotely.
And so it was that the mechanisms that conspired to produce a series of recordings of avant-garde poetry performed at SGWU included, besides poets’ bodies, mouths, personalities, work and poetry scenes: language teaching protocols pioneered in the American military and adopted in Canadian higher education in national and local contexts marked both by longstanding language divides and new commitments to bilingualism, language laboratory installations, and the practices and routines of SGWU media production and technical personnel, among them the variable expertise of part-time student employees, idiosyncrasies of Hall Building acoustics and wiring and institutional mandates concerning acquisitions and deployments of instructional media at SGWU.
A single archival document explicitly links taping with the language lab and the language lab with the taping of poetry. Titled “List of Audio-Visual Facilities Available to Instructors, 1970–71,” it describes the “Sir George Tape Laboratory,” itemizes the “Sir George Audio Tape Library” and states that the unit “will make tape recordings of poetry readings etc., in any auditorium in the Hall Building provided arrangements are made ahead of time.”51 The Tape Laboratory is the language lab. The name change is strategic, as “tape” works better than “language” in pitching production and recording services to all university departments. The memo reminds faculty that “The tape lab can be used by instructors who want to make a tape,” again with a proviso: “Instructors must supply ideas fairly well worked out before lab producers can coordinate to translate ideas into tape form.” Judging by this document, at least one instructor did so, as the Tape Library inventories the poetry series, its “40 contemporary poets” next to “language of poetry – 13 minutes written by Mrs. Petrie and performed by her students.”52 Experimental poetics next to experimental pedagogics, avant-garde poets and avant-grade pupils. Elsewhere in the archive, a typed index card bears witness to a “Tape planned by Georgette Duchaine for French students. Easy and popular French songs. A “Sing Along with Georgette” tape.”
That faculty-produced tapes had been shelved alongside Chaucer selections, drama, music history, radio commercials and the poetry series reflects the AV unit’s role as an all-University service. At the same time, it’s unclear what the long-term vision was for the Tape Library as a storage and lending repository distinct from the university library. With regard to the poetry series tapes, the listing notes that “some [were] copied and sent to Norris Library,” but that “production and editing are not good.” As the IMO was responsible for the acquisition and distribution of all media resources on campus, except phonograph records and books, the copying and transfer of audio recordings to the library (albeit in low-quality versions) feels consequential; audiotape, along with film, videotape and transparencies, until that point, were regarded as supporting materials for in-class use. Not for the library. Not for independent consultation over the long term.
And while rockstar poets drew large audiences to series readings, they were accorded no elite status in the production office. Heather Dau, who recalled prepping tapes for the poetry series, reported that “the series received el minimo attention.”53 Sound editing work for SGWU generally demanded no fine or elaborate editing, as the language and poetry tapes alike contained a single voice. Dau likened their main task – “topping and tailing” – putting leaders in at the beginning and at the end of tapes – to household chores (though one had to be awake and paying attention when inserting breaks in tapes in unfamiliar languages; Dau soon learned that “konyets uprazhnyeniya” signaled the end of the Russian language lesson). Winston Cross, a former part-timer who’d recorded some of the poetry recordings, had had no interest in poetry or sound recording; his was a visual passion, and he went on to run the media unit’s photography arm. The main concerns were equipment set-up and take-down, arranging mikes and choosing tape and levels that suited speech and performance length. Microphone placement depended on whether the poet intended to stand at a lectern or walk around. If the latter, they were outfitted with a lavalier mike. “If the speaker was speaking loudly enough, I didn’t need a microphone on the tape recorder,” recalled Cross, adding “I think Margaret Atwood had a quiet voice.” Dau explained:
I seem to recall being in the lab while a technician was at the auditorium setting up a mic and levels for a poet. I had prepared a super-large reel of tape to start with the intros and readings by the poet (can’t remember which one). It was a slow speed recording, which ordinarily isn’t considered to be great quality – but then the content was voice and not music. Getting it on one reel seemed to be the objective.
Dau’s recounting seems to suggest one of the remote recordings, executed invisibly, in the space between performance hall and language laboratory.
One poet’s technical requirements far exceeded SGWU’s technical capacities. Mark Schofield recalls seeing a letter to Howard Fink from Jackson Mac Low – whose work incorporated tape recording and playback as performance elements – that detailed his equipment needs. “We didn’t have anything close to what he was looking for,” recalls Mark Schofield, “we looked at it and burst out laughing.” Schofield attended the reading not only to supervise the improvised technical set-up, but “because it just looked so fascinating and was so fraught with crisis.” For IMO personnel, when failsafe and far-flung sound recording was the objective, poetry was literally “remote.” Poetry that consorted with media in the performance space, on the other hand, was dangerous, risky, perilous – and riveting. The presence of media as constitutive of poetic performance and the presence of the technical adjudicator enacts and witnesses the continued displacement of the singular authorial voice, offering a proto- and distributed perspective on cyborg poetics, as Christian Bök has noted: “the very idea of a “fine performance” by a writer has already started to take on the technical overtones that competent mechanics might hear in the “high performance” of an engine.”54 And as Schofield remarked while listening to digital excerpts of Mac Low’s 1971 performance – “it is amazing that it actually exists” – chuckling and cringing in reaction to the sound quality he deemed registered with less than ideal equipment: “I am sure it was better if you were actually there.”
Far from possessing any unique or special value for the AV Department, therefore, poetry lies on a spectrum of recording and sound processing opportunities and sound performance challenges. A folder of paper remnants at the Concordia Archives also contains a flyer from the Mac Low reading, cross-referenced to the audio reel it once accompanied. Its creases tell me it had been folded in four, made to fit inside the reel box, and served a tape labeling function until archival separation of paper from tape. The typed side previews the performance and summarizes the poet’s biography; organizer George Bowering jokingly referred to these as “propaganda sheets.” One quadrant of the backside contains a handwritten missive between AV Lab employees: “Heather, there is a lot of background noise throughout the tape – a steady hum – again the air conditioners. Edited 4 copies.” With a hat tip to Saussure, albeit from an era that has long replaced linguistics with mediality, this sheet of paper binds poet to technician, event to record, signal to noise, and stands in for the same indivisibility Saussure posited between thought and sound: “one cannot cut the front with out cutting the back at the same time.”55 The archival remnant is an indexical sign representing that “borderland” where elements – language and media, art and techne – combine to produce form.
Later I stumble upon an entry in the archive’s AV database for a 13-minute audio reel called “Air Conditioning System in the Henry F. Hall Building,” a discovery that tempts me to extend the Saussurean analogy still further. I imagine an audio reel that features exactly 13 minutes of “steady hum” that forms part of the Mac Low recording. Such a tape, real or imagined, in a collection of campus recordings, disaggregates and compartmentalizes campus sounds, placing them in a paradigmatic relationship, values arbitrary and relative to one another. A propaganda sheet for the air conditioning system would feature typed installation and technical specs (its system biography) and the handwritten note on its flipside would read: “Heather, there is a lot of background noise throughout the tape – a steady hum – again the poets.”
Or “again, the poetry.”
This scrappy paper trail provides metadata about content and recording speed, and enacts a history of recording errors and editing particularities for a subset of flawed tapes, explaining audible blunders or justifying edits to future listeners, text standing in for missing tape. Two slips of paper accompany the F.R. Scott recording, of February 22, 1969, the first indicating “First part missed,” the second elaborating more fully, in improvised shorthand, with “I cut introd. off. It was poor technical qual. Seemed not great loss.” Only one slip names the tape operator: “Recorded by Amelia.” Its flipside, headed “Milton Kessler,” lists the names of several of the poems read, until the last line admits Amelia’s error, but not its cause: “lost some of the last poem. (Father of Concord).”
Typewritten recipe cards accompanying the “Alan” Ginsberg tape might be replacements for post-processing notes jotted by hand in situ, or may reflect editing decisions from the control room during a remote recording. The order of events listed on the cards parallels the recordings, and the edits detected mostly correspond to numbered sections on the cards. The typist makes a dramatic switch to red ribbon in the final line, to inform: “Buddhist songs cut off; on another reel.”
Their writers are conscious that tape is expected to stand in as unobtrusive, objective witness to an entire event (one that is thought to begin with introductions and end with audience applause, but actually begins and ends when the operator’s finger descends on “recording” and “pause”). So while the paper might declare, “This tape is faulty,” paper plus tape are able to bear witness to a much longer technical event, one that started and ended in the language lab and into which a poetry reading is enfolded, often expertly and sometimes less so. In light of these paper surrogates – the untidy product of poems and poetry readings of unpredictable length and the fact that the Uher recorder only accommodates 5” reels (a 5” reel of 1.5 mil tape, 600 ft, runs about 30 minutes), Dau’s seemingly uninspired aim of “getting it on one reel” starts looking like a technical triumph.
Another slip doesn’t stand in for missing tape, however, but for missing speech. Cross-referenced to the Coleman-Bowering reading on March 3, 1967, a note from H.D. reads “Wynne Francis introduces this tape. She announces Coleman + Geo. Bowering, but Bowering doesn’t speak.” Where the other notes account for technical glitches or editing decisions, this one gives an account of the tape contents themselves, warning future listeners against construing the lack of speech from an introduced Bowering as a lack of tape arising from a recording or editing gaffe. H.D.’s wording alludes to the mixing of locations and temporalities in the production of the series, and ultimately maps its route towards the tape laboratory storage facility – as Wynne Francis is said to introduce “this tape,” rather than “the event” or “the poets.” These paper remnants, folded into tape boxes, are not only signposts that mark hard edges of the poetry archive, they signal the improbability of achieving archival finality, admitting the possibility of archival gaps and erasures of a technical sort. Thus, while SpokenWeb looks coast-to-coast – to Canadian university archives, poets and series organizers’ basements and attics – in hopes of turning up missing poetry series recordings, an SGWU technician recalls a staffer misthreading tape and returning from a poetry reading to silent playback in the language lab.56 Operators weren’t able to check their recordings on the fly, he explained, as the Uher didn’t allow for monitoring in real time, only for later listening.
And so with poetry a muffled and occasional din in the background (poetry readings happened seven or eight times a year, over seven or eight years), the day-to-day activities of the IMO – ranging from media-pedagogical experimentation, training, maintenance and diagnostics – come into sharper focus, as do conditions that contributed to the subsistence of the poetry tapes. Another tape, surely recorded according to the same procedure and with the same equipment as the poetry recordings, documents the proceedings of a 1968 conference on “Communications Media in Education,” held to commemorate the launch of SGWU’s new MA program in Educational Technology, the first of its kind in Canada. D.B. Clarke, VP Academic of SGWU declares the conference open:
Thank you Professor Moore, Ladies and Gentlemen. I have one criticism about this conference, to start with… I should have been put on tape, in keeping with the occasion. But your Chairman has insisted on a pre-Marshall McLuhan presentation, so here I am to welcome you here this morning, and it gives me great pleasure to do so.
The irony of the lines is that they are on tape. Concordia University Archives has two reel-to-reel tapes of the conference proceedings. A chunk of the 45-year old conference brochure is scotch-taped to one of the tape boxes, attesting to its contents, labeling and standing in for sound (these are archival copies, so can’t be played), and at some point, the proceedings were transferred to (7) compact cassettes, now held in Concordia Library’s general collection.57
While 1968 audiotape is critical for lending discernibility to The Poetry Series now, its visibility in the context of the 1960s university campus is far murkier. Clarke’s “I should have been put on tape” takes a jab at the university’s favoured, dustier information distribution formats – the day-long symposium, the inaugural address, the prof at the lectern – casually implying that voice and visage should have been pre-recorded on video, modernizing the university’s transmission protocols by delivering Clarke’s illocutionary speech act – “I declare this conference open” – free of physical and temporal constraint (campus, Saturday, 9:30 a.m.). Audiotape is either invisible, too familiar or not newfangled enough to be part of the McLuhanist media revolution. More to the point, it’s not new media when it’s used to record voice for documentary purposes, but only when it’s a hardware component of the language laboratory apparatus, centralized to render it “student-proof” and in support of authorized pedagogical uses.
This neglect of audiotape by a university administrator in 1968 identifies and assigns degrees of novelty to equipment forming higher ed’s “new media” repertoire, and doubles as a declaration (albeit Canadian, couched) of administrative commitments to new media at the institutional level, from the construction of a “wired” building, to the launch of a first-run graduate program in Ed Tech (with both theoretical and practice-based course offerings58 ) to the establishment of the IMO itself as a centralized office with a mandate to accommodate the university community to new media – and not as an inconspicuous techno-concierge, but through in-house and hands-on development and training. For instance, IMO brochures invite faculty to avail themselves of the new facilities, reminding them that their office “provides consultation in the use of media and the planning of “mediated” courses.” Efforts are made to cross-pollinate media-related activities, such that “If lecturers are interested in audio-visual experimentation, it may be possible to involve students [in this MA program] in evaluation of lecturer’s production.”
Indeed, the establishment of the MA program made media research and practice a more expressly academic pursuit, as MA courses would be taught by duly engaged IMO staff who would henceforth hold “dual appointments as administrative staff and as members of the Faculty of Arts” (with associated duties and privileges).59 The additional duties necessitated a unit reorganization and a change in title, one that would underscore the unit’s newly-affirmed research responsibilities, and the IMO became the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) in spring, 1969. A copy of the reorganization proposal compares the relationship between CIT and the university to that of medical staff in a university teaching hospital, in which the teaching function both relies on and fulfills the service function; CIT would provide the instruction, personnel, environments, research and evaluation necessary for teaching instructional communication. Incidentally, the proposal also shows that a less tech-focused name had at least been considered for the unit. “Center for Academic Communication” appears in type but is crossed out, with “Center for Instructional Technology” jotted in by hand.
Documentary recording and the processing of poetry tapes were considered “household chores” at SGWU because they took place against a backdrop of more elaborate, and patently pedagogical, experiments with the new facilities. For example, the IMO replaced the Omnilab’s dysfunctional screens with 50 mini-TVs acquired from Eaton’s Department Store and collaborated between 1968 and 1970 with French professor Gilbert Taggart to produce a 52-episode French course that combined video and language lab exercises and could be self-administered by students.60 The course was used for ten years starting in 1970, both with and without a classroom instruction component, and from the standpoint of distribution, the course was a success, rumored to have sold to 200 institutions across Canada.61 And despite the course’s increasing drop-out rates, a lack of evidence regarding its scholarly effectiveness, its uncertain economic advantage and wear-and-tear of AV resources, a 1975 report suggests the audio-visual course had been judged a success insofar as it had replaced its predecessor. What remains of the course is a 46-minute 16 mm promotional film (1970),62 in which Taggart begins by walking his five student actor-participants (and viewers – the potential buyers) through a multi-media learning algorithm, outlining the order in which students will hear and see language, perform it, hear again, correct and repeat, guided by audio and visual stimuli in the language laboratory, and registering these patterns for future use. One clip sees the set erupt in a 6-person Dadaist explosion of linguistic theatre, with objects thrust forth, named, ownership queried and claimed, linguistic flow-charts superimposed, danced with flowers, oranges, brush, umbrella, knife, fork, stuffed snake. Est-ce que c’est votre disque? Ah, oui. Ah, non.
While the university, through its IMO and Modern Language Department collaborations, experimented with performing language and technology in new ways, old procedures still needed accommodating; namely, student learning had to be evaluated and registered, including strides made in oral-aural proficiency. With such high enrollments in French language courses at SGWU, it was decided that conducting individual oral exams would be too time-consuming. A “Telexam” was created that standardized the oral test, collected student answers using tape technology and streamlined its administration using closed circuit TV.
The exam, which starred Professor Taggart in various roles in scenes “contrived to simulate real situations,”63 was broadcast on TV sets in a classroom housing the old Norris lab equipment, which had recording capabilities built into each position. Each was furnished with a “virgin cassette” to be collected after the exam.64 A teaching assistant controlled the start-stop function of tapes from a central console,65 meaning student recorders were “at rest” until activated. Students heard the audio track on their headsets and verbal cues – Attention!” “Écoutez,” “Dites-moi” – signaled test questions. The rest of the 30-minute tape was contextual filler, “consistent with the situation but not essential to the formulation of a student response,” and helped impose a regular testing rhythm, while actual student responses were compressed to under five minutes, expediting the grading task. It was a major undertaking, as a 30-position laboratory needed 35 sessions to test 1000 registered students, who produced 83 hours of tape-recorded responses for marking.66 A point of convergence can be made between these exam recordings and the poetry recordings, in their registering of linguistic performances as a mark of passages. The poetry series tapes, successfully preserved, register the passage of visiting poets through these very institutional halls, while the student tapes, positively evaluated, yet despoiled by next semester’s voices and achievements, secure passage through these very institutional ranks. The former credentials the literary event, the latter, the SGWU graduate.
And the IMO made use of the laboratory for self-examination as well. Ab Moore had a questionnaire administered to students who used the drop-in language labs to assess their experience with the equipment and their preference for working at partitioned carrels or open tables. He uncovered communal and gendered patterns in laboratory use that worked against the assumption that laboratory learning was an individual, isolated activity. Students were questioned via laboratory headphones – “This is the control room” – such that lab machinery and architecture seemed to be soliciting answers on their own behalf. In another instance, the language lab, faculty and Spanish students were enlisted in transmission channel testing on behalf of the institution. A 1967 memo asks Dr. Grayson “to make that recording of the Spanish “nonsense” words as soon as possible so that we can check the quality of the telephone system.” The dictation exploited students’ lack of bias in aural discrimination by using unknown words in a listening intelligibility test, lowering message redundancy to better verify the Bell dial-in system that let students access the language laboratory exercises from off-campus. This exercise, it was claimed, “will help us to improve the quality of the tapes you will be hearing next term.” While the memo and word lists are still among the paper fragments cross-referenced to extant audiotapes, the master tape with nonsense words – an outdated diagnostic program – has not been retained.
This variety of tape implementations suggests that sound recording existed on a continuum of practice on campus. Recordings of poetry readings, of guest speakers and special events, can be seen as “durative” media, to borrow Raymond Williams’ term for direct speech that is stored, and distinguished from other sound transmissions, such as Radio Sir George’s live news and music broadcasts over the Hall Building’s closed circuit system.67 But as the above examples attest, the media unit’s primary vision for sound recording, oriented around the pedagogical function of the language laboratory, aims to fuse – and confuse – durative and “live” modes. Sound recordings for learning should operate in pseudo-broadcasting mode for students, since the aim is to simulate direct communication, whether lectures or conversations. In the interest of cost-, time- and labour savings, however, sound (and video) recordings should be durative for the institution – repeatable, reusable, and even marketable. This realization is what puts the poetry tapes in an uncertain position vis-à-vis these other commitments, and lumps durative sound recording in with other modalities as a more generalized “instructional multimedia” – whether or not the poetry recordings were ever used in the classroom. There is evidence from the mid-1970s, for instance, that the media unit dreamed of meeting its financial challenges by monetizing campus intellectual labour and guest byproducts as durative content, this time with video discs:
1. The way to become a centre for production of instructional packages is simply to get the academic specialists to prepare content – we have all the rest of the formula (except funds).
2. Packages will sell only if they have a name on them – “Buckminster Fuller on—,” “Pierre Elliot Trudeau on—.” (The on-cost of stamping discs predicates a bulk market, as for the rock band public, or the exercise is not profitable)…. (Fuller, etc., award-winning science films).
3. The video-disc is fixed, final, unmodifiable: the material has to be timeless and absolute – mathematics have suitable qualities, humanities less.68
To reiterate, while the language laboratory had its start in language training, a grander vision carried into the early 1970s was that the “language” modifier be dropped, that the room be generalized to become a multi-purpose, audio-visual “learning” laboratory. “One of the main factors favoring centralized facilities,” argued Gary Boyd, Assistant Professor of Instructional Communications, Assistant Director for Research and Development (CIT) and specialist in “educational cybernetics,” is the possibility to use them for many courses in different subjects and at different levels.”69 Boyd saw the laboratory, whose terminals would eventually also integrate computer facilities along with AV, as a “general purpose learning environment,”70 one that need not be confined to a designated room. “There’s no reason study carrels need to be concentrated in one place,” he argued, lamenting that “the university is stuck with the classroom setup.” But just as laboratory practice had extended beyond campus through telephone and loaning out of dual-track cassette tape recorders, it could move out of the lab itself. “We would like to see more carrels proliferate in the corridors and not just confined to language labs,” Boyd insisted, “People can then sit down and call things up on television, just as they’d sit down and read a book.”71
Boyd tempered his ideas regarding media centralization with observations about differences in student disposition and populations that affected preferred learning modes and access to and safekeeping of institutional equipment. Mature, motivated students could be trusted with finicky equipment, and had proven themselves capable with SGWU’s open reel-to-reel lab, while students less compelled towards laboratory work “tend to wreak havoc even on so-called student-proof equipment.” The biggest problem was still the development of course materials, which necessitated the reinvention of pedagogical programming, not simply its remediation:
We’re categorically opposed to simply repeating a lecture at a blackboard – say from one classroom to another – on videotape. This is a waste of the medium, and I think it’s a way of alienating students. What we’re really trying to do is to make the whole situation more fluid, slowly helping the University get away from dumping lectures over people’s heads like pails of water in the hope that some of them will have their mouths open.
And while the media office had faculty collaborators and were eager to support more who were willing to forge this new fluidity, the commitments required threatened much broader reconfigurations. “It takes several hundred hours to produce an hour of material,” explained Boyd, “so that if one gets in the area of producing tailor-made materials there has to be a fairly radical reorganization of departments to provide the faculty with time to produce the materials.72
The media unit had its own ideas about how this reorganization might proceed. A 12-page “Report to the Vice Principal Academic on the Centre for Instructional Technology,” submitted in August 1970 by a University Council Task Force headed up by Boyd, is the most comprehensive and realistic depiction of how the Centre saw itself, its activities and its way forward. The document proposed a new mandate and prerequisites needed to meet it, including coordination with administrative and academic departments, staff, space and budgets. One recommendation contains proposals for establishing “close, formal ties” with faculties, in order for CIT “to be deeply and meaningfully involved in instructional development.” The Report even proposes the establishment of a new VP, of so-termed “Information Resources,” to whom CIT, the library and the computer center should report. Failing this, the CIT should continue to report to the VP Academic, as “it is primarily an academic development and service department.”73
Other suggestions involve making special budgetary and faculty remissions arrangements to realize the potential of in-house film and television production – currently untapped and recursively beneficial as “the facilities and staff become available to teach communication methods and techniques to faculty, staff and students.” The Coordinator of Academic Planning’s portfolio should include “Instructional Innovation,” and be given a small faculty staff with appropriate course remissions; if innovation was not placed “on the regular administrative path,” other concerns would take priority. The report recognized emerging conflicts of interest for CIT personnel given their role as professors and practitioners, and with responsibilities and affiliations to different departments, and by way of resolution proposed an admittedly “idealistic approach” – the establishment of a new faculty of Communication Arts and Sciences. This new faculty would cleave communication studies and practice from departments that may offer similarly themed courses but which “are somewhat biased towards scholarly activities.” It would contain several departments, namely the language – “not the literary” – branches of French, English and Modern Languages, Fine Arts, and possibly also Computer Science and Education.
It therefore came as a significant disappointment for CIT to learn, only a month after it had submitted its report, that its educational mandate had been removed, its service role prioritized, and its responsibility shifted from the VP Academic to the VP Communications. The decision had been made against a background of other upheavals – administrative changes following SGWU’s 1969 computer centre incident,74 and cutbacks in response to shrinking enrollments – but G.A.B. Moore considered the change a demotion, and ended up leaving SGWU at the end of the winter semester in 1972. The shift was supposed to bring CIT into closer coordination with the library and the Computer Centre, but resulted in the erosion of both the briefly-held autonomy of “the new media,” which now fell in line next to books and computers, and the logic of the media center as the driver of university instruction. The unit faced an additional conundrum, in being looked upon as a luxury but having its equipment purchasing budgets cut back and still needing to meet its service needs.75 CIT staff took it in stride. “We were always in a crisis,” Schofield admitted, adding “AV services were not considered a very high priority, but we did have a lot of freedom. Summer time was quiet and there were a lot of services for which we could charge.” To offset its own production and equipment costs, CIT accepted outside commissions and special projects and effected outside equipment rentals,76 revenues from which were put into buying better equipment.
The noisy resignation of Malcolm Stewart in November, 1972, after heading up the SGWU Language Labs for only four months, pointed to growing tensions around CIT’s direction and upkeep as a centralized media hub, as well as its off-campus engagements. Resigning during the midst of examinations to “bring home […] the urgency” of his concerns, his letter of resignation, published in The Georgian, outlined several points of dissatisfaction, including the fact that the language laboratories were responsible to CIT, rather than the Faculty of Arts or the language departments it primarily served.77 He noted the inability of the language laboratories to deal with departments directly “without the frequently “ill-advised” influence and interference of CIT.” Instead of upholding its service duty to students and these departments, he charged that “CIT has found it very convenient to use language lab facilities, personnel, and time for money-making schemes outside the University.” Stewart mentioned a tape-duplication contract for Canadian National Railways, a detail supported by my interview with then-CIT staffer Heather Dau. She and Alice Foster had opened their own production company while employed at CIT, and conducted freelance audio work for CN, which also had a language lab for employees. Dau described a few other off-site projects, noting “We’d do this after hours,” as IMO offered better recording equipment than we had at our apartment.” At the same time, editing work for SGWU was sometimes brought home, since it was quiet, and there were fewer interruptions. Such conflicts of interest, in Stewart’s view, corroded the day-to-day service provided by CIT to language faculty and resulted in delays and miscommunication around recording materials and professional editing requests. CIT may have been dragging its heels, Stewart charged, “because ‘capital gains’ are not readily evident from these requests.”
A few days passed and SGWU tendered another resignation, this time John Harrison, head of CIT’s film section. Finding no fault with CIT for his departure, Harrison blamed the administration and faculty – the former for cutting incrementally back on CIT’s budget since 1966 and the latter for not understanding what it means to have a media-oriented university. “Faculty are suspicious of media,” Harrison suggested, are reticent to recognize the creativity of CIT technicians and afraid to make good use of CIT’s production services out of professional jealousy. “They would rather we have an intellectual-janitorial relationship where they create the lectures and CIT pushes the buttons.” But while CIT technicians had the skills to make quality productions, it needed faculty involvement to thrive. “Media has been handed to faculty on a silver plate but they refuse to commit themselves,” Harrison stated, faculty either proving unwilling to embrace new media literacies, or demanding remuneration and course releases for the extra workload that saddled media-heavy projects – compensations not accorded to CIT staff, whose salaries, Harrison claimed, were among the lowest on campus.
Schofield attributed these resignations more to the dashing of professional expectations than to negligence of duty or surpassing of power on the part of CIT. The opening of the Hall Building, he explained, attracted quality people who quickly grew frustrated with the lack of follow-up resources. “It was an empty shell.” Harrison had alluded to this as well, noting that his CIT projector was second-hand, salvaged, along with other equipment and furniture, from Man and his World (the exhibition that succeeded Expo ’67) and that “Machines are cannibalized to get others to work.” Such observations start to lend support to Stewart’s charge regarding the laboratories, that they were “obsolete in concept” and ran “dinosaur” equipment. Nevertheless, one of Stewart’s less exaggerated grievances is more intriguing:
the language laboratories’ only two track reel-to-reel recorder was removed by CIT from the lab control room, leaving us with no means of making professional tape copies for students and faculty.
Given this tumult, these unorthodoxies, this allegedly missing recorder (and noting that Mark Schofield had made some of his personal reel-to-reel equipment available for use by CIT), and the departure of CIT’s Director earlier that year (with no replacement), it is remarkable that SpokenWeb retains its recordings from 1972–73. While this story seems to take us far afield from The Poetry Series, it registers confrontations and shifts in attitude regarding the place of audiovisual media on campus and competing ideas about the value and practicality of the university, its technical staff and its faculty becoming audiovisual producers. The details form part of the poetry series’ historical record, insofar as they influence and alter the mandates, funding, facilities, and personnel around the recording operation. Given the changing circumstances, there is a measure of serendipity in that the fact that the poetry recordings are so well captured and preserved.
Institutional Close Reading
On January 23, 1970, poet Diane Wakoski gave a Friday night reading at SGWU, which language lab staffers put to tape in the usual manner. That same day, and throughout the next, esteemed visitors took the stage in another SGWU auditorium for entirely different purposes. These were authors of seminal texts on language lab principles and methods, invited to speak at “Language Laboratory Learning: New Directions,” an international conference focusing on controversies in tape-driven education.78 Language lab pioneer Elton Hocking addressed the problem of lab “folklore,” as he termed it, the error of regarding the lab as merely an “aggregation of tape recorders,” a “magic chamber where language skills are mysteriously bestowed […] by the laying on of headphones.”79 He reminded 400 attendees that the language lab boom had been artificially stimulated, and that their revolution in audio had now produced a counter-insurgency focused on reverting to “traditional” language learning methods or adopting more intensely individualized learning in video modules to be used in drop-in labs for any subject.
In a 2012 interview with poetry series organizer Howard Fink, Jason Camlot asked why the poetry series had been taped. Fink replied it was “for historical significance and for literary significance.” It should be noted that many 1960s and 1970s Canadian poetry recordings, made for similar purposes and not intended for broadcast, were homemade – recorded by audience members or organizers using their own equipment, dubbed and shared informally, and stored in basements and garages. Someone in 1966 had decided the SGWU series should not be recorded in the habitual way, but using institutional facilities, thus binding The Poetry Series to the fortunes of its campus media office and to the genealogy of sound recording and archiving in educational institutions. As for Fink’s historical and literary significances, neither would have been registered, or in quite the same way, without the language lab, without this sound effect, this artificial BOOM, reverberated by SGWU and choreographed by its media personnel. SpokenWeb thus primarily archives the ways the academic institution “heard,” processed and stored The Poetry Series, as an extension of the daily routines of the language lab, redubbed the Tape Laboratory and serving as the voice recording nerve centre of campus. Using this centralized media unit, according to these mandates, reflecting changes over the years in its personnel, equipment and methods, and accompanied by this paper trail – poetry signals coming through on much the same wavelength as recorded French exams, Russian exercises and a video lecture on Canadian broadcasting.
I started this investigation by asking about the relationship between mediality and literariness and conditions of possibility, taking a hybrid artifact as my point of departure, and adopting a purposeful disinterest in literary factors to contextualize the SGWU poetry series. What I discovered was that the series is made up not only of its sound media, but a zillion other micro-details – textual remainders, memories, and absences that point to and particularize its making and unmaking. This micro-detail works to hold together a broader, albeit still piecemeal, history and lends a different contour to the event, placing it in an institutional context that fairly quietly and invisibly renders its mediality and literariness possible.
This accumulated detail is so specific to SGWU and this series that it may say little about poetry series in general terms, from either media or literary points of view – but this is partly the point of the exercise. The investigation aimed to show that literary histories are also media histories; it ends with a renewed conviction that media histories are social and archival stories, not just technical ones.
Its contribution is thus historical and methodological, performing an institutional close reading of a poetry series that sits appropriately and necessarily alongside media forensics and literary analysis conducted at fine grain. It reminds us that media are used in contexts that reflect local architectures, concerns, priorities and personalities, and that literary worlds rely upon facilities and people outside itself for production and circulation. It uncovers and gives voice to “invisible hands” in the sound recording of poetic events, as Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell have done for secretarial labour in literary culture.80
Moreover, it registers the ways social institutions capture and store events via mandates and personnel charged with acquiring, installing and operating specific media according to protocols of institutional and individual design. SpokenWeb, the poetry archive, is thus not only a set of digitized tapes, but extends more broadly beyond both media and literature into the institutional apparatus that conditioned and contains it. Importantly, this expanded archive provides access to aspects of the series that go unnoticed when the spotlight falls fully on either literary creators or media mechanisms. It focuses attention on the institution – the air conditioner – that hums in the background.
Postscript: Poetry as Media Residue
This parallel story of campus media from the period focuses a somewhat different light on just what it was that permitted poetry to travel through time. As Galloway, Thacker and Wark have recently asked with regard to media theory and practice, “What is the academy if not an assemblage of media, some necessary and worth preserving, while others merely the lingering mannerisms of a dead era?”81 The institution, as media practitioner and archival project, also works to separate its information from its noise. And while tapes of poetry readings may be material testaments to the value accorded the documentary capture of special events at SGWU, few tape counterparts exist for classroom practice. This isn’t surprising, even if the life of the university organism is conceived as so many pedagogical events in aggregate, as the records that mark student passage through the institution accumulate elsewhere – namely, in the grade books.
Given the ephemerality and (presumed) disposability of faculty sound recordings from the period and the archival challenges related to storage and playback of magnetic tape, the resilience of these boxes of recorded poetry against the university’s entropic regime is striking. What saved them? Though the precise trajectory of the Poetry Series tapes through the institution is unknown, the Audio-Visual Department did eventually merge with Computer Services in the mid–1990s, at which point outdated technologies and productions were returned to the departments that had initiated or collaborated in their production, at which point they were passed on to the university archives, discarded or otherwise. The tapes became literary artifacts when they were discharged from the media office to the English Department, salvaged in recognition of their connection to a literary world that preceded and exceeded their significance and function as campus media.
While poetry scholars might bristle at my partial divestiture of the tapes’ literary heritage, it falls curiously in line with Bernstein’s Close Listening claims regarding the poetry reading as a social and cultural form: “It is a measure of its significance that it is ignored.”82 He is referring to a wider public’s distance from those intimate and insular cycles of poetic creation and exchange that are engaged in by peers-in-poetry, the social shaping and circulation of works through poet-audiences by means of hearing and saying. “The poetry reading,” he writes, “is an ongoing convention of poetry, by poetry, for poetry.”83 But without recording, the ongoing convention of the reading as a poetry engine is largely that – hearsay. Bernstein can claim that the poetry reading’s phonic and linguistic significances are buoyed by its “relative absence as an institution,” but only so long as it remains unacknowledged that it is tape (and subsequent media and archival translations) and its operators that institutionalize poetry readings. Alongside ears, poets and publications, which encounter and trace the significances that Bernstein notes, it is also tape that registers poetry readings’ beginnings and endings, measures their lengths, compares their varieties, rhythms, noises, cadences and recovers their communities.
This doesn’t mean that the literary is subordinate to mediality. Rather, tape unravels along multiple trajectories at once, being tethered within different webs of meaning, value and practice, advancing and receding from view of different publics at different moments; its pinch rollers in this case are shifts in institutional fortunes, practices and designations. At SGWU, tape saved poetry readings by mattering on campus. But through periods of campus media reorganization and crisis, poetry readings saved tape by mattering beyond it. This analysis shows that attending to literariness – if only departing therefrom and returning thereto – renders media dynamics differently legible. Literariness, too, forms part of media artifacts’ conditions of existence and discovers – awkwardly, poetically – the -dual in residual media.
Jonathan Sterne. MP3: the meaning of a format. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012, 9. ↩
Sterne borrows the analogy from Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz’s “Translator’s Preface” in Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), xiv. Sterne, Mp3, 252 n. 32. ↩
Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology (Polity: Cambridge, 2012), 6. ↩
Wellbery, David E., “Foreword.” Friedrich A. Kittler. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990), xiii. ↩
Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark, “Execrable Media,” Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 3. ↩
Jason Camlot. “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms: The Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, 1966–1974.” Journal of Canadian Studies / Revue d’études canadiennes 46.3 (Fall 2012): 28–59. ↩
Charles Bernstein (ed.). Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press), 1998. ↩
Sterne, Mp3, 252 n. 32. ↩
Darren Wershler and Jason Camlot, Discerning the Reading Series (Working Paper, Concordia University, Montreal, 2013). ↩
Vivian Sobchak. “Afterword,” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 328. ↩
See, for example, Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University press, 2009); Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Michael Davidson, “‘By ear, he sd’: Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism.” Credences 1.1: (1981): 105–120; Chapter 8, “The Materiality of Informatics,” in Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999); Jentery Sayers, How Text Lost Its Source: magnetic recording cultures. PhD thesis, University of Washington, 2011. ↩
Parikka, What is Media Archaeology, 83–89. ↩
Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture (MIT Press: Cambridge, 2006), 9. ↩
Gitelman, Always Already New, 8. ↩
Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012), 178. ↩
Warren B. Roby, “Technology in the service of foreign language teaching: The case of the language laboratory,” in D. Jonassen, ed., Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (Mahwah, N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum 2004), 525. ↩
Louis J. Chatagnier and Gilbert Taggart, “Introduction,” in Laboratoires de langues: orientations nouvelles / Language laboratory learning: new directions, eds. Louis J. Chatagnier and Gilbert Taggart. (Montreal: Aquila, 1970), 14–15. ↩
Roby, “Technology in the Service,” 524. ↩
Roby notes that the method was actually a civilian initiative, developed during wartime: the Intensive Language Program of the American Council of Learned Societies, with Rockeller Foundation funding (Science comes to languages, 1944), see Roby, “Technology in the Service,” 524. ↩
David Morton, Off the Record: the technology and culture of sound recording in America. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 153. ↩
See Jacob Smith, Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 25–26, 50–51. ↩
Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson, “Introduction: Utility and Cinema,” in Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 2–3. ↩
Roby, “Technology in the Service,” 524. ↩
Chatagnier and Taggart, “Introduction,” 21–22. ↩
Forty-four of these are higher educational institutions in Quebec (which includes colleges, normal schools, CÉGÉPs and universities). Guy Plastre, Guide des laboratoires de langues dans la province de Québec. (Québec : Service des laboratoires de langues, Faculté des lettres, Université Laval, 1969). ↩
G.A.B. Moore’s survey of educational technology reported 12 laboratories in 33 Canadian universities by 1970, see G.A.B. Moore, The Development of Educational Technology in Canadian Universities. PhD Thesis. (Syracuse: Syracuse University, 1971), 161–169. ↩
Canada. Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Report. Book II, Education. Ottawa, 1968, 260. The Commission emphasized that teachers and students should receive adequate training in the use of the labs, in addition to receiving language instruction (219, 253, 259–260). ↩
Canada. Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Report. Book II, Education. Ottawa, 1968, 214–215. ↩
See John A. Lee, Test Pattern: Instructional Television at Scarborough College (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1971; Plumptre, A.F.W., “Scarborough’s Noble Experiment,” University of Toronto Graduate, May 1972, p. 12–15, 57–58. ↩
G.A.B. Moore, personal communication, July 18, 2013. ↩
Dean J.W. O’Brien, Memo, February 20, 1962, 3. HA 1517. University Committee on Development (UCOD), Institutional Fonds, Concordia University Records Management and Archives. ↩
The lack of Canadians with higher degrees was referred to as “the crisis in Canadian education.” The scenario was acute with regard to educational technology, and the University of Alberta was the only Canadian center that offered such training. ↩
J.W. O’Brien, Faculty of Arts Preliminary Budget Statement for the Year 1965–66, May 15, 1964, HA 1543, Concordia University Records Management and Archives. ↩
Meeting of the meeting of 23 May, 1963. University Committee on Development, HA 1517, Concordia University Records Management and Archives. ↩
“New Language Lab in Operation,” Principal’s Bulletin, 1967, 3(9), 3–4; Terence Moore, “Ssh! Minds are Busy behind the Headsets, Tapes ‘Teach’ at Sir George,” The Montreal Star, Thursday, January 26, 1967, 33. ↩
Interview with Mark Schofield, September 12, 2014. ↩
Nick Ostopkevich, personal communication. ↩
The record player still outperformed the tape recorder that year, though instructor use fell by 14 hours, from 536 to 522, and student society use increased marginally, from 138 to 142. 1961-62 Report on the use of A-V Equipment, Principal’s Office fonds, Center for Instructional Technology, 1962-1974, HA 1591, Concordia University Records Management and Archives. ↩
Fifth floor Hall Building classrooms H–523 and H–527, adjoined by H-525. ↩
One of the rooms housed 32 “open” positions, “4 each at 8 library tables, while the 36-position room provided semi-isolated carrel workspaces.” ↩
Two French courses and courses in Spanish, German, Russian and Hebrew. ↩
Lab opening hours were Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ↩
Moore, “Ssh! Minds are Busy,” 33. ↩
G.A.B. Moore, “Growth of Educational Technology in Canadian Higher Education,” British Journal of Educational Technology, 1(3) (January, 1972): 34. ↩
Moore, “Ssh! Minds are Busy,” 33. ↩
Douglass Burns Clarke, Decades of Decisions: Sir George Williams University, 1952–53 to 1972–73 (1977), 137. ↩
Harvey Oberfeld, “Audio-Visual facilities best in country,” The Georgian, October 14, 1966, S–4. ↩
“Department of Modern Languages,” Principal’s Bulletin, Sir George Williams University, January 28, 1965, 1(7). ↩
A German-made machine, a low-grade commercial device. Nick Ostopkevich, SGWU’s first Director of Technical Services, described the Uher as a “poor boy’s Nagra.” ↩
The readings were held in one of the following: second floor mezzanine or “Mixed Gallery,” the theatre in the Hall Building sub-basement, the H–110 auditorium or H–651. ↩
Principal’s Office fonds, Center for Instructional Technology, 1962-1974, HA 1591, Concordia University Records Management and Archives. ↩
Beatrice Mary Wright (“Molly”) Petrie had gone on to establish SGWU’s ESL program and retire as Professor Emeritus of Lingusitics. ↩
Personal correspondence. Italics in original. ↩
Christian Bök, “When Cyborgs Versify,” in Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, eds., The sound of poetry, the poetry of sound (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2009), 136. ↩
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Trans. Wade Baskin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 113. ↩
Nick Ostopkevich, interview. ↩
The tape reel is “silent” from the point of view of the archive, as it can’t be played unless a digital copy is commissioned. I came across no record that links these reels with the cassette copies in the library. ↩
The first-year curriculum included the following courses: Nature and Function of Instructional communication, Communication Theory and Research, Research and Writing for Media, Seminar and Laboratory in Television Production, Seminar and Laboratory in Film Production. ↩
The department budget would also be divided into two, one related to the all-University service and one related to teaching responsibilities. ↩
G.A.B. Moore, “The Evaluation of a Media Resource-based Learning Project and its Modification of Traditional Classroom procedures,” Educational Media International, 12:4, 18–20. ↩
Dr. Judith Woodsworth, longtime colleague of Gilbert Taggart in Concordia’s French department, recalled jokey, boastful departmental banter about royalties received. ↩
Cours audio-visual de français, langue seconde, directed by Sir George Williams University (1970; Montreal: CIT-SGWU), 16 mm. ↩
Professor Taggart played the role of “potential employer, museum guide and good-for-nothing,” see “Telexam,” Issues & Events (SGWU Information Office), 2(12), December 3, 1970, 3. See also Gilbert Taggart and G.A.B. Moore, “The Use of Closed-Circuit Television for Oral Tests in the Language Laboratory,” National Association of Language Laboratory Directors, NALLD Journal, Vol II, No. 1, October 1972, 27. Personal communication with G.A.B. Moore and Mark Schofield. ↩
Mark Schofield recalls this as having been a Viking Lab, while Plastre’s Guide des laboratoires (1969) registers this as a “Monitor” lab, with 21 positions. A photograph of the “Telexam” shows lab furniture fitting the description of the Norris building lab, with headphones from the Omnilab setup.
The Norris Building equipment originally had reel-to-reel decks at individual positions, but these had been updated to run with Phillips cassettes. Personal communication with Mark Schofield. ↩
Equipment was later modified by Nick Ostopkevich and Mark Schofield to start and stop automatically in alignment with the test. G.A.B. Moore, personal communication; Mark Schofield, interview. ↩
G.A.B. Moore, personal communication. ↩
See Raymond Williams. “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. (London: Verso, 2005), 50-64. ↩
Audio-Visual Department memo from Bernard Queenan to Gary Boyd (1975). P249 – Gary Boyd fonds, Concordia University Records Management and Archives ↩
Gary Boyd, “The Language Laboratory at the University Level: the Learning Centre,” in Laboratoires de langues: orientations nouvelles / Language Laboratory Learning: new directions, ed. Louis J. Chatagnier et al. (Montreal: Aquila, 1971), 150. ↩
Boyd, “The Language Laboratory,” 153. ↩
“A Cross Between Art and Engineering,” Issues & Events, vol. 1(7), October 23, 1969, p. 1, 3. ↩
“A Cross Between Art and Engineering,” Issues & Events, vol. 1(7), October 23, 1969, p. 1, 3. ↩
“Report to the Vice Principal Academic on the Centre for Instructional Technology,” 8. Principal’s Office fonds, Center for Instructional Technology, 1962-1974, HA 1591, Concordia University Records Management and Archives. ↩
In which students occupied the 9th floor Computer Centre for over ten days in protest of the university’s handling of charges of racism made against a professor. The incident and its resolution resulted in 97 arrests and damages totaling $2 million. See: http://archives.concordia.ca/computer-riot ↩
Clarke, Decades of Decisions, 138. ↩
For instance, CIT was commissioned to provide a complex, multi-screen slide presentation for the first meeting of the Association of Early Childhood Education of Quebec. This involved scouting and gathering all the photographic images, then devising the technical setup. CIT also rented out a DIY video camera unit they’d improvised for mobile use (used for outdoor shots on Taggart’s television French course, and most often used by SGTV to record hockey games) to former students running an interactive performance exhibit at the Japanese pavilion at the Man and his World exhibition subsequent to Expo ’67. ↩
Malcolm J. Stewart. “Stewart Resigns.” The Georgian. Friday, November 10, 1972, p. 4. ↩
Among them were Elton Hocking, author of Language Laboratory and Language Learning, Pierre Léon, author of Laboratoire de langues et correction phonétique: essai méthodologique, and Paul Pimsleur, Director of the Listening Center at Ohio State University and founder of the ever popular “Pimsleur method” of language learning. ↩
Elton Hocking, “1950 Revisited,” in Laboratoires de langues: orientations nouvelles / Language Laboratory Learning: new directions, ed. Louis J. Chatagnier et al. (Montreal: Aquila, 1971), 56. ↩
Leah Clark and Pamela Thurschwell, “Introduction: Invisible Hands,” in Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture, ed. Leah Clark and Pamela Thurschwell (Ashgate, 2005), 1–12. ↩
Galloway, Thacker, and Wark, “Execrable Media,” 5. ↩
Charles Bernstein, Close Listening, 23. ↩
Charles Bernstein, Close Listening, 23. ↩
The author extends generous thanks to Mark Schofield, G.A.B. Moore, Nick Ostopkevich, Winston Cross, Heather Dau and Ainsley Clarke for sharing lively correspondence and recollections as former staff members of SGWU's Technical Services and Language Laboratories, to Caroline Sigouin and Vincent Ouellette of Concordia University Records Management and Archives for their care, assistance and support in accessing and reproducing materials featured in this paper, and to Lisa Gitelman, Jason Camlot and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and suggestions.