Duke's technological transformation
College students of the 21st century rarely go a day without experiencing the benefits of modern technologies. Smart phones and the Internet provide instantaneous access to information, note-taking with a pen and notebook is nearly a remnant of the past and classrooms take advantage of sophisticated equipment to enhance students’ learning experiences. Duke’s academic culture in the past, however, was drastically different from the tech-savvy campus that students know now.
Students currently have the opportunity to register for classes from the comfort of their dormitories and can easily drop a class and switch into another online. In the days before such easy access, however, students needed to be physically present for class registration. Requiring students to line up several hours in advance, class registration initiated a line of students of similar length to what current Duke students see in Krzyzewskiville before basketball games.
“In so many ways, technology has transformed our business,” English professor Victor Strandberg said.
Strandberg first came to Duke in 1966 and has been a professor at the University for almost 50 years. Registration previously occurred in either a large tent or an auditorium on campus, he said. Several professors would set up tables organized according to their respective academic departments and await an inundation of students seeking to register for classes.
“Students would rush to the tables and enroll in whatever classes they wanted, but they had to do it quick. If the class filled up, that was tough luck,” Strandberg said. “It was chaotic. So of course having the computerized system is a godsend for both students and teachers.”
Dropping or adding a class was even less convenient. Amy Waldo Allen, Trinity ‘81, said the Drop-Add process took place in the intramural gym during the first week of classes.
“I tried to avoid having to do Drop-Add because it was pesty and time consuming,” she wrote in an email.
Before computers covered the familiar tables and desks of Perkins Library, there were typewriters. Students were only able to use electrical typewriters in the library and didn’t have the freedom to edit and to change drafts numerous times. If a typist made a mistake, he or she needed to white it out, let it dry and then type over the mistake. Elizabeth Franke Stevens, Trinity ‘81, said correction fluid was essential for the typing process. The longer the paper was, the more pressure there was to avoid the need to retype it.
“There was definitely less opportunity to analyze and edit,” said Margaret Crockett, Trinity ’81.
The typing process required students to handwrite drafts prior to typing the final version. For those students who paid other students or members of the community to type the paper for them, the draft needed to be completed well in advance of the deadline.
“I was a terrible and slow typist... so I paid a stay-at-home mom who wanted to make some money to type my papers,” Allen said.
Phyllis Bedel Crockett, Duke School of Nursing ‘57, said hand writing assignments was the only alternative to typing.
The technical process of typing on typewriters was not the only obstacle to writing a paper. Julie Tetel Andresen, chair of linguistics and Trinity ‘72, explained that in place of electronic journals, students could only use books as sources. And rather than looking up the locations of books using computers, students used card catalogues.
A ‘painstaking’ process
Even more tedious than the typing process was the reproduction of papers. Strandberg explained that in order to produce copies of a paper or picture, students and professors needed to type out their intended copy onto a stencil, then place it in a machine and crank out the duplicates by hand.
“It was a very painstaking and imperfect process,” he said.
When it came to reproducing material from a publication, whether it be a picture or a reading, the page needed to be torn out. Often, when a student attempted to find what he or she needed, the page had already been ripped out. Sometimes, this process became a competition among students—a student could rip out the sought-after page just to garner an advantage in the class over the other students.
“It was a disaster for scholarship,” Strandberg said.
Duke’s academic culture was arguably less complicated, however, than the technology-driven campus students know today. Prior to the convenience of instantaneous communication through email, no assignments could be due during breaks, Margaret Crockett said.
Allen also noted that take-home tests were a rarity, and the occasional ones were written by hand and dropped off at the professor’s office.
Tetel Andresen said there was more reading assigned in the past but perhaps fewer written assignments.
“There was no leeway to turn in work, though. We had to hand in our work right at the beginning of class,” she said.
Duke students would most likely consider the current class schedule and grading system to be improvements from past decades. Tetel Andresen said during her tenure at Duke, the University required all students to take five classes. Classes would meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
In the past, the classrooms never revolved around PowerPoint presentations, nor were classrooms filled with students taking notes on their laptops. Instead, the class environment relied on blackboards and transparencies on a projector. Stevens said she thinks these modern improvements in the classroom are helpful because they make it easier for students to keep up with lectures and take notes.
“Without PowerPoints and handouts, it was more important to listen well and take excellent class notes, and not to miss class,” Margaret Crockett said.
Despite the somewhat simpler academic environment that existed before these modern technologies, Strandberg and Tetel Andresen said modern technologies have allowed for many valuable possibilities.
Tetel Andresen credits the advent of electronic journals with providing the ability to spend less time searching for this information and more time reading it—often search engines allow people to encounter helpful readings randomly.
Strandberg said universal access to information will become increasingly prominent in the future.
“I’m looking forward to using the Internet to teach classes free of charge to anyone in the world interested in the subject,” Strandberg said. “I’m looking forward to at least some investment in this enormously welcome time when we can offer an education to people not limited by their income level.”
Not everyone has such a favorable view toward modern technology. Some may idealize a simpler Duke where students had more free time and juggled fewer demands. But before complaining about having to work at too fast of a pace, current students can be grateful that they don’t need to trek to Perkins to find books using a card catalogue, go to class on Saturdays or jostle people in line to get into popular classes on registration day.