Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tales of Technology Part III: A Short History of a CEGEP

I recently flipped through an old CEGEP textbook of mine.  It was the Reader’s Digest Great Events of the Twentieth Century… published in 1977 with an entire quarter century left to go.  The section on China ends with “…Mao has gone to enormous lengths to implant his ideology, and only time will tell how strongly its roots have taken hold.” This was a very different world.

According to Wikipedia, the CEGEP  educational system in Quebec began in 1967.  Six years later, a tiny new English CEGEP (Champlain College) started up in St. Lambert, my Montreal suburb.  My mom got a part-time job there, unpacking big boxes full of mixed-up library catalogue cards.  She had to sort them and put them into card catalogue drawers. It was the first time in my childhood that Mom had worked outside the home; but the new CEGEP was kitty corner from my elementary school, so she didn’t seem too far away. 

We all grow up and become more independent.  I soon went off to the high school down the street, and Champlain College moved into its brand new square brown brick building on the other side of St. Lambert, on the Seaway Park field.  Mom, the library, and the card catalogue moved there too.  The field was a good place to put a school. 

One could sit beside the window and watch ships go by and pavilions burn up. 

My brother was old enough for CEGEP by then. He signed up for something mysterious called “Data Processing”, which involved lying on the living room floor sorting hole-punched cards.  Apparently, once these card were in their proper piles with elastic bands around them, he would hand them in to his teacher, who would send them over to Montreal to be put through a big machine. 

High school zips by, and soon I was attending Champlain College too, enjoying the wild freedom it gave me to choose my own courses and steer clear of all sciences.  The Data Processing program must have existed still, because some of my classmates carried around those same stacks of hole-punched, elastic-band-bound cards.  After their trip into Montreal, these cards became  printouts, and my classmates would gather gloomily around them to analyze what went wrong.  Data Processing looked like a whole lot of trouble: another subject to steer clear of.  I was quite content to spend my CEGEP years reading through large books about centuries that weren’t even over yet.

But we can never completely escape technology.  In CEGEP, I made the shocking discovery that I wasn’t allowed to handwrite my essays.  I had to spend dreaded hours in the typewriter room at school, engaging with that terrible instrument.  But I managed to get through that and graduate.

 Meanwhile, upstairs in the library (where Mom still worked in her new job of ordering and receiving books,) the staff discussed the notion of automating the book catalogue.  Mom remembers that discussion.  In those days, the idea of setting up computers was treated like a luxury; as optional as the idea of getting a microwave for the staff room.  Fortunately, the library decided in favour of automation, and Mom became the first in the family to use a computer... unless you count my brother’s sorting sessions on the living room floor.  She found the experience frustrating, but she got through it and stayed at the library until the late 90s. I suspect that, by then, any program at Champlain College called “Data Processing” no longer involved hole-punched cards.   Also by then, the concept of “user-friendly” was fully developed, and I had turned into a happy technology user.

The card catalogue that Mom set up in the 70s was retired: dumped into the recycle bin.  But my out-of-date textbook lives on.