Summers of yesteryear
For more than 100 years now Queen's Summer School has been a campus tradition, but never more so than in the years from 1910 until the late 1970s.
Other than the sounds of heavy machinery emanating from the Goodes Hall and Nixon Field construction sites, Queen’s has been quieter than usual this summer. That’s because for the first time in more than a century, no credit courses were offered on campus.
If you turn the clock back four or five decades, a very different picture emerges. Queen’s Summer School – formally opened in 1910, but offering credit courses since 1888 – transformed the campus each July and August. The majority of students were elementary and high school teachers upgrading their education to improve career prospects.
“The whole atmosphere is enthusiastic and thriving, but with a distinctive flavour,” reported The Queen’s Review in August 1929. “It is pervaded with the seriousness of professional life and with the discipline of domesticity. In games it is assiduous and expert but without undergraduate abandon, and without becoming ‘collegiate.’ In other words, the Summer School is essentially a Faculty of its own.”
In 1934 more than 500 students “from every province in the Dominion” registered for summer courses in arts and science, physical culture, and fine arts. Outdoor classes in painting, introduced that year, proved an attraction for both teachers and Kingston residents. The Summer School Chorus gave a public concert of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and arias from the opera Gioconda, while drama students presented four one-act plays and two poetry readings.
Unlike most of her classmates in the summer of 1943, Bea Corbett, Arts’44, MA’95, was a full-time student. It was wartime, explains Bea – who is now retired in Kingston – and she wanted to graduate quickly so she could join the newly minted Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRENS). “Much as I loved being at Queen’s, there was an added urgency to finish,” she says.
Summer classes were smaller and less formal, making it easier for students to get to know one another and their professors, many of whom had been imported from other universities to teach. Bea remembers in particular a Toronto philosophy instructor whose course on ethics caused her mind to soar. “I almost regretted having chosen English as my major,” she chuckles.
Isabel Eddy, Arts’44, a classmate and close friend of Corbett’s, attended the same summer session. Her future husband, Robert Eddy, Sc’41, was training in England with the Royal Canadian Engineers and she recalls that Queen’s “was a beleaguered community” in 1943. “Most of the young men had vanished from campus to join the armed forces or work in essential war industries. Family problems left me anchored to Kingston, but I was restless and anxious to finish my degree under the ancien régime before it collapsed entirely!”
To both women, the “regular” summer students – many in their 30s and 40s, with years of teaching experience – seemed to come from a different world altogether. One gently chided Isabel for writing the last page of a term paper 10 minutes before the deadline. “She made me feel like an idler,” Isabel says with a laugh.
In the 1950s, courses in ballet, choral direction, opera, public speaking, theatrical art, radio production and “a School of English for French-speaking Canadians” were added to the roster, while teachers living in Hamilton, Bermuda could take Queen’s summer courses in psychology or history, thanks to a collaboration with the Bermuda Department of Education.
Enrolment had risen to 1,500 by 1960, when the School celebrated its golden jubilee. Eight years later, a brochure listed 71 credit courses in 24 disciplines and promised “the ideal combination of study and relaxation during the summer months” with social events and sports such as tennis, softball and swimming.
Attendance peaked in 1971, at just under 3,000 students – and then the bubble burst. The Ontario Ministry of Education made a university degree mandatory for certification, which meant teachers could no longer obtain their degrees gradually, after starting their jobs. By 1978 registration had dropped to 700, and since then numbers have continued to decline.
This year all summer courses are offered online, with close to 3,000 enrolments in 32 courses, ranging across the sciences, humanities and social sciences. “Enrolment in on-campus courses had dropped to an unsustainable level,” says Brenda Ravenscroft, Associate Dean (Studies) in the Faculty of Arts and Science, noting that “Students prefer the flexibility of online courses in the summer.”
One of the most popular online offerings this summer? Not surprisingly, it’s a course on digital media culture, tailored for iPads and smartphones.