Stephen Leacock, the famous Canadian humorist, teacher and writer, said: 'If I were founding a university I would begin with a smoking room; next a dormitory; and then a decent reading room and a library. After that, if I still had more money that I couldn’t use, I would hire a professor and get some text books.’
If Leacock were writing this today he would have probably said that that he would begin with a coffee shop, not a smoking room – but otherwise his ideas fit well with those who write about the third place (coffee shops, libraries etc.), informal learning, and how students learn from each other and from the world around them. Late night conversations in residence, discussions over coffee with fellow students, and explorations of library books and other resources are some of the most productive and interesting learning experiences available to students.
I lived in residence at the University of Saskatchewan and became friends with students in virtually every faculty on campus. Living on campus allowed me to attend concerts, play with a college band and a concert band, attend theatre presentations, and meet students from other countries.
I studied science and agriculture but found that I was also interested in English, History and a variety of other subjects; I learned to appreciate areas of study that other students chose, and to read books that they recommended. I still have books that were given to me by friends I met on campus in the early 1960s – books which included One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Selected Writings of Herman Melville, and The Faulkner Reader. Being in residence was one of the highlights of my university years.
My University residence (Qu’Appelle Hall) was very close to the College Building (now known as the Peter McKinnon Building), which contained Convocation Hall. Since there were no classes between noon and 1:00 PM student groups invited politicians and others to speak at Convocation Hall and the Memorial Union Building.
Speaking to several hundred university students can be a humbling or an invigorating experience. Lester Pearson was indignant as the crowd laughed when he referred to himself as the next Prime Minister – but, of course, he later became Canada’s 14th Prime Minister. Tommy Douglas, however, was always delighted when he was asked difficult questions by young Conservatives and Liberals because this gave him opportunities to engage in conversations with these students about current issues. He also had witty and appropriate responses for hecklers which everyone, including the hecklers, enjoyed.
Living in residence gave me the opportunity to attend evening lectures by visiting authors, scientists and experts in various fields. Most of these were held in Convocation Hall. I decided that I would go to as many of these as possible, especially those with speakers who were unknown to me. One cold and snowy evening I went to a lecture by Laurens Van Der Post. I did not know who he was, only that he would be speaking about Africa. It proved to be one of the finest presentations I had attended. Van Der Post discussed his life in South Africa, his wartime experiences, and his books, including The Lost World of the Kalahari. His presentation and his books (which I read later) were probably factors in my decision to spend the summer of 1964 in Kenya with Operation Crossroads Africa.
Dr. Hans Selye and his research related to stress in a medical context are well known now, but in the early 1960s when he spoke in Convocation Hall I had never heard of him or stress as we now understand it. I learned about the significance of stress in a short time from this amazing man who was responsible for most of the early work in this area.
By living on campus I was also able to attend concerts (and practices) of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, theatre productions, and student musical events. Folk singers, including the great Guy Carawan included the U of S on their concert tours. Carawan, who visited the University twice in two years, introduced the protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’ to the American Civil Rights Movement.
We can provide new opportunities in our learning system by using technology appropriately, especially for those who cannot attend classes regularly. However, we should recognize that students who attend universities and colleges – particularly those who live on campus – have unique learning opportunities, not all of which relate to classes, degree programs and job opportunities. Living on campus and taking advantage of the learning opportunities that are available can be as significant as what we learn in classrooms.