Unmasking Tape: Poetry Reading at SGWU from the Recorder’s POV

Posted by Christine Mitchell

Since joining SpokenWeb at the end of spring, I haven’t had a chance to meet the team, or talk about my approach to the SGWU poetry series. Thus, this: a post to briefly (and broadly) introduce what I’m up to. The next will outline a few discoveries and challenges to date.

Rather than departing from poetic texts or performances in exploring the SGWU reading series, I’m adopting a media materialist, media archaeological approach that starts from the magnetic tape. From this perspective, readers are the tape machines that inscribed the series and reading series is the set of reels that served as voice, literary and event storage for 45 years until its recent retrieval and digital translation. My eyes, ears and hands have not been stuck on sound recording equipment and tapes, however (and not only because the stuff is no longer around—or can’t be listened to lest the tape disintegrate [see: “challenges” in next post]). Instead, following the tape—or searching for the tape—as it enters and weaves its way through SGWU in the late 60s and early 70s (through echoes in archives, mentions in interviews and glimpses in leftover AV materials) leads to scenes and situations beyond the poetry series in which the university performed its technological literacy and grappled with its media state-of-the-artfulness. Notably, these are scenes in which sound recording exists in a burgeoning ecosystem of instructional media, of which closed-circuit TV is the rising star, and against a transforming campus architecture, an explosion in student population, a dearth of faculty, and swelling popular and educational interest in “the new media.”

A diagram of this approach might have questions arranged in concentric circles, starting with small details and very close to the poetry readings (why were they recorded? what equipment was used? who operated the machines? where were the tapes stored? (how) were they catalogued?), then moving outward and away from poetry and from audio, towards language and media more broadly and crashing up against various institutional centers of gravity: SGWU’s Instructional Media Office (later, C.I.T., the Centre for Instructional Technology), technical provisions for Hall Building construction, language laboratories, tape and AV material libraries, French and Modern Languages departments, professors, curriculum development, educational philosophies, teacher/student training in media use, etc. With regard to technology at this institutional level, relevant questions include: What did instructional technology mean for SGWU at the time and what kinds of investments were being made in technology? What was the range of imagined uses—for students, faculty, technical personnel, administrators? What were the institutional politics around these visions? How did they align with broader municipal, provincial and national concerns and realities?

In line with the thematics of SpokenWeb, I’m particularly interested in the way the tape recorder is figured and understood in different parts of the university, in the kinds of speech it produces, and the range of linguistic and sonic dispositions it generates. Tape as a kind of universal “language delivery system” makes it an especially useful vantage point from which to explore connections and tensions between language and literary pedagogy. A detail motivating this focus on tape as centrepiece is that the recorder that captured the first readings of the SGW series came from the university’s language laboratories. These were the gridded mimicry chambers in which students were ear-wired to a centralized console and tape-led through a series of programmatic drill exercises, listening to and modeling so-called “ideal” language and submitting themselves to sound surveillance by their instructors. What range of theories are orbiting around tape and tape machines when they appear in such configurations as well as in service of group listening, poetic experimentation and the archiving of cultural events? What can tape tell us about the institutional re/production of speech, linguistic and literary knowledge?

In short, pulling the tape unfurls a site-specific institutional history that sheds light on assumptions and expectations around technology in and around the practice of higher education. It takes spokenweb’s understandings of “performance” in new directions, supplementing the literary and expressive with the technical and the academic, as one encounters anxieties about smooth equipment operation and the maintenance protocols in place to mitigate them, and beliefs about the way new mediations of teaching and learning activities translate into student and faculty success. New machines and personnel create new professional status arrangements and alignments, threatening or unsettling customary ones. When instructional equipment consisted of lecture, lectern, chalk and chalkboard, for instance, faculty members were independent and in full control; making useful use of tape, labs and closed circuit TV demanded time, assistance, a learning curve and ceding control. Tensions and negotiations discovered in this history can’t help but resonate with present day debates over technological transitions and embellishments in scholarly life. With magnetic storage as a through line, it would be well worth exploring contrasts and continuities between today’s stock-taking on the future of the (Canadian) university with the conditions that seemed to threaten it in 1960s-1970s Montreal.

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