Monday, September 27, 2004

The World is Changing?

We are often told that the world is changing at an astounding pace, but is this really so? As an instructor at Mount Allison University, I prepare the material I teach the summer before a course begins. Over the summer I search for new readings, develop new lessons, outline new lectures, conduct web searches for new material students might find interesting and matters of that sort. The summer is a good time to do this because faculty are simply too busy during the school year to do much other than review lecture outlines and readings. Marking, university administration, meeting with students, and other matters of that sort absorb far more time than class preparation. Only to illustrate my point, I’d guess I marked close to 1000 different students submissions last year (incuding exams, midterms, papers, paper proposals, presentations, etc.). With that volume of marking, you can see that there is not a lot of extra time to prepare lectures, web-based material for courses, etc.

What does this have to do with the changing world? This: I prepare some of these blogs, in outline form, over the summer, drafting out a rough synopsis and outline of what I intend to say. This one is an example. I started to think about change and Canada on May 3. Because I was having some difficulties with the computer I normally use, I drafted the outline of this blog and a couple of others on an old Powerbook 150 that I’d had for years. This is not a computer talk but this computer must be 12 or 15 years old. It runs none of the snappy new programmes to which we are now accustomed. I drafted the outline on a word processor (Wordperfect 3.1 for Mac) that has been discontinued for perhaps five years and saved it on a storage system that I haven’t personally made much use of (3.5 floppy disk), since I got my first iMac five years ago. Yet, the basic technology still works and still does its job. Wordperfect 3.1 for Mac may not longer be supported but it saves to formats that are. And, while you couldn’t use any of the newer programmes on this old power book, one could use email, spreadsheets, paint programmes, or even use a text browser to surf the web. In other words, everything I do today on the relatively new and snazzy computer in my office, I could do on my old powerbook.

Now, someone might be saying: OK, but isn’t that the same thing as saying that a model-T could still provide basic transportation. Yes, it is. We might not really like driving in a model-T in the same way that most of us wouldn’t like using an old powerbook 150, but it would get the job done and many of the basic principles that make them work (the computer’s CPU and the model-T’s engine), would be easily recognizable to people working on similar things today. The internal combustion engine is a lot better today than it was in the day and age of the model-T, but the basic principles of its operation are the same. Computers today are faster than they used to be, but the basic principles of their operation are substantively the same as they were when the first graphical user interfaces became popular.

I don’t want to engage in a wide debate about file systems and computer languages or engines because, frankly, I’m not expert in these things (the fact that I keep an old powerbook 150 around should tell you this). What I do want to do is make a point: perhaps the speed and scope of change has been overestimated. Consider what we are supposed to be considering: Canadian Studies. How has Canada changed over the years? Well, in some ways it has changed dramatically. But, in other ways, change might be less apparent than we think. Consider urbanization: urbanization is hardly new to Canadians. A majority of Canadians have lived in an urban environment since the 1921 census. Ethnic diversity? Canada has always been a diverse country. The issue is more how Canadians manage diversity than the fact of diversity. The idea (held by some Canadians) that diversity is new is a myth. Don’t believe me? Review old census data. How about multiculturalism? It dates from 1971, 33 years ago. Official bilingualism? It is even older: 1969. Francophone/Anglophone tensions or disputes between First Nations and white Canadians? These started before Confederation.

Obviously, what you are reading is an opinion piece, not some finely honed argument. The objective of this blog is not to provide finely honed arguments. The argument I want to make, however, strikes me as potentially important: pehraps the speed and scope of change as discussed in public discourse has been overestimated. Perhaps there are a series of important continuities to the Canadian experience(s) and perhaps in Canadian Studies we should be thinking about these as well as change.
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