Resident Students’ Communications and Entertainment Technologies: From Communal to Personal (And Back Again?)

My biggest project during my first semester at Indiana University’s Higher Education and Student Affairs PhD program was a research project focusing on the history of student-used communications and entertainment technologies in the IU residence halls throughout the 20th century. I relied almost exclusively on archived historical materials, including memos to and from various administrators, strategic plans (and drafts of those plans), student and popular media reports, and meeting minutes. Although my initial hope was to document not only what technologies were used but also why those technologies were introduced and maintained, the second question (“Why?”) proved to be difficult and elusive. Nonetheless, it was exciting and interesting and I was able to draw some relatively sound conclusions.

First, there is no unifying force or explanation to explain or account for the adoption of every technology. Although I expected to find a strong thread of consumerism and competition driving the adoption of most or all of the technologies, an expectation shared by prominent education historian John Thelin (in response to a query posted on my behalf to a historian listserv by IU professor Andrea Walton), those do not appear to have been significant driving forces. This may be explained by the lack of meaningful competitive pressure felt by a service that IU students were forced to fund (even today, first-year IU students are required to live on campus). Moreover, each technology has a unique history. Telephones and buzzers were initially installed almost exclusively as convenient communications devices. Their popularity and widespread presence throughout Indiana and America seems to have been the primary driving force in expanding telephone access in the residence halls and there is little evidence that students regularly demanded the continued expansion of telephone-related services and access. Radios and record players were originally furnished by the university as they could only be used in common spaces. They were integral parts of communal and social activities, roles that were gradually assumed by television and other activities and media. Computers and computer networks were explicitly introduced in large part to address computer literacy and provide residents with access to academic technologies.

Second, and more interestingly, is the pervasive trend common among all of these technologies that their origination in the IU residence halls as a shared resource in a common space was followed by a move into the individual rooms as private ownership of the technologies become more affordable and common among residents. In other words, each of the technologies either migrated from a shared communal location and experience to a more private and personal one.  In many cases, the technology initially played an important role in the communal social life and activities of the residents. Telephones were initially placed in lounges and hallways while residents were reminded to keep their calls short out of consideration of others that may be disturbed by the conversation or need to make a phone call. Radios and record players began as furnishings in lounges and significant social events were organized around them. Televisions were only allowed in specified common lounges, sometimes advertised as “TV rooms.” Computers were available only in clusters.

Each of these technologies, however, moved into individual residence hall rooms and shifted from enablers of communal activities and gatherings to more private and personal uses. Telephones migrated from hallways to suites and eventually were installed in each individual room. As newer residence halls were constructed with more modern electrical systems, radios, record players, and televisions were permitted in individual rooms. The university even made provisions to assist residents in obtaining good reception with the television sets as indicated by the drama surrounding external antenna that culminated in cable television in each room. Even before networking equipment was installed, computers quickly moved out of the clusters and into individual rooms as microcomputers became powerful and commonplace. Although vestiges of each of these technologies remained outside the rooms, the migration of these technologies into the individual rooms mirrors a more general trend towards more personal space and more individual amenities as well as a decreasing cost for once-expensive technologies.

This semester, I am pursuing independent study under the supervision of Andrea Walton in which I will seek to expand on the finding that these technologies historically began as shared communal resources and have migrated to personal ones. In particular, I need to expand my research to encompass:

  1. Other American universities and colleges.  I need to know if these findings are unique to IU. I strongly suspect that the history is similar at many institutions that were large and resourceful enough to remain technologically advanced. However, I also suspect that at institutions that could not or did not “keep up” found that simply “keeping up” and meeting demand, driven in part by institutions like IU and in part by larger American societal and cultural expectations, became a large part of their motivation for employing these technologies. This will not be an easy task as I do not expect these topics to be covered in any detail, or at all, in the available histories of most institutions. I hope to explore the history of the professional housing officers’ association ACUHO-I, particularly its publications, IT committee, and the titles and abstracts of presentations at its conferences.
  2. University and college operations other than housing and residence life. I’m not sure how this will pan out but I feel it would be helpful to look beyond this one operational area. I am not hopeful as I am already working in this direction and so far I am finding virtually nothing about students’ non-curricular use of technology until the 1980s when computers really entered the picture. There is material in the student affairs literature addressing use of technology dating back to at least the 1960s but much of the literature I have located concentrates on administrative uses and not students’. There is some that addresses the use of technology in training student employees and some that addresses the use of telephones and computers in counseling (of both the career and the psychological kind). The best source for this kind of info may be the titles and abstracts of the programs and presentations presented at the large national conferences, particularly ACPA and NASPA, as they have been active for many decades.
  3. American life off campus and outside of academia. I suspect the trends I identified at IU reflect larger societal shifts as these technologies moved from the living rooms of the wealthy to the bedrooms, kitchens, and dens of nearly every American household. Many of the forces that allowed or encouraged this to happen in the IU residence halls such as declining costs, increased familiarity, and general cultural expectations, also played out in American homes. I hope this will be the easiest lead to follow as I expect and hope to find a significant number of secondary and tertiary sources on this topic unlike the other two topics which will likely consist of some secondary sources and a whole lot of primary sources.

I should have something interesting to say to a much larger audience if I can expand my IU-specific research along those three paths.

One thing I may not be able to say or that I will need to say in a different manner is that it seems that for at least some of these technologies, particularly telephones and computers, the trend away from communal use to personal use is now taking a path to a different kind of communal use. This may be even more true as those two previously-disparate technologies continue to converge. My original research focused exclusively on the twentieth century so I haven’t yet figured out how to work these thoughts into my research. It will fit in there somewhere…

Finally, I have not figured out where “pure” entertainment technologies such as game systems and lower-tech devices such as pinball machines, ping pong tables, and pool tables fit into all of this. Those technologies have certainly had a historical presence in some residence halls but I don’t yet know how they work into the bigger picture. I don’t even know how widespread they were in residence halls although I know they were in some.  Did they originate primarily as revenue generators? How do the modern game systems differ? They appear to have primarily been introduced, supported, and maintained by students; is this true and how has it affected their impact on students and residence halls? How has the impact of computers changed as gaming on them has changed (a task that probably was not widespread when word processors and dumb terminals ruled the roost)?

And I haven’t even gotten in depth with my budding obsession with the breakup of AT&T, its impact on colleges and universities, and how that ties into the current discussions about network neutrality and telecoms mergers. It seems that I have my work cut out for me this semester!