A tale of tested traditions

This story appeared in the online Gazette on May 19, 2015

In the early 20th century, female Queen’s students participated in an initiation ceremony every October in Grant Hall. The upper-year students lit the younger students’ candles that were adorned with tricolour ribbons. After blowing out the candles, the first-year students examined where the wax fell on the ribbon to determine who they would marry: gold for an engineer, blue for a medical student, and red for an arts student.

The antiquated tradition eventually changed with the emergence of second wave feminism in the 1960s. As female students increasingly regarded Queen’s as a place to get a top-notch education rather than meet their future husband, the ceremony evolved into a celebration of women.

This challenge to tradition is just one of many that occurred at Queen’s between 1961 and 2004, the period University Historian Duncan McDowall covers in the third volume of Queen’s official history, which will be published in early 2016.

“In the book, which I have titled Testing Tradition, I document a lot of these tensions,” says Dr. McDowall, who started the project in 2010. “People were asking: ‘Why do we keep these traditions? Do these traditions sustain us or do they obstruct our future? Should we jettison them or simply modify them to the times?’”

In a sense, Dr. McDowall even “tested the tradition” of official Queen’s histories. From the outset, Dr. McDowall knew that he wanted to take a broader, livelier approach to writing the university’s history than his mentor and former Queen’s professor Frederick Gibson, who wrote Queen’s University, Volume II, 1917-1961: To Serve And Yet Be Free, and Hilda Neatby, author of Queen’s University, Volume I, 1841-1917: And Not to Yield.

“I am not faulting Fred. History, like any other discipline at the university, has changed over the past 30 years,” Dr. McDowall says. “What’s missing from the two previous volumes is any sense of the cultural and social ethos of the university and what it was like to be a student, a professor or even an electrician at Queen’s. I hope I have brought some of that perspective into this volume.”

The volume is still an institutional history, though, and Dr. McDowall doesn’t ignore the significant contributions the administration, Board of Trustees and Senate made to the direction of Queen’s. In addition to chapters focused on the various principal tenures, Dr. McDowall intersperses the books with sections on student and faculty life, town-gown relations, and Queen’s opening up to the growing diversity of Canadian society in the 1980s and 1990s.

Dr. McDowall spent two years plowing through thousands of documents in the rich collections of the Queen’s Archives and interviewing hundreds of people. When it came time to write the book, he hunkered down in an office on the top floor of Queen’s Archives, which gave him easy access to material when he needed to check a fact or detail.

“The project was a delight because the Queen’s Archives is just the best in Canada,” he says. “I was surrounded by limestone in my little writing room in the Archives, which was very atmospheric. I liked writing here because I could come to work every day and watch the daily rhythm of Queen’s life unfold in the Medical Quad below my window.”

McGill-Queen’s University Press will publish Testing Traditions in early 2016 to coincide with the university’s 175th anniversary. Even though he is breathing a bit easier these days with the book off at the publisher, Dr. McDowall certainly isn’t taking it easy. Throughout the summer, he will write short entries for 175 seminal moments in Queen’s history. The major project will serve to engage alumni, faculty, staff, students and community members leading up to the university’s anniversary next year.