The Classroom Experience

 

 

As with most college courses seen today, classes in the 1950s were pretty standard.
There were boring lecturers, students falling asleep in class, and the ever-dreaded early morning courses that you had to pull yourself out of the bed for.
There were some differences, though.
The students at Mary Washington College in the 1950s had a day that would seem strange to UMW students today who are so accustomed to having more agency in their day.

University Archives, Scrapbook, 1957

 

As you can see in the image on the right which is from a scrapbook put together by students of the class of 1957, the day started at 8:30 in the morning with classes ending at 4pm. The classes are more than likely 50 minutes, similar to the length we have today. From 8:30 until 11:30, students are in classes based on their selected schedule. Between 12:30 and 2:00pm, students are able to attend lunch at Seacobeck. Then afternoon classes began.

For those familiar with most college courses today, the “M W F” and “T TH” look familiar, but the “S” for Saturday surely is not part of most college schedules today. Students attending MWC during the 1950s, however, had them quite regularly.1 Saturday classes do not continue until 4pm, though; instead, they end at noon.2

The 1950s class proceeded in many of the same ways as the classes of UMW today. The professor, professionally dressed and (most of the time) prepared for class, entered the room and sat behind the desk at the front of the room or stood at the podium.3

Battlefield, 1957-1958, 218

If, par chance, the professor did not come to class, the students had to wait 10 minutes after the class start time until they could assume class is cancelled.4

On a typical day, when class began, the professor started by calling the roll by last name.5 Attendance in courses was mandatory, but each student received a certain number of “cuts” depending on their class status. According to the Battlefield, freshmen received “the treasured one cut,” while seniors received unlimited cuts.6 The classes in between seem to vary.

Gwendolyn Cumming, class of 1952, remembers professors always addressing the the students, not just by their last names, but always with “Miss.” Eventually, as professors got to know their students, they would drop the “Miss,” though some professors, she said, “never bent,” and always referred to the students with a “Miss.”7

Battlefield, 1951, 125

Once roll was finished, class began. In a class that was not considered practical, such as History or English, the professor would lecture on the topic for the day. Students mostly took notes on loose-leaf paper held in binders or in composition books with a sharpened pencil during the lecture.8 Although the Battlefield‘s description of a typical day in class is exaggerated, there were some students who were content to read magazines or books and some who had letters to write to family or to their sweetheart.9 Meanwhile, the brave students found time to catch up on their beauty sleep; they must have been tired from the long, but fun night of canasta or bridge.10


The classroom environment was generally what any college student would expect. The wooden desks faced forward in the classic column style.11 In some of the classrooms, instead of wooden desks students sat at metal desks with unattached chairs.12  There were multiple chalkboards and bulletin boards in the front of the room. In some of the rooms, particularly the for the science courses, the chalkboard would have three boards to write on that the professor could slide up and down.13

Battlefield, 1955, 146

At the top of the chalkboards in most of the classrooms were roll-down maps.14 A small teacher’s desk sat at the front of the classroom also, facing the students, with a wooden chair for the professor to sit in.15 In most of the classrooms there also was a podium that could be moved from the desk to another part of the classroom if the professor wanted to sit at the desk instead of speak behind it.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Battlefield, 1950-1951,  (Fredericksburg, VA: Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, 1951), University of Mary Washington Archives, 13; 151.
  2. Class of 1957, University of Mary Washington Archives (scrapbook).
  3. Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Battlefield, 1957-1958,  (Fredericksburg, VA: Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, 1958), University of Mary Washington Archives, 215; 125.
  4. Ibid., 218..
  5. Battlefield, 1950-1951, 13.
  6. Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Battlefield, 1956-1957,  (Fredericksburg, VA: Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, 1957), University of Mary Washington Archives, 82; Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Battlefield, 1954-1955,  (Fredericksburg, VA: Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, 1955), University of Mary Washington Archives, 56.
  7. Nanalou West Sauder, interview by Leanna Papp, February 06, 2012.
  8. Battlefield, 1950-1951, 13.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Battlefield, 1950-1951, 13; 151.
  12. Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Battlefield, 1953-1954,  (Fredericksburg, VA: Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, 1954), University of Mary Washington Archives, 28.
  13. Battlefield, 1954-1955, 146.
  14. Battlefield, 1950-1951, 151; Battlefield, 1954-1955, 146.
  15. Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Battlefield, 1952-1953,  (Fredericksburg, VA: Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, 1953), University of Mary Washington Archives, 85.
  16. Battlefield, 1957-1958, 215.

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