Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Historian's Work

Many students are curious about the tasks that engage academics at TRU, and during their time at the university they will form some accurate impressions. But few will know as much as they should, and a considerable number will ask, at the end of term in the spring, whether we have any plans for our vacation, as if the entire period from May through August is a "holiday" for faculty members. The incomprehension revealed by such questions is not surprising, perhaps, since we rarely explain our work.

During the teaching year one of our main tasks is to impart knowledge in the classroom.

Did you ever wonder where it originates? Academic historians are not only dispensers of knowledge but creators as well. So they will spend part of their summer researching, synthesizing data, and writing: creating new knowledge. They usually do some of their research in libraries, sometimes by reading primary sources in publications or on microfilm and microfiche, also by consulting published secondary sources, both books and articles. Some travel great distances in order to read rare books that are unavailable on microfilm and cannot be obtained through loan. And they may conduct their investigations in archives where different kinds of primary sources are kept, especially unpublished records and manuscripts. Some time is set aside to review and organize notes, but as much time as possible is reserved for writing. Since research in distant libraries and archives can be expensive, special funding often is necessary. Understandably, many sponsoring agencies, whether they are institutional, private or part of government, demand very detailed applications as well as supporting documents. Historians contemplating programmes of research therefore may spend much additional time and effort honing their proposals and assembling relevant documentation, in hopes of securing financial support.

Historians write different kinds of manuscripts: books, articles, book reviews. Before they have a publishable manuscript they usually must prepare numerous drafts of it. They may have to revise their work in response to the criticisms of readers to whom a publisher or editor of a journal has sent it. And the process of publication, which involves meticulous reading of the proofs, is very time consuming. Aside from publications, the results of productive historical research are also communicated at conference presentations.

In all, a range of activities, from preparing funding applications to researching and writing or presenting conference papers, keeps the professional historian busy well after the teaching year has ended.

When they return to campus in the autumn, TRU instructors typically lecture, conduct seminars or labs, and have office hours. These hours vary from one faculty to another. So does the preparation for these hours. Those who have taught a course many times need less time to review. However knowledge increases greatly every year through newly published material, and instructors try to incorporate new knowledge into lectures.This requires hours of reading, taking notes or photocopying, and assimilation of this additional material. None of us can keep up with all of the new publications on the great array of subjects about which we speak, but we attempt in various ways to absorb the most important and startling changes in the interpretations of central subjects. This we can do through reviews and articles in scholarly journals and by scanning books. Reworking and updating material for lectures and seminars goes on throughout the year, but because of other commitments there is far less time for extensive reading than might be imagined

Instructors may be members of committees. They also meet to evaluate themselves as faculties and departments. This kind of review never stops. In addition, meetings are held to interview and hire new faculty, discuss possible changes to the curriculum, and to revise and maintain academic programmes. A myriad of committees exists at every level: university, division, and department.

Individual faculty members may choose to be on several of these, each requiring considerable time outside the meetings to review applications or to examine and co-ordinate proposals.

Committee members maintain their own records. And of course all instructors, whether or not they serve on committees, must keep records of their students. Each of TRU's historians is typically responsible for over one hundred students at any given time. Often we are asked to write letters of reference for students in furtherance of their studies or careers. We gladly do this, even when it necessitates delving back into our records. Thus, each instructor is necessarily an administrator, to some extent

History instructors read and evaluate essays and other written assignments. Our exams typically require lengthy essay answers as well, and these cannot be read faster than any other prose. In third- and fourth-year courses, longer and more substantial essay assignments require correction, comment and grades. Many of us also write comments on mid-term or mid-year exams so students can learn from them, albeit this is largely unnecessary on final exams because students rarely see them. Much of the essay grading requires laborious and mundane correction of spelling, punctuation and grammar. We would rather read flawless prose and not use our time for corrections. This Handbook contains suggestions to help you command the language, write clear and convincing narrative, and thus communicate with others so that they will know what you mean.

Students who make errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar usually write poorly in every other sense: instead of arguing clearly, they are confused and confusing. We require essays and essay exams so as to improve your performance in all these areas and help make you a wholly literate person if you were not one before. If you have grave failings you are still capable of great improvement and it is a reward of our profession to see so much of this. Instructors realize, as you should, that your grades are reflective of what you have done; they are not necessarily a measure of the capacities you will develop in time or of what you will do in the future.

A small number of students are genuinely bothered by our attention to these deficiencies and the penalties that result. They wonder why such apparently trivial failings matter. Yet few would complain if, in a math class, they were penalized for a misplaced minus sign. Punctuation, spelling, and grammar are as important to clear writing as plus signs and minus signs are to mathematics. Writing deficiencies in diplomatic and legal documents, for example, can have important consequences. In a history essay, a comma or semicolon that is missing or used improperly can confuse or alter the meaning of a sentence or a whole paragraph. You should develop the ability to read the proofs of your work carefully, to detect and correct the errors, in order to present a clear and literate argument.