Meet The Professors, Episode Two

by Kyla

“A general understanding of history helps us to comprehend the present and contributes to helping us shape the future.”

Gordon Hak has been a professor in the History Department at VIU for just over twenty years. He teaches on a wide variety of subjects in Canadian history, with courses ranging from labour history to the history of human rights in Canada, and is the author of Capital and Labour in the BC Forest Industry, 1934-74 and Turning Trees into Dollars, as well as numerous journal articles. In full disclosure, I am currently enrolled in his Human Rights in Canada course.

Me: Hey Gordon.

Gordon: Hi.

Me, sitting down: Thanks for letting me interview you. Before we begin, though, I’ve got to ask – did you hear about Sarah Palin?

Gordon: What about her?

Me: There’s a new book out that says she did cocaine and had an affair with an NBA player.

Gordon, struggling to muster up enthusiasm for this tidbit: Oh.

Me: Well, I think she’s saying it’s not true. But I’m just going to say that she went to the University of Idaho, and I went to the University of Idaho, and that’s pretty much all I did while I was there. You know. Cocaine and NBA players.

Gordon: …

Me: So.

Gordon: …

Me: I like to think that this section of the blog will let people learn about courses and professors in disciplines they wouldn’t normally study, so, in that vein, would you mind explaining how you got into history in the first place?

Gordon: Until second year of university, I was an English major. But I was taking a wide range of courses and found I was more committed to and more interested in history. Canadian history and politics seemed very dynamic then; the 1976 Rene Lévesque election – that was a big deal – there was a lot of excitement about that and I was studying just after that.

Me: Have you seen your rating at Rate My Professors dot com?

Gordon: I only look at it about every two years, honestly. It’s been a while. Should I check it?

Me: It’s pretty good.

Gordon: Students still use it, then?

Me: Apparently so. What do you think makes a good teacher?

Gordon: Hmm. The ability to share a commitment and a passion, I think. Teaching should be about sharing what you are learning as an instructor.

Me: What about what makes a good student?

Gordon: Someone who is willing to engage in the materials. I mean, showing a degree of commitment, someone who is not there just for getting a degree or credentials, who is instead willing to get involved with the material.

Me: Do you know where I can buy a rubber chicken?

Gordon: Actually, I don’t. I haven’t investigated that myself.

Gordon: Honestly.

Gordon: But I think there’s a joke shop in Victoria.

Me: My little daughter got some testing done so she spent a lot of time visiting offices geared for children. In one of them there was a rubber chicken and when you squeezed its mid-section an egg would, you know, come out. You know.

Gordon: An egg would come out. Uhm, yuck.

Me: Ah, now I know what to get you for a teacher present.

Gordon: …

Gordon: Because that’s something I’d really appreciate.

Me, shrugging: I try to be thoughtful.

Me: For those people who aren’t history majors, like someone in Math or Applied Business Technologies, say, what relevance does history have?

Gordon: A general understanding of history helps us to comprehend the present and contributes to helping us shape the future. I am more present- and future-oriented. Just because I am a historian, I don’t stay rooted in the past. History informs the present and we can use that. Having an understanding of history allows you to participate in your own world: in politics, in clubs – it helps you understand what you are doing.

Me: Can you recommend a good starter course for someone who is not a history major, so they can come in and get their feet wet, so to speak?

Gordon: Well, among the courses that I teach, maybe 205 (Immigration, Immigrants, and Minorities: The Canadian Experience) or 206 (Canadian Society: New and Changing Identities Since 1960). A lot of non-history majors take those courses. 205 is about immigration so it touches on many people’s real lives, people who can remember the immigration story of their parents, grandparents, or even themselves. And 206 deals with issues that are quite contemporary.

Me: Great. I have to tell you, I just saw this Master’s program that looks fabulous. It’s about Social Justice.

Gordon: An MA in Social Justice? What do you learn in that, how to paint your own protest sign?

Me: Well, it is hard to get the lines straight on those things.

Gordon: How to camp in front of the parliament buildings? How to light a fire in a barrel?

Me: My camping skills are weak. I hope they don’t test on that. One last question in closing, do you have an absolutely favourite student of all time?

Gordon: …

Me, getting ever more hopeful, like a small puppy wagging its tail: …

Gordon: No.