Historian in focus: Lisa Smith

  • Date

    Fri 3 Apr 20

Lisa Smith

Lisa Smith explains how her love of piecing together stories led her to studying history.

Dr Lisa Smith grew up loving stories. She found that people and their stories were interesting. She almost decided to study literature at university but chose history because she loved piecing together stories from various fragments of information.

Why did you choose history as your degree?

I like stories. But I wavered between studying literature and history. I ended up doing history because the programme had more flexibility than the requirements set for the literature programme. I could take all the comparative literature (I loved the early twentieth-century authors), language (French and Latin) and English literature classes. (favourites: toss up between medieval and Romantic poetry) that I wanted, in addition to a wide range of history ones (Asian, Canadian, British and medieval). It was like an intellectual buffet, and the language and literature modules complemented my history modules wonderfully.

Would you say there was someone you looked up to during your time as a undergraduate?

While I was an undergraduate I had some excellent lecturers at the University of Alberta. There was a Chaucerian scholar who recited Middle English beautifully, a Renaissance scholar who was a natural story-teller, and a historian of science whose feminism inspired me. But what the best teachers had in common is that they challenged me; pointed feedback on work made me realise that I was being lazy with topics I thought I new well. They welcomed me into office hours. They took time to help me work on improving my writing and argument development.

How did you manage to balance being a lecturer and a researcher?

By bringing my research into the classroom; my syllabi and lectures are updated regularly to reflect questions I'm thinking about or things I want or need to read. I also encourage the co-production of knowledge with students in my HR650 (Early Modern Households); in 2016-17, the class and I (as part of an international transcription project, Early Modern Recipes Online Collective) worked on transcribing a recipe book. The students then built a website to showcase their research on the text and author.

A discussion with students about their research, or what we're reading, helps me to sharpen my own scholarship. It is important to me that students begin to see themselves as researchers and creators of knowledge, too, not just passive recipients of knowledge.

What would be your advice to history undergraduates?

Don't choose a topic just because you think it will be easy. You will seldom find yourself challenged (unless you move beyond the superficial to realise that the topic isn't as easy as you'd initially thought!).

Try something new instead of reaching for the familiar.

Don't be afraid of challenges or being bad at something the first time you try. We learn through mistakes and new things.

Don't be put off by criticism in assignment feedback. Everyone (even first class students - or tour lecturers) has things they can improve in their writing or arguments. Writing is a work in progress for everyone.

Do make use of your lecturers' office hours. Come see us to talk about assignments, feedback, or things you didn't understand in class. We are happy to help - and that's what our office hours are for.