February 8, 2002
The history of Dr. John-Paul Himka
Killam professor digs into history before it was history
Dr. John-Paul Himka says he is uncomfortable as historian. He considers himself to be more of an anti-historian. The 2001-2002 Killam Annual Professorship recipient would like to change the way we look at our past. "I feel the history we use, is just ammunition for arguments." Intending to become a Greek Orthodox priest, Himka began his studies at St. Basil's Seminary in Connecticut. Outside the seminary walls, however, the 1960s were in full swing. Himka left St. Basil's, went to Woodstock and discovered "there was just no way I could continue in that line of work." Instead he enrolled at university in his home state of Michigan.
Certain he wasn't meant to be a priest, Himka didn't immediately know what direction he wanted to take. The experimental mood of the decade had influenced programming at the University of Michigan: the school offered a degree in 'cultural studies.' "You could study whatever the heck you wanted and get a degree," said Himka. "This was made for people who wanted to play the sitar and weave baskets." He enrolled but instead of taking 'Working with Rattan 101' Himka shocked the academic staff by studying Byzantine Greek. His professors insisted he get a "real" degree, so they devised a topic: Byzantine Slavonic Studies. "I have always liked languages, the relationships between languages, it's a natural interest of mine," said Himka, who can read 14 tongues. (The always-modest professor is quick to add that some are rustier than others: "I have to look a lot of words up in the dictionary.") Despite his obvious aptitude for the mechanics of language Himka turned his back on Linguistics. During the 1960s, Noam Chomsky was the darling of the linguistics world. "At that time I was too theoretically na´ve to be able to understand him and thought: 'if this is what linguistics is about I can't do it.' " So, at a professor's prompting, Himka moved into graduate work in history.
Graduate Studies was a new concept for Himka, but as soon as a friend explained that he could get scholarships to study whatever he wanted, Himka was hooked. "I said 'do you mean they pay you to read this stuff? I would do it for free!' " He also discovered he has a propensity for history. "I have a naturally historical mind. I always order things chronologically." Himka went on to complete his PhD in History in 1977.
Initially he focused on nineteenth and twentieth century social history in Galicia, a formerly autonomous region in Western Ukraine. 1988, however, marked the 1,000-year anniversary of the conversion of the Ukraine to Christianity, and Himka found his interest shifting to the Greek Catholic Church and its importance in the development of Ukrainian nationalism. "I was interested in the question of nationalism and how it reconstructs the past. That led me to wonder what the past must have looked like before it was 'nationalist' history." Himka explains that "nationalist history is a codified paradigm of the past." For example, a group builds a national history by finding elements within its culture which convey "the spirit of the nation" such as national dances, national dress, traditional foods, a coat of arms; selecting symbols from the past to explain the present. "Once you're into that series of events you look at the past through that prism," said Himka.
He points out that nationalist ideas are modern ideas that belong to modern cultures, "These cultures may look different on the surface, they may have different vocabularies but all the concepts are the same. They are all essentially interchangeable." Himka wanted to use the project to transcend rhetoric and "explore a part of history with as little nationalist prejudice as I can bring to it." He is still striving to "make up a new way to study pre-nineteenth century history."
He takes this philosophy into the lecture hall where he covers an unusually broad range of history courses. "It doesn't matter to me what I teach. The material changes but my goal remains the same: I try to get people to think about larger questions." He likes to entertain students with interesting anecdotes, making sure he passes on the relevant facts, but he really wants to show students how to think critically, to question the "mood of the radio and the newspaper" and avoid becoming "the mob that inflicts the next great historical catastrophe."
His approach to the 'facts of the past' has helped the history department at Lviv University, Ukraine, gain international recognition. Since 1976, Himka has been visiting the Ukraine to conduct research. "The things I worked on were not exactly forbidden topics in the old Soviet Union but they were not handled in the way a Western scholar would handle them." By working closely with academics and teaching courses in Lviv, and by bringing students to the University of Alberta, he has helped younger Ukrainian scholars see their own history in "a different light, in a better light." Himka feels his hard work has paid off, and he proudly says that, "history at Lviv University is very good. Their historians can appear at any international conference, which they couldn't have done years ago without being second-class citizens." He quickly adds that it wasn't a one-man show. "I wasn't the only person working on it. We have all been working."
A professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, Himka collects stamps, and thumps imaginary partners in kick-boxing classes when he isn't working. "Although it doesn't quite fit my world view, which is quite peaceful, I like it." Initially he joined the class to accompany his wife; she dropped out but the more systematic Himka continues to excel.
Last summer, Himka hiked to churches tucked away in the Carpathian Mountains, doing his research for his latest project, a study of the Last Judgment. Himka says his current book is an "argument with history. It's meant to be a mischievous work, but in a profound way. It's supposed to show up Ukrainian cultural history." Himka enjoys being absorbed by the task at hand, yet he still keeps a broad perspective. "I don't expect a lot of readers. I don't expect to change the world. I do want to write this and I think it will be an important book in its own way. I want to rub against the grain."