Justin Roberts, assistant professor

A day in the life

Justin Roberts, assistant professor


I really enjoy teaching first-year students. There are so many engaged students here, and I love awakening them to the fact that there’s more to history than names and dates.

Teaching without borders

Assistant Professor Justin Roberts pretty much grew up on university campuses while his father was a student—first at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and then at York in Toronto.

But even though he ended up doing his PhD at the renowned Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a life of academia—and certainly one in the field of history—wasn’t always a given for Dr. Roberts.

“I started in English Lit as an undergrad, and then I was going to be a business major,” he says. “But then I took a history class. I always thought it was just names and dates, but I discovered it was so much more than that. I wasn’t necessarily a great student at first but I got straight As when I started taking history classes. I wanted to reach out and touch the past. It inspired me. It felt like time traveling. I wanted to feel like I was there.”

Even after he discovered his passion for history, he wasn’t sure if he would go to grad school. He needed to write the GRE to be accepted, but had to pay for it in American dollars at a time when the exchange rate was terrible. “I had to talk my landlord into accepting the rent cheque late so I could write the exam,” he says.

Dr. Roberts came to Dalhousie after a year teaching at the University of Mississippi. He was immediately impressed with the abilities of the students here.

“The overall level of discussion here is so much higher than I’ve seen at other undergraduate institutions,” he says. “It’s important to me to have engaged students because I learn from them. I’ve worked in places where students never visit their professors, but at Dalhousie they come all the time.”

He’s also thrilled with the latitude the department gives him to teach a wider range of courses than he did in the U.S. His main research focus is slavery in the Americas, but he also teaches classes on broader issues of the Atlantic world and even one on the history of health and the body.

“Dalhousie thinks transnationally and comparatively in its history, which is very unique,” he says. “We’re teaching regions rather than being confined by national borders. We’re also given a lot of freedom to teach what we want and to pursue our interests. It makes for a very creative department because we have such a diverse range of interests.”

Regardless of what he’s teaching, Dr. Roberts has the same mission: engage his students and allow them to relate to the material by passing on his passion for history.

“I push them to ask deeper questions and to try to connect things,” he says. “I want my students to go out and ask, ‘Why?’ I want them to ask questions and figure out how to solve them. Our goal as historians is to get it right. History can be used for so many different purposes, and can be twisted by people to suit their needs—whether they be marketers or politicians. Our role is to be guardians of the past.”