Spotlight on Faculty- Arlene Sindelar


"History has made my world so much bigger than I could imagine"



We honour Arlene Sindelar's upcoming retirement with a look back on her life and career — 17 years in the UBC History Department

She also offers her thoughts on history, her life outside of UBC and some advice for students in a short Q&A


Arlene's Story

Arlene remembers when her love of history was ignited. She was nine years old when she caught a glimpse of a book in a garbage can at her elementary school.  It was an old American history textbook with its original cover missing; the book was now covered in a pressed paper cover and its title written in magic marker. The curious child fished the old abandoned book out of the garbage and stowed it away in her bag to take home.  She read the book from cover to cover, like a novel, savoring the stories on each page.

Despite having a curiosity to uncover the past, Arlene initially pursued mathematics as her educational focus. She excelled in math at St. John’s College in Kansas, and planned to someday teach the subject at the elementary or high school level.  However, her path shifted while attending Concordia Teachers College in Chicago. Arlene was on track to become a math teacher but felt a drive to explore other courses. She took several literature and history courses during this time, reinvigorating the feeling she felt that day as she read the old textbook.  Arlene realized that her heart wasn’t in math and with the encouragement of an inspirational professor, she gained the courage to apply to graduate school in History.

At the age of 21, Arlene started graduate studies at The University of Iowa.  The professor that Arlene was originally supposed to work with was not there that year so she was assigned to work with Professor Sutherland. Professor Sutherland was a professor of Medieval, Legal, and Social History—not an area that Arlene was planning to study— she was hoping to focus on a later time frame between the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  Her interest grew while working with Professor Sutherland and she would discover her lifelong research topic.  While studying English Common Law, she continued to notice the names of the attorneys in the case records of the English Courts. Her research started by looking at the law, but she realized that the real story was who these attorneys were, how they contributed to the law, and their web of connections from their clients to the government.  She proposed this topic as her PhD dissertation. During these years in Iowa, she met her husband Bob who was her neighbour in a rooming home catered for graduate students.

The next step was to move to Mississippi where Bob took a faculty position at the University of Mississippi. At this time, Arlene and Bob had three children under the ages of six, and Arlene’s research took a backseat for her family. She did continue to work on her dissertation as much as she could until she heard word that Professor Sutherland (back in Iowa) had passed away suddenly.  Arlene allowed her registration to lapse at the University of Iowa.  Arlene at this time had a Masters Degree and was ABD (all but dissertation.)  “I never gave up,” said Arlene. “I knew I would finish for my own satisfaction, not for any great ambition.  I was a good historian, and I wanted to finish more than anything else.”

Fortunately, Arlene connected with one of Professor Sutherland’s early graduate students at the University of Mississippi, who was now a professor at the University of Michigan. He kindly offered to assist her in the completion of her dissertation on the fourteenth- century attorneys of the Kings Court. Arlene pressed ahead and took a teaching job in Arkansas.  Her children were teenagers at the time, and her decision to take the position required sacrifice.  Arlene commuted every Sunday for four hours from her family home to teach for the week and returned the following Friday to spend the weekend with her family in Mississippi. “I would cry as I would leave every single week,” said Arlene.  Arlene also found this a fulfilling time where she poured her heart and soul into the history classes she taught and she also had time to complete the final chapters of her dissertation. She worked as a history lecturer at both the University of Mississippi and the University of Arkansas until 2002, when her husband accepted the position as Dean in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC. 

Arlene received a spousal appointment to the UBC History Department, but she made sure that this was not a condition of her husband’s position; he accepted his job before she interviewed.  After a successful interview process, she became the first person to hold the position of Instructor in the UBC History Department. Arlene has loved teaching history at UBC and enjoyed Medieval History as well as the big survey classes.  “I love giving students the big picture and then zeroing in on really interesting things. I have learned so much myself this way also,” said Arlene. She has been happy to offer an open door policy for students. For many years, Arlene has been an advisor to History Majors and to the students of the Medieval Studies Program and the Law & Society Program; she typically advises 10-20 students a week. 

Throughout Arlene’s career, she has written her dissertation and several papers on the fourteenth-century attorneys of the Kings Court and will continue to do so. In her retirement, she plans to finish writing a book on the topic.  After she cleans out her office in Buchanan Tower, she will be heading off to Greece, France and Ethiopia in the short term. If you are wondering about that book that she found that day as a nine year old child, it still sits on her bookshelf at home — a reminder of the journey she has made. 


Q&A with Arlene Sindelar


1. What do you love most about History?

 The thrill of the discovery, the insight that suddenly brings understanding about something in the past for which one could previously not even frame the question. I love the stories about people whose lives have been overlooked, but nevertheless important because they are part of the human experience. History has made my world so much bigger than I could imagine.

2. How did you get interested in your area of expertise?

 I was lured from math to history by passionate interest, and into medieval legal and social history by professors who made it come alive for me, whose meticulous attention to detail forced me to look into the cracks of the past and find an exciting and significant world. Professor Donald W. Sutherland taught legal history, and through them I found the everyday, unknown people who made that discipline of any importance: figuring out how the law shaped people's lives and how people manipulated and changed the law to achieve their life goals and solve their problems. 

3. What types of activities do you like to do or learn about outside your career as a professor?

I explore the world with my life companion, my beloved husband Bob. We have three children and five grandchildren whose homes are in three countries other than Canada, so I am looking forward to more travel in the future. And wherever I go I bring the books to be read....

4. What has been the most rewarding part about teaching at UBC? What was the most challenging?

The collegiality of the History Department faculty and staff and the eagerness and ambitions of the students. I find continuing delight in working with them and through advising students I have always had considerable opportunity to assist as they find their path and their passion. I love teaching and find great reward in the sharing of my own passion and seeing it engendered in them as they perceive the importance and significance of the study of the past. The challenge is finding enough time to do everything I need to do to do my job well.

5.What are some tips for success in UBC history for current students?

 In university, we do not yet have the experience to imagine what we shall or can become, so look through the open doors and step through them with confidence in the future. Take advantage of Go Global, internships and Arts co-ops to expand your experience and make your world larger. Go to lectures about topics you never thought about before, and, get enough sleep!


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