PROFile - Janis Thiessen

Janis Thiessen

Dr. Janis Thiessen, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, is releasing her third book in the next few weeks. Her new book, Snacks: a Canadian Food History, takes a look at independent snack makers across Canada.

This business-history research project started in 2011, when she took her job as a professor at the university.

Thiessen says she was looking for what the next business she would study would be.

“My brother suggested I look at Old Dutch potato chips, knowing that they were a company with a very long history here, a fairly important company – also knowing my love for potato chips.”

However, Thiessen’s background in teaching and research wasn’t always focused on history. She says when she started her career teaching high school in 1995, she taught some social studies and Mennonite history, but she mostly taught chemistry classes.

“My first degree was in science. It took me a while to decide if I loved chemistry or history more, but it was definitely history,” Thiessen says. “I enjoyed teaching (chemistry), loved the labs – still do, but I didn’t have any interest in doing any original research in that field. And I did in history.”

Thiessen now teaches a business history course, a course on Canadian surveys and a course combining food history and oral history. She credits the research for her new book with how she got into food history.

“I started it as a business and labour history, and then as I was doing the research, I discovered there’s actually this strange little group of people called food historians who do this,” Thiessen says.

Q & A

Do you have a favourite snack?: It has been for quite a while now, Old Dutch potato chips Dill Pickle flavour. But I recently discovered Old Dutch Ridgies All Dressed flavour.

What is something you have learned from your students?: One of the most important things is not to judge on first impressions. I had a student once who would sit in class with their arms folded and never pick up a pen ... So my impression initially had been that this was a student who wasn’t interested, couldn’t be bothered to write anything down, nothing important was happening in this class. But, the first assignment came, and they did fantastic. Tests? Marvellous. It was just they had the ability to retain knowledge without writing it in a way that I did not.

What’s your favourite book you’ve read lately?: I just finished reading The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King … it’s really eye-opening and disturbing and sad about how long the history of mistreatment and dispossession of Indigenous peoples has taken place in this country and how little progress has been made there.

Published in Volume 72, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 7, 2017)

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