"Explainer in chief." Carleton University's Norman Hillmer

If you wander up to the fourth floor of Paterson Hall at Carleton University, you’ll eventually find the History Department. Within the department’s halls is a small office with books stacked from floor to ceiling. It is the office of George Norman Hillmer, more casually known as Norman to his students and colleagues.

George Norman Hillmer.
Books from floor to ceiling.

Though Hillmer is now indispensable to the department, his journey to Carleton was an interesting one. He began his education at the University of Toronto. After graduating, he started teaching high school– following in the footsteps of his parents. “My father was a high school teacher, a secondary school inspector, and then he was a superintendent. My mother was also a high school teacher. I grew up with teachers and that’s all I wanted to be when I was young.”

A young Hillmer on the top left.

After teaching for a year, he decided to take a day off from school to let his mind rest. On that day, he filled out scholarship application after scholarship application– not thinking much of it. To his surprise, he won every single scholarship he applied for, the most significant being a scholarship that would allow him to study at the University of Cambridge in England. He couldn’t refuse the offer, but was determined to go back to teaching high school once his studies were finished.

University of Cambridge diploma.
Memories of England.

After completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, he was brought back to Ottawa in a different direction than he had originally planned. He didn’t feel that his level of training suited teaching high school anymore, so he decided to try the National Defence.

“I was a very unlikely person in National Defence because I was a child of the ‘60s. The ‘60s was not a decade that was friendly to the military. When I came onto the job market in the early ‘70s, there were basically no jobs in the history departments. And so I found my way into the Department of National Defence on the third floor of Ogilvie’s Department Store. No one ever thought it was a history section, they thought it was intelligence or something. You had to make your way through the women’s clothing and the televisions until you found your way to the strange two floors which was Ogilvie’s annex. There I came with my then long hair and my antiwar attitudes. I thought I’d be there for five minutes. It turned out that there was this wonderful staff of very smart historians. After eight years I made my way to the top of them. We had a wonderful time. I was there for 18 years.”

In 1990, he left the National Defense for Carleton University. “I hated to leave, but Carleton offered me a great job,” he explains. It just so happened that the former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was teaching at that time, so Hillmer taught alongside him, and taught his own course.

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Now, over two decades since he began teaching at the university, Hillmer says he enjoys it more than ever. But he doesn’t shy away from being honest about how tough it can be. “I always think ‘Oh, I love it so much.’ But I just came out of an hour and a half class and I feel really depleted. You give everything you have,” he admits.

Hillmer’s passion is in connecting with his students. He fills his lectures with enthusiasm, and creates a positive learning environment where students understand exactly what he’s talking about. “My motivation is to explain things, and I think a good explanation works at any level,” he says. “I’ve noticed that textbooks frequently don’t explain things. They don’t take things and break them down and actually explain them to people. And that’s my job– I’m sort of the explainer in chief.”

“I’ve noticed that textbooks frequently don’t explain things. They don’t take things and break them down and actually explain them to people. And that’s my job– I’m sort of the explainer in chief.”

Reflecting back on his career, Hilmer notes that some of his most rewarding moments have been seeing former students find great success. Many tell him that his confidence in their abilities inspired much of what they’ve been able to accomplish. That sense of believing in students is a major part of being a teacher, he explains. “That’s what a parent and a teacher try to do. You don’t want to give too much confidence, or confidence of the wrong kind– a kind of confidence which is not warranted. But if you can let people know that they have strengths as well as limitations, and you can help them develop those strengths, what could be better?”

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