March 15, 2002

Students' choice

Taylor makes some history of his own; earns teaching prize

By Susanne Rockwell

Several of Taylor's students join in the amusement as Taylor is lauded with humor and sincere sentiments by campus administrators and colleagues for his dedication to undergraduate students.

Tony Novelozo/Axiom

The chatter stops as Alan Taylor enters History 183A, shedding ball cap and red fleece coat to signal he’s ready to start storytelling, theme tie and all.

Within moments, the UC Davis history professor transports students to the 1830s, when steamboats are chugging up the Missouri with European and American tourists on the lookout for native people who hunt buffalo.

This spellbinding storytelling, combined with high expectations for intellectual rigor and well-written term papers, has earned Taylor the respect of his students, many of whom report in class evaluations that his are the most demanding and most rewarding classes they’ve ever taken.

It’s just this caliber of inspirational teaching that has garnered Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar, his latest accolade: the 2002 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. The $30,000 prize, funded by the UC Davis Foundation through gifts from the Davis Chancellor’s Club Fellows, is believed to be the largest prize of its kind in the United States.

"Not only has Alan Taylor emerged as the nation’s pre-eminent scholar of early American history, but he has a passion about research-university teaching that is simply inspirational," Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef said.

Robert Murphy, chair of the UC Davis Foundation’s Board of Trustees, praised Taylor for his contributions to the intellectual life of the campus and to dedicated teaching.

"The members of the UC Davis Foundation, as dedicated volunteers for higher education, are delighted to recognize Professor Taylor’s extraordinary scholarship and gifted teaching with this year’s prize. As his colleagues and students attest, he represents the best in higher education."

Taylor’s command of the material combined with his challenging coursework and high expectations has made him an outstanding teacher, according to Steven Sheffrin, dean of the Division of Social Sciences.

"Taylor’s students leave his courses with an extraordinary appreciation for his efforts to bring the past alive," Sheffrin said. "He combines vivid, lucid lectures with a highly interactive approach to his students. To stimulate discussion, he roams the aisles of a lecture hall, keeping hundreds of students in rapt attention."

Small details play a big role

Taylor makes it clear that historians are not simply classroom actors who offer lessons to live by. Good historians are careful with the details in their scholarship and devoted to developing a complex, sophisticated picture of the past, he said.

"Historians are very big on context in terms of time and place, and we are sensitive to variation over time and places," Taylor said. "We bristle over people wanting to make historical comparisons that are just a narrow list of lessons."

Taylor, who has been a national leader in incorporating multiple cultural perspectives into American history, demonstrates his philosophy in the history lesson about the encounter between the Americans and the Indians. After the white visitors arrive in the village, Taylor does a 180-degree turn, taking on the Native American perspective, something he says he wouldn’t have done 10 years ago. New research has allowed history teachers to see the events through Native American eyes, Taylor said.

The Plains tribes seek both practical survival in a warring culture and spiritual affinity with the supernatural. Competing tribes cooperate – out of begrudging necessity – with white visitors so they can trade buffalo robes and tongues for guns to kill Indian enemies – and more bison. Taylor’s theme tie of the day – of Plains Indians in battle – offers a visual prop along with a carefully selected slide show of paintings from the era.

The students have stopped taking notes. They are transfixed.

From Maine to the Virgin Islands

It’s just how Taylor remembers himself as a freshman at Colby College in Maine with his favorite teacher, Harold B. Raymond.

"I was fascinated by his storytelling and how he brought in the important intellectual points–I marveled at his ability. I did my senior thesis on the impact in Maine and Massachusetts from the War of 1812."

Still, Taylor never figured he’d be teaching at a place like UC Davis when he left Colby, even with Raymond’s recommendation that he pursue graduate school. After graduation, in the best tradition of those from cold climes, Taylor sought the sun by taking a job selling liquor in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"You learn a lot about people by selling them liquor," Taylor says dryly. Within six months, he was researching old buildings for the National Register so that the territorial government could boost its budget. It was a good move for a 22-year-old.

"When I wrote my senior thesis, I fell in love with research," Taylor says. The Virgin Islands job helped Taylor decide that his heart still belonged in the archives, and he entered graduate school at Brandeis University. The rest has been history.

A Pulitzer in his pocket

When Alan Taylor left his tenured position at Boston University for sunny UC Davis in 1994, he was working on a book that would bring him international fame, "William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic." In 1996 he won both the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for the book.

Since then, Taylor has written "American Colonies," published in 2001, as the first volume of the Penguin History of the United States. As with his goal of providing that broader, more complicated picture of the past, the "American Colonies" includes the stories of New France, New Spain, and New Netherlands and the unprecedented mixing of radically diverse peoples in the New World.

Currently Taylor is revisiting ideas from his senior thesis, writing a comparative study of the social and cultural impact of the Canadian-U.S. borderland from the American Revolution through the War of 1812.

As much as he loves research, Taylor said when teaching he is totally absorbed in the process. He teaches four courses a year, ranging from the general-education survey courses with more than 200 students to upper-division classes for 40 and small graduate seminars.

"Often students in their first history class are surprised to find that the subject is fascinating and relevant. They also find that writing history is hard work," he said.

"My students live in the United States, which is a contentious society," Taylor said. "To participate they have to have an understanding of the history of the roots of contemporary debates over race, the federal government’s relationship with the economy, Jefferson and Hamilton’s fundamental arguments…."

Indeed, many an undeclared major has gone into history at UC Davis, thanks to him, and many have become high school and college teachers, archivists and professional historians.

An evident commitment to learning

Taylor himself contributed to campus history by assuming the leadership for the Area Three History and Cultures Project after its former mentor, Roland Marchand, died in late 1997. For three years he provided leadership during a painful transition for the innovative program that retrains history instructors in Northern California public schools by supporting transfer of the program into the history department and its rapid expansion.

Taylor’s colleagues, department chair Daniel Brower and Louis Warren, the W. Turrentine Jackson Chair in the History of the Western United States, say Taylor’s commitment to learning is evident.

"His remarkable record includes phenomenal success in lecture courses, extraordinary creativity as a scholar of early American history, and dedicated service to help train skilled and dedicated instructors in the field of U.S. history," they jointly wrote for his nomination.

It’s the students who have the final word on Alan Taylor as a teacher.

"Thank you, Alan Taylor," wrote a student in a class evaluation. "You are an inspirational lecturer. I enjoyed listening to and learning from you more than [in] any other class."

Top of Page NextContents
Dateline UC Davis is the faculty and staff newspaper for the University of California, Davis.