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Professor says, "We're not training parrots"

Historian John Alexander sets new students straight at their first class meeting at the University of Cincinnati. If they think history is all about memorizing and reciting names and dates, they've never really learned about history at all.

"Historians ask why things happened," the professor explains. "You learn history so that you can analyze the reasons, so you can look at the available evidence in a balanced way. It is a learning process, an exercise in critical thinking.

John Alexander

"Students can always tell when a professor wants to be in the classroom," history professor John Alexander states.

"For me, history has always been about the story," the professor says. "I just love the subject; that's the heart and soul of it. Teaching history really is what I always wanted to do."

Alexander was a historian in spirit long before he became one in fact. Seated at his sixth-grade desk on a sunny spring day, he realized he was fascinated by the stories of why and how people struggled and triumphed. He wanted to teach those stories to others. He didn't seriously consider any other career.

"I thought of myself as involved with American history and teaching because I loved the stories so much. I find some of them very inspiring and wonderful to contemplate. Truly heroic actions make a story unforgettable."

To help students more fully appreciate certain events, Alexander dramatically presents stories as either an eyewitness or as a specific historic figure. His expressive voice resonates with admiration or sorrow, transporting listeners' imaginations to people and places of the past. Some students admit to blinking back tears at the end.

Among the speeches the professor interprets are Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ("with malice toward none, with charity for all") and a seriously ill Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations speech. Historic moments include those leading to Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre and those surrounding the 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

"When one of my students tells me, 'I used to hate history, but now I love it,' that's about as good as it can get for me," he says. "That's when I feel I've done my job particularly well -- when I have a 'convert.'"

As for his teaching techniques, the historian continues to use approaches he adapted years ago from professors and teachers he admired. "I am fundamentally the same as my first year as a teacher," he says. "I've made modifications over the years, not really in technique, but in what makes sense."

A UC Distinguished Teaching Professor, Alexander has taught at the University of Cincinnati since 1969. He won an A. B. (Dolly) Cohen Award for Excellence in University Teaching in 1975.


Dr. Alexander's book about patriot Samuel Adams

Ohio Academy of History award

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