Alexander Macaulay, associate professor of history, has been named one of the best teachers in the University of North Carolina system in recognition of his ability to convince students that history is more than just the memorization of dates and the study of accomplishments of “dead white men.” Macaulay, a member of the WCU faculty since 2004, is among 17 recipients of the 2015 UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching, announced in March.
The UNC committee that selected the recipients noted that Macaulay regularly wins rave reviews for being a dynamic teacher who combines the qualities of a gifted storyteller, engaging discussion leader and rigorous academician, prompting many students to continue studying history beyond their undergraduate years. “Dr. Macaulay is the sort of professor who pushes students to unlock their potential,” said Joshua Wilkey ’14, a WCU master’s degree student in history planning to earn a doctorate and teach at the university level.
Macaulay’s faculty colleagues praise his ability to engage students – many of them confessing to not liking the subject of history because they don’t think it matters – in dynamic classroom activities that make history relevant to their lives. He has linked historical lynchings with more modern cases of institutional violence and injustice, and has shown the connection between late 19th-century labor unions and contemporary issues of free market economy and workplace regulation, said Elizabeth McRae MA ’96, associate professor of history. “Over and over, students leave his classroom engaged in issues that began for them as facts to memorize about a distant past but ended with them critically analyzing the thorny political issues of both the past and present,” McRae said.
Macaulay’s interest in oral history has led to his students recording histories of veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War and recent conflicts in the Middle East; members of the Jackson County African-American community; residents forced to leave their homes when the construction of Fontana Dam flooded their communities; and long-time residents of Sylva in connection with the town’s recent 125th anniversary celebration.
“I seek out familiar, yet nontraditional topics and sources that will not only pique students’ interests, but also alert them to ways they can analyze and understand the past and the present,” Macaulay said. “For those who believe history is the study of dates and ‘dead white men,’ they learn that history is made by millions of ordinary and extraordinary people who live both everyday and exceptional lives. It also helps me democratize the past and the classroom, encouraging contributions from those who may not know about Alger Hiss, but do know about Elvis Presley.”