Alexander Macaulay, associate professor of history at Western Carolina University, 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 Monday, March 23.
A member of the Board of Governors is scheduled to present the award at WCU’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies that begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 9. Macaulay also will speak at the Graduate School commencement ceremony Friday, May 8.
The UNC committee 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 demonstrates that he reads every word of the assignments he grades. His comments are thoughtful and concise, and students end up not only with assessments of their work but also with feedback that is useful in developing them as writers and as thinkers,” said 2014 graduate Joshua Wilkey, a WCU master’s degree student in history planning to earn a doctorate and teach at the university level. “Dr. Macaulay is the sort of professor who pushes students to unlock their potential.”
Kaylynn Washnock, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, applauded Macaulay’s availability and open-door policy. “Dr. Macaulay is concerned with both the intellectual and personal development of his students. He takes an interest in his students and their well-being long after time in the classroom has ended,” Washnock said. “Even when I was no longer in his class, Dr. Macaulay would suggest stories for my projects and spend time brainstorming future research topics with me. He truly understands what teaching is all about.”
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, 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. “And it is those debates and those discussions that they tell other students about, who then decide to take his class.”
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.
That work has resulted in the launching of an Appalachian Oral History Project modeled after UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Project. The new project, a collaboration with WCU’s Hunter Library and Special Collections, involves Smoky Mountain High School students who, after training, will conduct the first oral histories for the effort.
In addition to oral history, Macaulay teaches classes in 20th-century U.S. history, the American South, U.S. cultural history, U.S. diplomatic history and gender history. He is author of the book “Marching in Step: Masculinity, Citizenship and the Citadel in Post-World War II America” and numerous articles, book chapters and professional papers.
“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.”
The 2011 recipient of WCU’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, he received his bachelor’s degree from the Citadel, master’s degree from the University of Tennessee and doctorate from the University of Georgia.
Macaulay and the other recipients of the UNC honor, representing an array of academic disciplines, were nominated by special committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Personnel and Tenure. Established by the Board of Governors in April 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institutions at least seven years. No one may receive the award more than once.