My Favorite Undergraduate History Professor

John M. Brown

As a history major, my favorite undergraduate history professor was Dr. Arthur Jensen of Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, whom I first had as a college freshman in the fall of 1980. The course was History of Colonial America—and yes, I still have the bulky textbook.

I have always had a love of history; my favorite high school teacher was my history teacher—a man now in his 90s with whom I am still in contact.

But when I stepped into Dr. Jensen’s class, a whole new world awakened.

Dr. Jensen conducted each class with the same precise procedure: students would have already entered the classroom, Dr. Jensen would enter at precisely the time for class to begin, and he would commence each class by telling a joke. Usually, the jokes were pretty lame, but out of deferential respect toward our august professor, we all laughed—even if not too enthusiastically.

After the joke, Dr. Jensen would begin his lecture—it was always a lecture—and as he spoke, he would begin writing on the chalkboard (no whiteboards then!), proceeding from the left. Dr. Jensen would fill up one chalkboard, never ceasing in his lecture, then move to the next one to the right. Then to the next. Then to the next. He would often come all the way back to the left, begin erasing, and then start writing more. He would rapidly write and lecture for the entire period, never pausing, until the class period ended—and never early, by the way.

As he was talking and writing, we would be taking notes (I still have my notebook, too!). I vividly remember writing—trying to catch every significant thing he said, and nothing seemed insignificant—until my hand started hurting. I would have to pause to wring my hands together and shake them out.

By contemporary recommended educational procedures and commonly accepted best practices, Dr. Jensen did it “all wrong”—straight lectures, nothing interactive, no collaborative group projects, no visual aids, no group writing with colored markers on oversized post-it notes. Yet he became, and remains, my all-time favorite college teacher. Why?

There are two reasons, both of which are yet applicable to successful pedagogy.

First, it was apparent that Dr. Jensen knew his subject. While I would fill up pages of notes, he never looked at a note. His entire lecture, every class, was from memory. He had not only learned the details of colonial American history, or any other subject he taught, but he had obviously absorbed those details. They oozed from his very being. He was a walking and talking encyclopedia of the history he taught.

Second, it was just as obvious that he had a passion for what he was doing: a passion for his subject, a passion for teaching and learning, and a passion for his students. He did what he did with fervent zeal and ardent enthusiasm. He once told me in a private conversation that he had always known he wanted to be a history professor: he entered college to major in history, went straight into a Master’s in history program after earning his bachelor’s, and from there directly into his Ph.D. work. After earning his doctorate, he immediately began teaching college history. His passion for his work reached back to his high school years and continued through many decades of college teaching until retirement.

When I first became a history teacher, my wife quipped that I got paid for talking about what I loved to talk about already. Not a bad deal, huh? I think I understand Dr. Jensen’s motivations.

So, you want to be a good teacher? Among all the things you can add to the mix to accomplish that, make sure you know your content thoroughly, and make sure you have a love for your work and all that it entails. Then you’ll be remembered fondly, too.

Photo by Mark J. Grenier on Adobe Stock

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