UC Davis historian Alan S. Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar, has just received 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. The prize was created in 1985.
Taylor uses spellbinding storytelling combined with high expectations for intellectual rigor and well-written term papers to earn 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.
"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. "The UC Davis Prize, in particular, recognizes Professor Taylor's dedication and success in developing students into scholars."
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."
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," he said. "We bristle over people wanting to make historical comparisons that are just a narrow list of lessons."
Taylor earned a doctorate from Brandeis University and taught at Colby College and Boston University before coming to UC Davis in 1994. When he arrived, 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. In the book Taylor presents a "sweeping reformulation of the fundamental framework of early American history," Sheffrin said.
Currently Taylor is 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," says the professor who asks for a term paper developed in two installments. The first is a two-to-five page treatise that Taylor says he grades thoroughly, "fussy over grammar, spelling and their structure of argument." The second paper is developed from the first, expanding with Taylor's advice for more readings and arguments.
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 guided the innovative program that retrains history instructors in Northern California public schools through its transfer 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 for the teaching prize.
It's the students who have the final word on Alan Taylor as a teacher.
"Taylor's instruction is the best. ... He guides you and prepares you. His instruction helped me in his class but also to do better in other classes," wrote one in a class evaluation.
"Thank you, Alan Taylor," wrote another. "You are an inspirational lecturer. I enjoyed listening to and learning from you more than [in] any other class."