At the Faculty Luncheon on July 13, James “Jim” Holton of the School of Liberal Arts received a Distinguished Faculty Award. During the nomination process, a student commented, “Dr. Holton clearly goes above and beyond what is expected from an instructor…During the course, it was clear he has a passion for history as he used numerous examples from his own work.”
The history instructor was “thrilled to be perceived that way.” After all, he says, he is simply trying to do the best for his students and is glad that it came through.
Holton grew up with history. “My father has always been interested in history and so we always had history books around,” he says. To him, though, the topic was more than just a hobby. “There’s a lot that goes into history besides just recounting the past.”
Holton was originally interested in the Soviet Union and studied international affairs in college. Eventually, though, he found the history angle more interesting than the globetrotting or diplomatic angle. He also grew to like teaching. “I really liked the college environment; I really liked the give and take in the classroom,” he says.
Holton began teaching in 2001 at a denominational college in Florida where he was, for a while, the only history professor on staff. While there, he taught a wide variety of courses—from survey courses to the capstone—and he also designed others. In 2011, he began teaching for Excelsior.
Some of his projects with the College include improving the outdated history capstone that wasn’t “clicking” with students, and re-developing the world history classes. The methodology behind designing courses is just as important as the course material, says Holton. In other words, there’s more that goes into how we teach than one might think. For example, do history teachers go chronologically or do they teach things on a comparative basis and go thematically?
“Right now, I’m fascinated with the WWI course…I think the subject is often neglected,” Holton says. He explains WWI played a significant role in shaping future events. He enjoys the gaming element of the course, too, saying students’ reactions are interesting when they play from different perspectives.
Students enjoy that he shares his own experiences and professional knowledge on the discussion boards. “I like to ask a lot of questions,” Holton says of his teaching techniques. He looks at the module notes and makes short videos asking students to consider certain contingencies. He often discusses counterfactual history (or “What if?” history) with his students. It’s about putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. He wants his students to think in the mind-set of the past. He notes, “There’s nothing inevitable in history; it depends on the decisions that were made at that time by flesh and blood people.”
His favorite part of the job? “Learning new things. I never want to get stale. I always want to treat myself like a student and keep learning,” he says. “There’s always something new to look up or to understand.”