History prof gets students to see all sides of the story
By Ellyn Gibbs
Updated: May 31, 2013
Dawn Alexander-Payne made one student so angry, he jumped up from his seat and walked up to the front of the class to hit her. Other students leave her classes amused, shocked or thoughtful.
Her discipline? History. Her method? Challenging students to rethink the stories they’ve learned about figures like George Washington.
“[History] tells you about yourself,” she said. “Learning about others broadens your worldview.”
By teaching history, she believes she can teach people about themselves and their own mission in life.
The view most disputed among her students concerns the founding father George Washington. George Washington is idolized in schools as the steely-eyed hero of our country, the perfect gentleman, and the young boy who, with undying honesty, confessed to cutting down his father’s cherry tree.
In her American history classes and sometimes others when she gets carried away, Alexander-Payne shreds his reputation to wake students up and teach them about perspective.
She tells her class that if Britain had defeated the American rebels, we would view George Washington as a terrorist today instead of a hero. Many students are shocked by this view and misunderstand it, as it is hard to wrap their brains around the opposite of what they were always previously taught. Alexander-Payne is vehement in teaching that winners dictate how history is told.
Former Anoka-Ramsey student Ashley Shogren says Alexander-Payne is also determined to teach students to distrust their government. Shogren relates an episode in her history class when Alexander-Payne walked up and down the aisles of the classroom asking students to give her belongings like a watch or a notebook and received them without resistance. Shogren says that finally, when Alexander-Payne asked for a student’s glasses, the student replied, “Why?” and Alexander-Payne replied that her point had been proven. Too many people are willing to give the government anything without question.
Alexander-Payne established her reputation as an instigator young. She remembers one incident that happened in sixth grade when her class watched a movie about Custer’s “last stand” against the Indians. Alexander-Payne organized all the girls in her class to cheer for the Indians in the movie. The boys cheered for Custer, and the competition grew so intense that a fight broke out in the classroom. Alexander-Payne says that even though she wasn’t physically involved in the fight, her sixth-grade teacher still sensed who had incited the violence.
As a young girl, Alexander-Payne lived in Italy for three years, and Alaska before it became a state with her military family. Her family moved to Germany when she was 16, and she graduated high school there. Alexander-Payne says she feels fortunate to have been in such a mobile family, as it exposed her to so many different cultures.
Initially, Alexander-Payne was a math and computer science major in college, but it wasn’t a perfect fit. “I always thought that history teachers had to be boring,” she says.
Her lively history teacher in college inspired her to take more history courses and eventually change her major. She went to Texas Christian University for her Ph.D., and then taught history for 14 years at Abilene Christian University, gradually moving from part time to full time.
During her time at Abilene, Alexander-Payne says students made reports to the dean every week, and she was often labeled “irradical” or even “a socialist.”
She has a talent for touching on people’s sensitive issues, illustrated in one example from Abilene when a student jumped up during class and walked to the front of the room to hit her.
Her effect at ARCC has not been as stormy, as only one student has ever gone so far as to make a report to her dean. “My students either hated me or loved me,” Alexander-Payne says, who says she would rather get students thinking and angry than let them fall asleep.
“I don’t like teaching propaganda,” she says. “There is always more than one side to a story.” She refuses to be nationalistic and does not favor America above any other country in the way she teaches.
At Abilene, Alexander-Payne refused to say that America got where the country did because of God, and this is what gave her the label “irradical.”
While some students get furious, others sit back and enjoy the explosion of passion and wit that happens in one of Alexander-Payne’s classes.
“My first impression was hilarious and opinionated,” says ARCC student and history major Brady Lokken. “She kind of tells it how it is and doesn’t try to hide what history was. I love the way she teaches. It makes me learn everything so much easier.”
Still other students are taken completely by surprise. Shauna Lilienthal admits she was intimidated by Alexander-Payne, especially coming to ARCC as a first-year PSEO student from a homeschooled background.
ARCC music professor Eric Anderson, who co-taught a class with Alexander-Payne combining Vietnam history and music by Vietnam veterans, said, “I think she is a creative teacher. She doesn’t shy away from controversy.”
Alexander-Payne enjoys teaching all types of history, but says, “I get bored easily.”
One of her pet projects still under construction is a plan to host a travel class to Britain at ARCC.
There are some obstacles, such as all the upfront costs required, but Alexander-Payne hopes to get enough interest from students.
With Alexander-Payne in the history department, no one knows what mysteries, controversies, or experiences await ARCC students. But they can be sure that the future will be an exciting one.