Bob Olson came to Baylor in the fall of 1990 and retired in the spring of 2020, wrapping up a 46-year teaching career, 30 of which he spent at Baylor.
Hired as a history teacher, Olson was named department chair by 1995, where he served for 15 years, overseeing changes in the history curriculum that remain in place at Baylor today. As fellow history department colleague Dr. David Conwell reflects, “Baylor’s history curriculum was largely Eurocentric in content and lecture-oriented in pedagogy right into the 21st century. And then, as chair of the history department, Bob led the creation and implementation of a modern, globally oriented curriculum centered upon courses emphasizing skill development.”
Olson also created and taught several elective courses that align with his own interests, such as a class studying the cold war and another on World War II that has been offered for 13 years. He has taught astronomy and electronics in conjunction with the science department, has pinch-hit in the world languages department as a Latin instructor, and just last year created an elective studying the connection between epidemic diseases and history. “I bet the graduates who took that class connect a little better with what’s happening in the world right now,” Olson says, referring to the COVID-19 global pandemic, adding, “We talked about contact tracing and many other things that are very much in the news today.” For 25 of his 30 years, Olson had an amateur radio station, WD4OHD, in his Lupton Annex classroom; he also sponsored a club for students interested in amateur radio.
It is amazing that the things I develop an interest in always find a context in the classroom. It has been a constant intellectual enrichment.
"I’m a generalist. I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things,” notes Olson, who says he reads 50-100 books a year on a variety of topics. “I’ve always tried to convey to students that there’s a certain value in having a wide range of interests. The future is uncertain, and you don’t know what you may be called on to do. Therefore, the more you know, the more versatile you will be. At Baylor, I have been allowed to take my own personal interests and turn them into educational opportunities. It is amazing that the things I develop an interest in always find a context in the classroom. It has been a constant intellectual enrichment.”
Conwell adds of Olson’s teaching, “Having transformed the history curriculum, Bob reworked his own pedagogy accordingly. While the facts rightly retained their prominence in his classroom, Bob became tightly focused on teaching skills. He broke down the processes of reading and writing in order to teach these skills in a scaffolded fashion, and he placed particular emphasis on metacognition so that students would think hard not only about how to learn but also the mental habits needed to do so. Some of Baylor’s English teachers have confirmed the good sense driving Bob’s methods, for they have adopted his handout on how to approach a reading assignment.”
Olson sees the odd end of his teaching career, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, as another chance to further his own education. “When I began teaching, there were no digital calculators,” he laughs. “Now I could not imagine teaching astronomy without an iPad. In February, I had never heard of Zoom. All these are advancements that facilitate teaching, so I have always tried to be flexible over the years. It’s great to have those assets,” he says.
I never wanted to teach a class in which I was not learning too. I felt that, as long as I was learning, there was a good chance I was transferring that knowledge to the students.
Conwell stipulates, “Bob employs close observation and shrewd judgment to assess his world. The result is a wisdom that needs no description, for we as individuals and as an institution have experienced it time and again in the past 30 years.”
“I learned more than the students sometimes,” Olson continues. “I never wanted to teach a class in which I was not learning too. I felt that, as long as I was learning, there was a good chance I was transferring that knowledge to the students.”