History professor’s dynamic career leads to passion in pedagogy

Dr. Ronald Johnson — associate professor in the Department of History. Photo courtesy of Baylor University

By Julia Robinson | Guest Contributor

Before Dr. Ronald Angelo Johnson became a history professor at Baylor, he had a long career that he said led him to his passion for teaching others and giving them the perspective to think about history through various lenses.

Johnson said he tries to bring that perspective to his classroom, teaching in a way that his students see things from different vantage points and challenge their own vantage points about issues.

“In my teaching and in my research of history, I try to look at how different people are experiencing the same event, how are they being shaped differently by the same event, how are they looking at the same event from different perspectives and what does that do for us,” Johnson said.

Following high school, Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as an active duty chaplain’s assistant. He was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, where he said he was exposed to people overseas, different languages, different thought processes and cultures that would shape his career moving forward.

“My first time out of the country changed my life,” Johnson said. “It was that military experience in Saudi Arabia that changed my life and career trajectory because it was there I decided I wanted to do international studies.”

After transitioning into the U.S. Air Force Reserves as an intelligence specialist, he earned his bachelor’s degree in international studies at Texas State University, then went to work as an analyst for the CIA. He earned his master’s degree in international studies at Johns Hopkins University before going to work for the U.S. State Department.

During his time in the Air Force, Johnson learned Italian, so his first posting as a U.S. diplomat was in Naples, Italy, where he served in the consulate. He returned to Washington, D.C., to learn French, as his next posting was at the U.S. Embassy in Luxenberg. After two years, he served in the U.S. Embassy in Libreville, Gabon.

As a diplomatic historian who does comparative work between the U.S. and Haiti, Johnson said he looks at U.S. history the way Americans and Haitians see it.

“That comes directly out of that experience of being in the Air Force in Saudi Arabia, being a foreign service officer in Luxenberg and Libreville and just seeing that different people experience things very differently — so their views on things, their outcomes and that their lives after that are going to be shaped differently by those events,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he left the foreign service because he had a spiritual call to ministry. He received his master of divinity at Boston University and worked as a pastor in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Indiana.

“Being a chaplain’s assistant led me to think about that,” Johnson said.

While pastoring in Indiana, he earned his Ph.D. at Purdue University and became a history professor at Texas State University for 10 years, while serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves.

In 2019, he resigned his commission, as his career as a historian was taking off. The following year, he began teaching as a history professor at Baylor.

Many students of Johnson said they liked the layout of his class and how deep the class goes into a discussion. White Rock, N.M., senior Jacob Torrez is one of Johnson’s former students and said he felt there was a good mix of discussions based on foreign policy, challenges in cultural and ethnic diversity and a deep understanding of the effects of legislation in American history.

“I think the largest factor in differentiating Dr. Johnson’s class from others was that it was immediately evident Dr. Johnson was passionate both about the subject matter and his students,” Torrez said. “I feel like this helped students buy into the class and treat it differently than other history classes.”

Johnson said that the events happening in Ukraine have already affected the way he is teaching his class. When discussing World War I, he highlights how the U.S. decided what was worth going into a conflict and how Americans assess gains versus losses before entering a conflict. When discussing World War II, he touches on what Americans do when they know genocide is happening, when there is an international aggressor who is not challenged and how America can process and reassess its own self-image in the midst of that.

Johnson said he doesn’t want to tell students what to think, but he feels that he would be doing them a disservice if he didn’t give his students the tools to use historical evidence and events to form their decision making. Because of that, he says Ukraine will continue to be a part of his course throughout this semester.

“As a history teacher, if I would say we’re focusing on the 1930s and that has no relevance to today, then what’s the point of taking the class?” Johnson said. “What’s the point of that class if it doesn’t allow us some things to think about?”