Q: What is it about history? How did it become your passion?

Allison: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history. I had dropped out of college and become a cook and realized I was spending most of my time going to book sales and the library and just reading a lot and boring anyone who would listen with stories about history.

I also discovered I really enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed conveying the excitement of what happened to other people and helping them understand history. Boston is a great place to study history because you have so much that’s happened here that’s really interesting.

Q: What’s your favorite course of those you’ve taught?

Allison: I think my favorite is American Constitutional History. It’s really a series of arguments. What should the form of government be? What should the powers of government be? And other questions to which there isn’t a right answer. And then thinking about what powers the states have, what is the purpose of government? Fundamental questions. It’s really a fascinating subject because you do have all these arguments over very important things.

It’s interesting because history is a process of discovery. The word history is actually from the Greek word for inquiry. It is a question we’re asking as opposed to simply a story we are telling or facts we are conveying. We are trying to figure out why this has happened.

Q: What’s your favorite bit of Suffolk history?

Allison: What always has struck me are the people you encounter—the stories of people. Whether you’re talking about [University founder] Gleason Archer and the idea of starting a college or current students who are thinking about their lives and where this will lead. It’s always these stories of people and coming from all different kinds of places, forming a community.

Q: What about this MOOC compelled you to be involved?

Allison: Boston has a fascinating history, and I’ve really been fortunate to be able to teach Boston history here. A lot of schools in the area offer a History of Boston course. Here we’re able to teach it by going places because of where we are. You can teach history here by leaving the classroom and going out and seeing things. The way I’ve been teaching it here is by taking the students out on field trips and into the neighborhoods.

For the MOOC, we talk to Henry Lee at the Public Garden. And we talk to [activist and former State Rep.] Mel King at the South End Technology Center. We talk to [former Mayor] Ray Flynn at the statue of [legendary politician] James Michael Curley. We talk to [former Massachusetts Senate President] William Bulger at Doyle’s Café. We go to Dorchester Heights. We go to Fort Hill in Roxbury.

Learn more about History of Boston, Suffolk University's first MOOC

Q: And what about teaching the course online, especially for those who don’t get to be in Boston surrounded by this history every day?

Allison: Being able to offer this online, where you can actually take people who are not situated in Boston and bring them places, introduce them to people who have shaped history is a great thing. 

And it’s something you can see, not something you can get out of reading a book. It’s about getting people there and then linking them to other historical resources. It’s not about me just lecturing. It’s something different and unique you can do with technology that would have been impossible five or ten years ago.

Q: What do you hope students get out of History of Boston?

Allison: I hope they get that Boston really is an exciting place. A lot of interesting things happen here. We can learn a lot about how cities run, what makes a city survive, and what makes a city great from looking at the history of Boston.

Q: As a history scholar, you do a lot of looking back at the past. What are you most looking forward to in Boston’s future?

Allison: I always tell my students—and anyone else who will listen—that we as historians can tell you what happened in the past. When we start telling you what is going to happen in the future, you should run. That’s one of the most important lessons we can learn. It’s the same thing as looking into the past, you never know what you’re going to find. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It’s the uncertainty that excites me.

Q: If you could have dinner with any four Boston figures, living or not, who’s on your guest list?

Allison: It’s an interesting question because you’d want to have people who are able to talk to each other. Here’s my list:

  • Benjamin Franklin. Well he was born here, but he ran away.
  • James Michael Curley. Like Franklin, he was a great storyteller. He was caustic. Curley was also great public speaker. A fascinating character in the history of the city.
  • William Bulger. He’s on my list because I tend more towards politics than art or music.
  • Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. You don’t want it to be all men! She was a brilliant woman. She published The Dial [journal] on West Street, across from where our residence hall is.
Editor's note: The above is Professor Allison's painstakingly thought out and ultimately partial list of dinner invitees. Several days after our initial conversation, he shared a more expansive and categorized set of guest lists as shown below.
  • Lawyers

    • John Adams
    • Josiah Quincy (Adams' co-counsel in the Massacre trial, and the first reporter of Superior Court decisions)
    • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
    • Louis Brandeis

  • Preachers

    • Anne Hutchinson (Not really a preacher—In fact, she was exiled for preaching.)
    • Cotton Mather
    • Richard Cardinal Cushing
    • Louis Farrakhan (Actually, when he lived in Boston he was known as Louis Wolcott, and recorded calypso songs under the name"The Charmer.")

  • Business People

    • Thomas Handasyd Perkins (Made a fortune in the China trade)
    • Edward "Ned" Johnson (Fidelity)
    • Robert Keayne (Censured in an ecclesiastical court for usury in the 1640s)
    • Edward Filene (Created Filene's Basement, also company credit unions)

  • Scientists

    • William Barton Rogers
    • Ellen Swallow Richards
    • An Wang
    • Cotton Mather (might prefer Franklin at the table)

  • Politicians

    • Samuel Adams
    • James Michael Curley
    • William Bulger
    • Josiah Quincy, Jr. (Son of the Josiah Quincy above, the "Great Mayor" of the 1820s)

  • Runaways and Exiles

    • Benjamin Franklin (Who actually could be invited to other gatherings)
    • Edgar Allan Poe
    • Nat Hentoff
    • John Singleton Copley

  • Artists

    • William Wetmore Story
    • John Singleton Copley
    • John Singer Sargent
    • Emma Stebbins

  • Poets

    • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
    • Anne Bradstreet
    • Phillis Wheatley
    • Robert Lowell

  • Athletes

    • John L. Sullivan
    • David Sears (First U.S. Open tennis champion)
    • Bill Russell
    • Tom Brady

  • Theater People

    • Eliza Poe
    • Charlotte Cushman
    • Eugene O'Neill (Died in what is now Myles Standish Hall at B.U.)
    • Susannah Haswell Rowson

  • Architects

    • Charles Bulfinch
    • Henry H. Richardson
    • Ralph Adams Cram
    • Louis Sullivan

  • Musicians

    • Johnny Hodges
    • Serge Koussevitsky
    • Maurice Starr
    • LaDonna Adrian Gaines (Donna Summer)

    An interesting thing will come up over dinner, that Koussevitsky and Donna Summer both spent formative years in Germany, and both were fluent in German. She appeared in the Munich version of "Hair," he had studied conducting in Berlin.

  • And of course...Chefs/Restaurateurs

    • Jean Baptiste Julien (Opened a French restaurant in Boston, 1790s to 1820s)
    • Barbara Lynch
    • Fannie Merrit Farmer
    Plus two possible Cambridge people:
    • Julia Child
    • Joyce Chen

    Not sure what the conversation will be like, but the food will be great!