Miller awarded teaching distinction award

The Teaching Excellence Awards Committee (TEAC) has named the 2012 winners for the Teaching Distinction Award (TDA). This year, the History Department found one of those winners in its ranks. Jennifer Miller, associate professor of historical studies, was awarded the honor, along with the $500 cash prize.

The chair of TEAC, Denise DeGarmo, associate professor and chair of political science, stated that the winners of TDA were very deserving, as the competition for the award was close.

“From my experience, this was one of the toughest decisions. The rankings were very, very close,” said DeGarmo.

DeGarmo stated that, as part of the process for choosing a winner, members of TEAC sit in and observe the professors in action. A portfolio is put together on the professor and then the determination is made by the committee.

“We look at their history of teaching at the university, what they have done. We also put a huge portfolio together, with teacher observations, pedagogy in class,” said DeGarmo. “We all set out to look at certain classes. At least three or four of us go to every class. What are they doing in class? What are student’s reaction to it? Are they enthusiastic? Do they have the ability to help students understand really complex concepts.”

Clinical faculty, instructors, lecturers, and part-time faculty are eligible to win the TDA, but must have at least three years of teaching experience primarily at the undergraduate level, according to the TEAC site.

Miller, who focuses on the history of 19th and 20th century Germany, began her college career as a German literature student. Her master’s was in women’s and gender studies, and her PhD was in German history. She wrote her dissertation on Turkish guest workers who were recruited into west Germany in the 1960’s and ’70’s.  Miller stated that Steve Hansen, Thomas Jordan, and Jason Stacy, each of historical studies, wrote letters of support for her nomination.

The interdisciplinary nature of her degrees changed how Miller teaches and researches. She stated that the two main points she wants her students to learn are intellectual curiosity and thinking about primary sources.

“One is fostering intellectual curiosity, the curiosity to want to know more about something or what’s behind it. Another is through primary source analysis, to see everything as a source. When I watch the news, what is the context? When historians look back, 75 years from now, at our current society, what will be the sources to figure out what we are all about? Will it be music videos? Will it be Daily Show clips? What forms of media will it be?,” said Miller. “So, they really learn to analyze the source for it’s context and it’s significance. I think it will change how they view all the sources they come in contact with, and they will see their current time period with a more critical eye.”

Carol Fricke, professor and chair of historical studies, said that Miller’s classes are multi-media oriented classes. Miller stated that she uses the technology to facilitate the class rather than dominate the class. She stated that because most of her courses are an hour and fifteen minutes, she tries to break it up to keep students active and participating. Miller uses powerpoint, images, photos, paintings and music in a variety of fashions.

“It’s never just there as illustration; it’s a source. And I help the students see in that painting or in that photograph something about the time period. I think every photograph has a thesis. It has a point it’s trying to make, especially when it’s representing something, some event. It has a point of view. It’s taking a side. So I help them try to figure out what side it’s taking. What does this photograph want us to know about the trenches in WWI?” said Miller. “We use a lot of primary documents from the time period so that they can judge for themselves how they would interpret it.”

For Miller, the engagement begins in the 100 level classes. She stated that she is casual in the classroom and that her teaching is never just a lecture.

“Even at the 100 level, I bring in the relevant and historical debate and then I focus the material around that. So, it’s sort of a different way to teaching rather than being straight out of the primary text,” said Miller. “I always have an interactive lecture where I pose a historical question and then I pose two sides of it. Then I try to get the students to pick which side they find more believable, which is actually how real historians decide things. They have to pick a side in the debate and then they defend it.”

The participation doesn’t end in the classroom for Miller. She stated that in the past, she has used analyzing films, researching original newspapers in the library, a trip to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, and trips to the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL as ways to changing up the class, as well as class activities.

“I have a lot of activities. For example, I’ll have a debate on new imperialism where each small group has to take on the persona of a different imperialist and argue from that person’s point of view why they believe in social darwinism or new imperialism. They [imperialist’s] are pretty evil people that they [the students] have to pretend to be, so that’s kind of fun too,” said Miller.

Miller stated that she had professors that inspired her, but not in the methods she uses in her classes. She said that her favorite professors were straight lecturers who were able to put the history into a narrative. Other professors welcomed her into their offices for conversations.

“A lot of the professors would talk to me in their office hours and they would really take an interest and get at why something actually matters, why learning something is going to change how you think about other issues,” said Miller.

The main lesson that Miller hopes her students understand, regardless of the course she is teaching, is that history is made by people.

“I think the larger lesson all historians want their students to learn is that history is made by people, it changes over time, and in some ways it’s all fictional because it’s written by someone with a point of view, and sometimes they’re that person.”

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