Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Professorial Plaudits

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Professorial Plaudits

Article excerpt

Educators like to claim they can change the direction of students for the better. Platitude? Sometimes. But Lynn Miller, the first college instructor I ever met, set teenage me on paths I still follow A biologist specializing in genetics, molecular biology and evolution, he introduced me to the nature of scientific investigation and critical thinking. He also manifested the importance of creative teaching and proactive colleagueship. I would not have become a biology professor and academic administrator without his profound influence.

Miller earned a doctorate from Stanford, working under the 1958 Nobel-winning geneticist and microbiologist Joshua Lederberg. But Miller opted to eschew the role of researcher for teacher. He wound up a founding faculty member of Hampshire College, a small residential campus that derives from a mandate "to reexamine the assumptions and practices of liberal arts education," maintains a 12:1 student/teacher ratio, and places "emphasis on each student's curiosity and motivation; broad, multidisciplinary learning; and close mentoring relationships with teachers," according to its website. His many student success stories include Phyllis Coley, Distinguished Professor of Biology at University of Utah, and Peter Thomashow, head of inpatient psychiatry at Central Vermont Medical Center and a psychiatry instructor at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine.

I met Miller the summer before my freshman year at University of Chicago. The circumstances were inauspicious. My plans for a cross-country road trip had fallen through at the last minute, and a friend convinced me to enroll with him in a National Science Foundation-sponsored course Miller taught at Hampshire for high school students and recent graduates. The six-week intensive class was entitled something like "Microbiology of a Compost Pile." I had zero interest in science, never done a lick of microbiology, and no idea what a compost pile was.

Yet Miller intrigued me within seconds of the introductory session. Everyone sat on the floor in the library's kiva, and the intimacy registered. His passion for science made a bigger impact. I never imagined anyone could care so much about an academic subject! His account of microbial changes in a compost pile as it heats up painted pictures before my eyes as vivid as a Hollywood movie.

His ardor was contagious. A prime reason: Lynn treated students like peers--indeed, we were to call him by his first name. Sure, we didn't know much, but he expected us to ask questions, concoct hypotheses, design experiments, and argue ramifications. Thus, we quickly became invested in our shared enterprise. The first week, we wondered if compost piles could get hot enough to kill pathogenic bacteria and went to the local sewage treatment facility to collect effluent to test.

His then-radical teaching style of interactivity proved highly effective, at least on me. Through rudimentary experiments, microbiological procedures, and field observations I gleaned that science was a participatory endeavor. Lynn stressed active learning before it became popular and insisted that edification didn't mean merely memorizing discoveries of others. Rather, students--and instructor--could build on those findings and create new knowledge. …

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