History Department
History Department

Three History Dept. professors receive inaugural Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award

Mon, August 24, 2009
Three History Dept. professors receive inaugural Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award
Three History Dept. faculty receive inaugural ROTA award

In November 2008, the Board of Regents introduced the Regents’ Outstanding Teachers Awards (ROTA) for the nine academic institutions of The University of Texas System.

In the Call for Nominations, the Regents stated that “They wish to encourage teaching excellence by recognizing those faculty who deliver the highest quality of undergraduate instruction, demonstrate their commitment to teaching, and have a history and promising future of sustained excellence with undergraduate teaching.”

Nominees at each campus were carefully evaluated by a selection committee that made recommendations to the university president. Nominations from all campuses were considered by the System’s Office of Academic Affairs on behalf of the Board of Regents. The awards were announced at the August Board of Regents’ meeting.

More on each History Department faculty member:

G. Howard Miller has received most of the university-wide and College of Liberal Arts teaching awards that exist. And now, he is one of twenty tenured faculty at The University of Texas at Austin to receive the new Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.  

Miller joined the department in 1971 to teach the "History of American Religion." He taught his hallmark undergraduate class, “The History of Religion in America since 1800” for over 30 years while also teaching introductory U.S. History classes, upper-division seminars on topics in American religion, and the graduate colloquium on teaching.

His classes were popular and varied, and he received his first teaching award in 1976. There were many other awards including his appointment to the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers (1999) and his selection for the Friars Centennial Teaching Fellowship (2008).

Beginning in 2003, Miller created seven new classes in the History of American Religion—four new undergraduate seminars and three new upper-division lecture courses. These new classes were inspired by research for his next book on the cultural impact of the nineteenth-century bestselling novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and by the subsequent theatrical and cinematic productions of the novel.

Beginning with a seminar on the Ben Hur tradition, “Religion and Popular Culture: Ben Hur in American History,” Miller, next, expanded his research and course innovation to teach “Reel Religion: Jesus and American Cinema and Culture.” He guided students through excerpts of eighteen cinematic depictions of Jesus or Christ figures including the 1925 and 1959 Ben Hur, portions of King of Kings (1927), The Robe (1953), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). 

In “Jesus in American Culture,” an upper-division lecture class, Miller introduced students to the sometimes surprising historical reality that different American Christians at different times had different ideas about the man, the prophet, or the incarnate God called Jesus. Miller’s lectures drew on art, music, film, and hundreds of digitized representations of Jesus. 

Other new courses included “Faith in the Fifties: American Religion in the 1950s,” “Religion in the United States, from 1945 to the Present,” and “Unbelief, Doubt and Skepticism in America.” Miller’s new and exciting classes exemplify the way that faculty link scholarship to course development. This is what the superb faculty scholars of the University of Texas at Austin Department of History do; Miller does it extremely well.

But new classes, even multi-media classes, do not explain his near-four decade record of recognition for teaching excellence. What does Miller do that has consistently gained the admiration of his students and his peers?
Miller’s students often tell him that he sounds like a Baptist minister when he lectures. He was raised in an evangelical church; he does convey the passion of the preacher; and he is on a mission of salvation. Miller is not a minister, and his role is not to save souls or to convert students to religion. He hopes to save students from ignorance. 

He thinks of himself as an evangelist for the liberal arts, and he is keen to proclaim the “good news" that “the life of the mind is exciting and worthwhile.” This is a hard sell to many 18-21 year olds, but Miller is persuasive. He has a well-earned reputation as a dynamic lecturer, though much of his “teaching” occurs during his office hours. 

Even in classes of one hundred students, he tries to learn the names of all his students and encourages them to visit him during office hours. Most do. Miller conveys his interest in their lives, his respect for their heritage and goals and their minds. When teachers listen to students, students become more interested in listening to their teachers.

Miller attributes his effectiveness as a teacher to his musical education—his B.A. is in clarinet and choral conducting from the University of North Texas. While this is not the usual route to teaching awards at a major research university, Miller has an explanation that makes sense. Having spent years playing and singing in ensembles, Miller knew that the key to making music was listening to oneself and to one’s ensemble colleagues. 

A music ensemble, he explains, “is a definitive community…choristers and conductor must learn to, literally, breathe together.”  In the early 1970s, as an assistant professor teaching a class of five hundred, a young Miller began to think of his class as the largest choir he had ever conducted: “I tried to connect with them as I would with a choir, first of all by persuading them that I really knew that they were there, that I was glad that they were there, that I was glad to be there and that I would listen to them.

I reached out to them, literally, with my body. I connected with them with my eyes. I compelled them to follow me as I moved about the stage. It was absolutely exhausting. And exhilarating. And I realized, immediately, that this evangelist had finally found his calling,” said Miller.
Professor-as-choirmaster with large and small ensembles, Miller considers his decades of teaching at the university to be “the greatest privilege” of his life. He has taught thousands of students, and he meets former students—and their children—all over the world. “To see what they have made of their lives,” Miller says, “has made me very proud and brought me great joy.”

Karl Hagstrom Miller has been teaching at the university for less than ten years, but already has gained a reputation as an excellent teacher. Talk on the street in the early years of Miller’s teaching included comments such as “Karl Miller Rocks!” 

Once semester students circulated a petition extolling their appreciation of Miller and presented it to the chair of the History Department. Since then, his effectiveness as an instructor has been confirmed by his peers, by the university administration, and now, by the UT System Board of Regents.

In June, Miller learned that he had received one of nine of the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards for tenure-track faculty at The University of Texas at Austin. But his first teaching award came in spring 2007 when he was named one of two recipients of the Dad’s Association Centennial Teaching Fellowships. The university Provost makes this award, created by the UT Austin Dad’s Association and endowed by that association and the Centennial Teachers and Scholars Program, based upon recommendations from the college deans. 

A United States cultural historian, Miller uses music to explore history. He teaches undergraduate courses for the Department of History that include “United States Media, Culture and Commerce,” “Black Music and American Identity,” “United States Popular Music in the Twentieth Century,” and “U.S. History: from Reconstruction to the Present.”

He teaches a graduate seminar in U.S. cultural history and serves on Ph.D. exam committees for students in history and Ethnomusicology. He also teaches undergraduates in the university’s Butler School of Music: “Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century,”  “The Music of African Americans,” and “Politics, Pleasure and Popular Music.” 

Miller is well-suited to serve the department and the School of Music. He began college as a music major at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston before he transferred to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota where he majored in history. 

Describing himself as an “evangelist” when it comes to encouraging undergraduates to think critically, Miller is most concerned to help students become “engaged in historical arguments,” to help students learn what it means to “think historically.”  And, what does it mean to help students learn to “think historically?” Miller explains that he wants students to be able to “embrace complexity” when thinking about the past. He is concerned that students recognize “multiple and intersecting causality.”  In other words, the past is not just a sequence of disembodied facts and dates; Miller talks to his students about real people in complicated situations.

A teacher who presents American history to his students in creative and engaging ways, Miller invests time, energy, and intelligence to the enterprise of teaching undergraduates. It is also clear that Miller is “popular” with students, even in the large lecture classes. But why? Undergraduates are a tough audience. 

When students write their anonymous course and instructor evaluations, students most often comment on his “enthusiasm.” They recognize Miller’s excitement about the subject and his eagerness to communicate something of that excitement to students. It works. Miller’s enthusiasm is infectious, and students find that the lives, thoughts, dilemmas, mistakes, and triumphs of people long-dead are, in fact, extremely interesting. As an “evangelist”, Miller can claim many converts.

Miller has also been recognized for his scholarship. His first book Segregating Sound:  Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, forthcoming from Duke University Press in February 2010, reveals his skill in using popular music to interpret specific aspects of American cultural history. The American Council of Learned Societies awarded Miller with the Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship to further his next project titled, “Sound Investments: A History of Music Ownership and Piracy.” This fellowship, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is given to non-tenured faculty to support current research.

He explains that “Sound Investments” will be “an intervention into recent debates about digital file sharing and piracy.” He notes that “the traditional music industry is crumbling as computer users download millions of tracks off the Internet without paying music creators.” 

Though “file sharing” is a recent development, possible because new digital technologies have made it easy to copy music, the debate is long-argued between advocates of legal and cultural models of musical ownership. Copyrighted material is protected by law, and unauthorized—and unremunerated—use of copyrighted material is theft. In “Sound Investments”, Miller will argue that “the file sharing debates… are fueled by fundamental historical struggles over the role music should play in our economy, our culture and our everyday lives.”

Penne Restad, senior lecturer in American history in The University of Texas's History Department, was one of three to receive the inaugural Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award for non-tenure track faculty. Plus, her teaching proposal was awarded a grant.

She is the first non-tenure-track faculty in the department to win such a prestigious teaching award. Although her excellent teaching was recognized in fall 2003 when she was chosen to receive the Dad’s Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship.

Restad has been teaching U.S. History courses at the university for over ten years. She began teaching the same year that her book, Christmas in America: A History (Oxford University Press, 1995), was published, and she was soon recognized as a creative and committed instructor.

Read the full story on Penne Restad...

Dr. Megan Seaholm, Lecturer and Newsletter Editor, History Dept., 512-472-3261, seaholm@mail.utexas.edu

Related Links
Dr. G. Howard Miller
Howard Miller's Jesus Christ media course
Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller
Dr. Penne Restad

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