Richard L. Miller - Acceptance Speech

2009 Outstanding Master's Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year
Professor of Psychology, Department Chair
University of Nebraska at Kearney

One of my favorite quotes is by Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, who once said, "Our lives are unimportant, except for the influence we have on others." This is certainly one of the greatest joys of teaching - the difference we are allowed to make in the lives of our students.

In my life, three teachers stand out as having made a real difference in who I have become. The first was my junior high school orchestra director, Daniel Bristow, who had a bachelor's degree from Julliard and a doctorate from Columbia. Dan was once asked why he taught junior high school. His answer was that it was the "last chance to have a real impact on people's lives." He was a teacher who inspired us to be better than we ever thought possible. Gary Carson, my first psychology teacher and mentor at Weber State College, taught me how to become involved in students' lives beyond the classroom and he remains a close friend to this day. It was Gary and LouAnn who took me in and gave me a place to stay when I ran short of money the beginning of my sophomore year. Philip Brickman at Northwestern taught me that real teaching often happens outside the classroom-in informal settings where ideas can be nurtured, coaxed and molded into clarity. Summer get-togethers at the beach on Lake Michigan were the setting for many a dissertation topic. For whatever successes I have had working with students, I owe a large debt of gratitude to these outstanding teachers and the principles they lived by that I have tried my best to emulate.

1901, the psychologist Hugo Munsterberg wrote that the difference between high school and the university is that in high school, the role of the instructor is to provide the student with a good understanding of a knowledge base while at the university. The professor must teach the student to critically evaluate the knowledge base and to master the skills to extend it. My greatest satisfaction has been in finding ways to involve undergraduate students in that critical examination and expansion of the knowledge base. Now I know that some people will say, "this is scholarship, not teaching," and that some folks are pretty convinced that they are two different things. I am not. To me, they are different words for a very similar process that is at the heart of teaching and learning-the process by which we come to understand that which we didn't understand before.

During my time at UNK, I have mentored more than 200 undergraduate research projects that were presented at regional or national conferences. My students and I have very similar goals-to discover that which we did not know before. We tend to avoid replications and extensions and often take risks in examining little known or at least little written about phenomenon. As a result, we have published more than 20 articles together in professional journals, and they have published about 27 articles as sole authors. Many students identify this experience as one of their most significant academic endeavors, and I find that my lectures have become enriched with examples drawn from the many student research projects that it has been my privilege to mentor. At this point, there are very few topics that I teach about that I can't bring in the results of a student research project to expand students' knowledge of the subject matter. And don't think that that doesn't affect their attention-it's pretty cool to realize that fellow students can contribute to the knowledge base.

John McCormick once wrote: "Being an educated person is not ‘all about precious you." It's not only about your career. Being educated means realizing that there are more important things out there than your personal hopes and dreams. To the extent that your life is all about you, you won't have lived it." Over the years, I have had the pleasure of teaching many students who demonstrated this spirit of generosity and concern for others. One such student was Marci Rust, and while she was bright and capable, it was in her interactions with others that she was truly impressive. In the process of conducting an empirical research project with a team of somewhat less than capable students, she took it upon herself to make sure that every member of the team was able to learn and grow in the group project. Where someone was lacking in ability, she filled in and educated. Where another lacked motivation, she worked to convince them of the importance of the effort.

I would like to close with another favorite quote. It is by Charlene Szumilas, principal of Holy Trinity High School in Chicago, who said: "We hope that during their time with us, our students gain an understanding of what it takes to live a worthy life; that they understand what injustice is and will work to correct it; that when they see those less fortunate, they assist them; that they reach out to others in need even when they themselves are struggling; that they give generously of themselves and their talents. Above all, we hope that they help those with whom they come into contact to see the value of an educated heart."

As a teacher, I think my greatest satisfaction comes when I am able to help students see the value of an educated heart.


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