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A Habit of Excellence

miller antman feature

“It was a way to cope with things,” said Professor of Philosophy Mike Miller, Ph.D., describing the lecture videos he created during the spring semester in which students returned home for remote instruction due to the pandemic. The necessity to connect in a new way provided both a distraction from the challenge of moving to online learning and an effective method of student engagement.

Fmike-miller-1.pngor the rest of the semester, Miller addressed students in his philosophy courses through video vignettes. In one, he pretended to be Aristotle while walking around an empty campus. Another video showed him engaging in a Socratic dialogue with himself. For that video, he shot the conversation twice and edited to make it look like one conversation. In yet another video, he used a green screen to shrink himself to three inches tall—like Ant Man.

“Whatever I did was partly for myself, but also the regular way I teach I couldn’t do online; I couldn’t have that interaction. I didn’t want to speak to them through PowerPoint,” he added. Miller’s enthusiasm came at a time when students and faculty were working to adapt from in-person instruction to digital lessons and discussions—which called for some creativity.  

Human creativity is our defining attribute.

In addition to practicing and teaching philosophy, Miller has been a professional photographer for more than a decade. Rewind to fall 2019, pre-pandemic, when he launched a new freshman course titled Philosophy of Creativity. The foundational work for the course would, unknowingly, become part of his new approach to connecting with students through videos. This course explored what it means to be human and what makes us unique.

“We’re more than just body; we’re more than just physical needs, more than just practical solutions. We can find beauty; we can find novelty,” he explained. “Our purposes are very different; they’re not just practical.”

As he taught the course, he says the experience of trying to learn and teach new computer applications helped him find ways to express himself. While Miller didn’t create any videos for that class, he did teach himself how to use Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, adding to his previous experience with video-editing software Adobe Premiere Pro and Lightroom.

“I like the idea of thinking in new and different ways, expanding, pushing yourself, challenging yourself,” he said. “Part of that class was trying to explain to myself what it means to be a human. We’re not robotic. We grow and are challenged. We can do more than we think. I learned about my connections to people.”

This semester Miller is teaching a hybrid philosophy course. His PHIL 203 students were asked to think about philosophies of race and gender.

“Our country needs to talk more about race and racism, but many people find doing so stressful," he said. To make this point Miller invited his students to play a modified version of the classic board game Operation. The stress-inducing, battery-operated, game challenges the doctor to remove plastic ailments from cavities inside the patient, named Cavity Sam, with a tiny pair of tweezers. If the tweezers touch the metal sides, a loud buzzer sounds and Sam’s nose glows red. Miller’s son, an electrical engineering student, helped him alter the game to assist him in discussing the stress of talking about race and racism. “I put in sound files so when you make a mistake you hear Sam say ‘Hey that hurts!’ or ‘Let’s not talk about that.’ Miller says the tense situation amplifies its importance. “Going under operation is a risky thing, but you do it because something good can come out of it. For me, it’s mostly having that conversation.” Or perhaps the last line can be replaced with “So let’s talk about race, even if we find it hard to do so.”

For gender, Miller used Adobe Character Animator to create a video of an illustrated Mary Wollstonecraft. In the video, the feminist thinker shares a synopsis of her life and writings including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and prequel A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1770) where she says, “I defended Democratic principles and basic human rights.” The unconventional figure asks: “Do you think all human society will one day adopt my philosophy? If so, what do you think convinced my critics they were wrong?” The character, voiced by Miller’s wife Sara, thanks students for reading her book. “Keep challenging yourself and keep fighting for your fundamental right to develop your human nature through an education.”

Students have loved Miller’s videos and appreciate his efforts to keep it entertaining.

“I think I’ve been given the talent to teach and I’ve worked on developing that talent for a reason because we have to do more with what we’re given,” Miller said. “I can get by and do fine and have done my job—but I don’t think we’re called in life to simply do our job and just do enough to get by. I think we’re called to be of excellence, to be using our talents as they’re given to us, following our passions and becoming more human.”

His blue eyes look up and he laughs. “I’m falling into Aristotle’s idea of fulfillment.”