Religious studies professor’s devotion to teaching recognized
Professor G. Howard Miller began teaching at The University of Texas at Austin in 1971 in Burdine 106, an auditorium seating hundreds of students.
“I felt like a rock star,” says Miller, a University Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies, who retired earlier this year. “If you had a class in there, you’d remember it.”
When Miller became a history professor, he imagined spending much of his time on research. However, he soon discovered a love of teaching.
“When I stood in Burdine and faced those 543 students, I realized I had another calling,” Miller says. “I can’t imagine being more richly rewarded in human terms than I have been in my 40 years at the Forty Acres.”
Throughout those years, Miller shared his belief in a liberal arts education with his students.
“For 40 years I told my students that I was an evangelist, one who proclaimed to them the ‘Gospel of the Liberal Arts,’” Miller said at the Pro Bene Meritis Award reception on April 28, 2011. “And what was the ‘good news’ I preached? ‘Rejoice, and be exceeding glad.’ For you do not have to know at age 18 how you will live the rest of your life.
“A liberal arts education is not intended to prepare you to make a living, but to live a rich and rewarding life as a fulfilled individual and a useful citizen. It is supposed to make you reflective, creative, expansive, open to experience — and capable always of being surprised, and, very occasionally, wrong.”
During his time at the university, Miller taught many popular courses on American religious history such as “Jesus in American Culture” and “‘Reel Religion’: The Cinematic Lives of Jesus.”
His devotion to teaching was recognized with almost every teaching award, including the Friar Centennial Fellowship, the university’s largest undergraduate teaching award, and the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, the largest of the University of Texas System-wide teaching awards. Miller also served in administrative positions such as graduate advisor for the History Department and dean of student affairs for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“Howard’s students remember the deep effect his courses have had on their lives,” said Martha Newman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies, at the awards reception.
“Over nearly four decades, the hundreds of students who have ‘minored in Miller’ have learned to see themselves as part of the changing currents of American religious history.”
Miller, the only son of a tenant farmer, was born in 1941 in Graham, Texas. He attended North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) and received a bachelor’s degree in clarinet in 1964 and a master’s degree in history two years later. He earned his doctorate in history at the University of Michigan in 1970, and he taught briefly at Hope College in Michigan before coming to The University of Texas at Austin.
When Miller began teaching the religious history of America, the field of religious studies was in its infancy. One of Miller’s proudest accomplishments is his role in creating the Department of Religious Studies, which was established in 2007.
“For many years, he worked to educate the university about the discipline of religious studies,” Newman says. “Thanks to his hard work, we have since been able to develop the Religious Studies major and department that he first envisioned in the mid 1970s.”
Today, nearly 100 undergraduates major in religious studies. The department enrolled its first class of graduate students in its new Ph.D. program this fall.
On receiving the Pro Bene Meritis Award, Miller says, “I was stunned. I do not surprise very often. I am not a modest man, but it never occurred to me that I would win the Pro Bene Meritis Award.”
In his retirement, Miller plans to complete a book length study of “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” a bestselling novel by General Lew Wallace published in 1880. When asked to name a favorite book, however, Miller passes over “Ben-Hur” and names Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“It’s a very sentimental book. It’s by no means great literature,” Miller says. Nonetheless, he treasures his experiences introducing the novel to his students.
“For 30 years, I led at least one generation of students to meet Harriet Beecher Stowe and her characters.”
Miller’s legacy at the university will continue with the Howard Miller Excellence Endowment, a fund created in his honor by the Department of Religious Studies. The fund will support graduate students’ research and professional development.
“I gave my professional life to my students,” Miller said at the awards reception. “But they gave it back to me, profoundly changed. In a very real sense, they gave direction, purpose and perhaps even meaning to my life.”