By Michael Zimmerman
Educators like to claim they can change the direction of students for the better. Plati- tude? 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 microbi-
ology, 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.
He trumpeted the scientific method: distinguishing between pattern and anecdote and
abandoning an idea when data don’t support
it. Lynn demanded explanations for data we
observed and then probed, prodded, propped
up, and poked holes in our formulations. Yes,
his steely gaze and unrelenting queries made
me aghast at my ignorance, but by the end of
the conversation Lynn had me convinced that
with more diligence, reading and thought, I
might be onto something.
I pushed myself harder than ever before, realizing the satisfactions of rigor and zeal. When summer ended, I wanted to continue that kind of experiential learning but my school offered nothing
of the sort. So Lynn hired me as his assistant the
next summer. The glorious challenges increased
exponentially, and I took my first stab at inculcating the next generation.
Those two summers turned me into an aspiring
scientist and teacher. Because Lynn exemplified
how to differentiate between theories and the peo-
ple who promote them — how to rebut the former
while respecting the latter — I take this approach
when reproving creationism in favor of evolution.
And as a professor, I, like Lynn, require students
to engage in active learning to stoke their fervor.
So as a first-year assistant professor at Oberlin
College, I conducted an experiment with my stu-
dents on nectar dispersion in jewelweed, and the
“lab report” I wrote up, mirroring what they did
for a grade, was published in a peer-reviewed jour-
nal, thrilling the class since they played a role.
There’s another Lynn attribute I try to emulate:
mindfulness. He always seems aware of what as-
sociates are doing. In the pre-Internet days, Lynn
clipped pertinent articles to slip into mailboxes of
professors and students. I do the same, digitally.
While Lynn and I remain in periodic commu-
nication, we rarely see each other, meeting maybe
twice since that second session in summer 1973.
Coincidentally, while writing this column, I re-
ceived a brief email from him, stating that he at-
tached two articles I might like about the teach-
ing of evolution, if I hadn’t already seen them. I
hadn’t. And they were useful. Best of all, it felt
good to know that he was thinking of me.
So I think of him here, coach and referee and
cheerleader for Hampshire pupils to this day, and
hope I honor him. Yet as much as Lynn means to
me, he isn’t unique. Good educators possess the
ability to inspire students, especially when pedagogical tactics match learning modes, as with Lynn
and me. These teachers deserve recognition.
Michael Zimmerman, Vice President
for Academic Affairs and Provost at
The Evergreen State College, is a
biologist specializing in plant-animal
interactions, science literacy, and the
evolution/creationism controversy. His
publications include Science, Nonscience,
( ovationagency.com). Email him at email@example.com.
Lynn Miller confers with undergraduate student Catherine Schon in the Cole Science Center lab at Hampshire
College in spring 2005.