Professor Spotlight: Dr. Dana Miller

Recently, junior Matt Brewer had the opportunity to speak with Professor Dana Miller, who is known among current Honors students for his first-year Ancient Philosophy course. Professor Miller will remain a part of the Honors Program’s new curriculum, as he is set to teach the new Foundational Texts: Philosophy course this coming fall. During their conversation, Matt asked Professor Miller about his past, the Honors Program, and his current interests in philosophy.

Matt: How long have you been a professor in the Honors Program?

Prof. Miller: I have a syllabus from 1999, but I might have one from before that, I’m not sure. About twenty years.

Matt: What do you like most about the Honors Program?

Prof. Miller: Well, I like the seminar format. And, I like the fact that the students are engaged; they work hard, they actually do the reading, by and large. The students’ writing is almost always good. So it’s rewarding to teach Honors students because they’re smart, hard-working, interested, and interesting. I think that’s a big factor.

[pauses to think for a moment]

It is interesting to me, the fact that I get the incoming freshmen. It’s a plus and a minus. It’s a minus because it’s kind of my job to turn high school students into college students.

Matt: I think that’s why people remember your class, in particular. They go through that transition there.

Prof. Miller: That’s right. [laughs] I apply the iron to their flesh. I think that’s why.

Matt: Well, someone has got to do it.

Prof. Miller: That’s right, exactly. But, it’s also a good thing that [freshmen] haven’t really made up their minds, one way or another. A lot of people haven’t taken philosophy, so they haven’t been misinformed about philosophy. It’s harder to get ideas out of people’s heads than it is to get ideas into people’s heads. And so, it’s more of a blank slate and it’s a lot easier to write on a blank slate. And, I think incoming freshmen are more receptive.

Matt: Especially with all the disciplines and perspectives that you’re exposed to in the Honors Program.

Prof. Miller: Yeah, for sure. I also like the fact that I get to know basically everyone [in the Program]. And, if there are issues, then there’s somewhere to go to talk to, the leaders of the Program. So, there’s this oversight of the students as individuals that you don’t get in ordinary classes. By the end of the semester, I know people pretty well, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it allows more communication both ways.

I said at the beginning of the semester to the freshmen last year, don’t look at me or any of the other professors as replacement fathers or mothers. I’m not your father, but I am your friend. And, I’m here to try to be useful and helpful to you, but I’m not going to treat you in some kind of paternalistic way. You’re here for a purpose, and I’m going to fulfill that purpose.

Matt: Do any moments or memories stand out to you from Ancient Philosophy classes of the past?

Prof. Miller: Funny moments stand out for me. This one girl, she got one of these cards, right in the middle of the semester. [Former students of Professor Miller may recall his deck of playing cards, which he uses to randomly select a student to speak in the seminar]. And she yelled out an expletive! So that was pretty hilarious. [laughs] There was one student years ago, on a midterm, she drew on odd picture, so then, when I returned the midterm, I added to her picture. She kept that, and senior year, at the end of the year, she presented it at the Honors Banquet. That was funny.

Matt: Have you always studied philosophy?

Prof. Miller: So, I studied philosophy in undergraduate, and both Mary Callaway, [Honors first-year literature professor] and I went to undergraduate at St. John’s Annapolis. We were there at the same time, but I don’t think we were in the same year. So that was mostly philosophy. I found that really quite interesting, as we moved through the program, we took ancient, some medieval, then early modern. I never felt that I understood the ancients. Actually, I was pretty radical at that time, and I thought reason was the enemy of humanity. So I had to be persuaded that there was some purpose to it, that reason had some purpose; I should have been reading Hume. But then, after an entire year of that, I actually came around, and said, “well, yeah, I can see it.” Philosophy is all about reason and making rational sense of things, and after a year, I saw the point.

Matt: So philosophy has always been something you’ve been interested in?

Prof. Miller: Well, I was curious, but I didn’t really study it in a formal sense, I just studied it on my own. Then, I had this first year [at St. John’s], and I had read a lot of Nietzsche back then, that kind of stuff. So that was intellectual stimulation. I was also reading a lot of nineteenth-century French poetry, and a lot of literature, Joyce, lots of stuff, so I was filling my mind with all kinds of things. So I got into it in college, but then I felt that I never really understood the Greeks, and then after college, I decided I had to figure out what I was going to do.

Matt: Did you have other jobs after college, before you entered academia?

Prof. Miller: Yeah, I had a few jobs and they were enjoyable, but they weren’t using my mind. I had done tree-work for quite a bit, and I enjoyed it, but, tree-work is not a job for old men. [laughs] So, I tried a bunch of other things, and said, what am I going to do? So, I decided to go back to school. I went to Boston University to get an MA, and then I got into Harvard and got another MA there, and by that time I was already interested in the ancients again — ancient Greece, the classics. Then I got kind of bored with the classics. It’s wonderful literature, but if you really study it professionally, nobody asks the question, “why?” It’s always “that,” right? So, you’re looking at a text, and you try to figure out the grammar, and you try to figure out what they say, and once you’ve done that, you’re done. There’s no attempt to take it deeper, to get beyond what’s there on the page, and that got pretty tedious to me in a hurry.

Matt: So, are your research interests now exclusively in ancient philosophy?

Prof. Miller: Not exclusively. What I’m really interested in now is the intersection between philosophy and neuroscience; so philosophy of perception, connections to skepticism. I’m currently working on a project that has to do with an interesting question in neuroscience, [whether consciousness is multisensory or unisensory]. Interestingly enough, Aristotle spends quite a long time wrestling with this very same problem, and he’s got some very, very very complicated discussions of this in one of his treatises. So, I’m spending time trying to see where Aristotle might be situated in this contemporary debate. That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in: bringing [ancient philosophy] into what we’re thinking about now, rather than it being an historical inquiry. There’s no difference between a fifth-century Greek and me with respect to perception. So, it’s perfectly sensible to look to see if there are links between their perception of what’s going on and our perception of what’s going on.

Matt: Do you have a favorite philosopher?

Prof. Miller: Yeah, I’d say Hume. When I read Hume, I just laugh, and laugh. He has a fantastic sense of humor, and he’s so radical, and he’s radical in this twisted way, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye; it’s like he has a knife, and he takes hold, and he keeps twisting it. He’s not entirely right; I think he’s starting from assumptions that I think aren’t quite defensible, but that’s what people thought in the day, and what he does with that, is unbelievable. And, he was right about a whole lot of things. His primary arguments and primary positions are still valid today. The guy was a genius, and on top of that, a wonderful writer. It’s such a joy to read his philosophical works. I like good philosophy in general, Plato obviously, Aristotle obviously, but Hume is special. Maybe it’s easy to read because it’s English; with Plato and Aristotle, you have to dive back into the Greek.

Matt: In closing, is there anything you’d like to say about the Honors Program?

Prof. Miller: Teaching three classes back-to-back is tough. It involves the same preparation, but people don’t realize how much effort is involved in making a seminar work. You’re at maximum level of attention, trying to hold things together, and trying to get people to understand things. That’s a lot of nervous energy poured into every class. So, it’s a commitment. But it seems to me that the quality of the Program comes from the students, and how much they put into it, and that’s why I like it. If I didn’t enjoy the students, then I wouldn’t be in the Program.

Matt Brewer and the Honors Program thank Professor Miller for his time and for the insightful answers he provided for this interview.