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Autobiographical Statement

My name is Clarke Miller, and I am currently an Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the University of North Georgia.  I have earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, an MBA, a MEd in Instructional Design and Development, and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.  I have been teaching chemistry and biochemistry in the classroom and in the laboratory for more than a decade.  I have over 20 years of experience as a chemist and a biochemist.

When I began teaching at the college level I realized that my graduate education in biochemistry had prepared me to be an excellent biochemist but had not equipped to teach and prepare course materials.  The only tool that I had in my “teaching toolbox” was simply to teach my classes as I had been taught.  Like other new faculty, I learned from trial and error.  I learned from my peers and from experience what worked and what did not work.  I also attended professional development seminars and conferences.  My takeaway from all these activities is that I still have a lot to learn about the art and science of teaching and learning.

Chemistry classes have a unique handicap.  Despite the large amount of chemical information we deal with in our daily lives students, in general, tend to do poorly in chemistry classes.  The typical DWF rate for a general chemistry course is approximately 50%.  Chemistry and biochemistry can be very difficult topics to teach.  First, these classes suffer from a unique prejudice.  Many think of these sciences as something obscure, dangerous, and inaccessible.  For example, merely mentioning the word “chemistry” evokes images of disasters at places such as Bhopal, India or Love Canal, New York.  People tend to think of chemists as mad scientists or as Severus Snape-like figures toiling over cauldrons of vile smelling potions in a dank castle dungeon.  Second, most students who take these classes are not chemistry or biochemistry majors.  The vast majority of students take college level chemistry/biology classes, especially introductory classes such as general or organic chemistry, because these classes are required for their program of study or fulfill a general education requirement.  I have often had students tell me that they are taking a chemistry or biology course because a science elective was required for their general education requirements and they thought that it would be “easier than physics”.  Many of the pre-professional students refer to chemistry classes as “weed out” classes.  Third, in addition to the barriers to learning unique to a chemistry classroom, contemporary college students rarely have the luxury to focus solely on attending classes.  Instead today’s students have a myriad of responsibilities outside the classroom such as holding a job, family responsibilities, military service, or other obligations that greatly affect classroom performance.  Taken as a whole these factors constitute an enormous barrier to learning that even the best prepared students may have difficulty overcoming.

Despite these challenges and my own lack of background knowledge I made great progress in improving my own skills and improving the outcomes for my students.  After consulting with peers and seeking the help of experts, such as brain trust present at the Georgia General Chemistry Conferences hosted at UGA by Dr. Norbert Pienta and the Department of Education, I re-stocked my “teaching toolbox”.  In 2018 I completely rewrote my curriculum and redesigned my teaching materials.  My efforts succeeded.  I lowered my overall DWF rate from the departmental DWF of roughly 50% to approximately 10% by the end of 2019 summer semester. 

 

Then the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic happened.  On March 16, 2020 the University of North Georgia closed for face-to-face instruction and I found myself teaching chemistry and biochemistry classes and labs completely online and in an asynchronous manner.  I was thrust into a teaching environment that I had no preparation for.  Frankly, my teaching tools and the “toolbox” that I worked so hard to develop were not up to dealing with this new teaching environment in an ongoing basis.  That being said, my colleagues and I did our best to meet this challenge.  Once again, I realized how much more I had to learn about teaching and learning in order to be an effective online educator.  Since March 2020 I have taught over 30 sections of chemistry in this manner.  I also had the opportunity to co-author our departmental online templates for CHEM 1152 and CHEM 1152K (Survey of General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry), CHEM 3100 (Survey of biochemistry), and CHEM 4824 (Medicinal Chemistry).  At first the majority of students were vocal in their near universal dislike of online education.  Over the following year those attitudes changed.  Now many students have come to realize that online education can be an effective tool to achieve their educational goals while allowing them the flexibility to go about their daily lives.  By the fall of 2021 many students had embraced online education and the demand for these classes had increased.  Online education in the greater “traditional” higher educational setting was given a huge boost and is not only here to stay, but will, in my opinion, become an even larger part of the higher education in the future.

These are the reasons that I decided to pursue a degree in Instructional Design and Development.  I wanted to learn to how to do my job better.  I wanted to improve my teaching skills, learn to better use instructional technology, and learn to better design and evaluate educational materials.  I want to be able to share this data with my highly data driven peers to help improve the teaching process for all.  During my time in the program, I feel that I am achieving these goals.  I have learned a great deal about educational theory and practice.  I have learned to better design courses for online instruction and how to leverage these tools to improve my face-to-face courses.

 

Aside from my professional goals, a great deal of my motivation for pursuing this course of study is due to my desire to help my students and give them the opportunities that others have given me.  Education and the opportunity to improve one’s life is a tremendous gift.  A gift that others have given to me and I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to pass that gift on to others.  The reason for my strong feelings on this topic is due to a bit of family history.  On June 8 of 1915 death in the guise of pneumonia visited the 5th in a row of houses that stood on the banks of the Cumberland River at Balkan, Kentucky.  John Wesley Miller died leaving behind his wife Elizabeth and minor children.  The youngest of the children, twins named Marlin and Myrtle, had only been born the previous May.  At the time it was the practice of the coal companies in southeastern Kentucky to evict miners or their families from company housing if they could not work.  The eldest three children, Rice Hobart, 17, Robert Lee, 15, and Steely Dennis, 13, had to find work to support their mother and younger brothers and sisters.  Work was difficult to find because the boys were so young and had no marketable skills.  The only jobs available were as coal miners.  The boys were not able to be hired by the coal company that had employed their father because they were underage.  They were eventually forced to walk the 20 miles or so from Balkan to Creech, Ky where they finally found work at the Creech Coal Company.  During the first two weeks of their employment the boys had no money for lodging or food, so they were homeless and lived out of the company bathhouse.  When that first payday finally came around the brothers pooled their money and brought their mother and siblings to live in nearby Wallins Creek, Ky.

 

The youngest of those boys, Steely, is my grandfather.  Steely never had the opportunity to return to school to complete his formal education.  He sacrificed his chance to earn a high school diploma and the possibility to eventually go on to college to care for his family.  Since he left school before the eighth grade, he received no diploma or certificate of any kind.  The only proof he had of his education was two silver dollars which had been given to him for perfect attendance.  Even though he had little formal education Steely had a love of learning and a deep respect for knowledge.  Steely continued his education in the only manner open to him.  He took courses offered by the mine or by correspondence in electrical work and practical mechanical engineering.  He eventually worked his way up to electrician for the mine.  Steely also learned other trades and skills such as tin smithing.  Later, Steely played a major role in the unionization of the mines in Harlan County.  When he died in 1977 Steely was still the recording secretary for the local United Mine Workers in Wallins Creek, Ky.        

 

When I was a little boy I had no idea of the sacrifice Steely had made when he was a boy or of the extraordinary and difficult events he found himself playing a part in later in life.  I simply called him Papaw.  Today the implications of his sacrifice and hard work are clear to me.  Not only did he help support his mother, brothers, and sisters but he made it possible for his younger siblings to complete their education.  He gave them the opportunities he had given up.  He worked in that dark coal mine so that they wouldn’t have to.  Steely’s respect for education was made abundantly clear again when he and my grandmother, Emmaline, raised six children of their own.  Each of their children finished high school and attended college.  Papaw’s sacrifice and hard work not only made life better for his family, but for his children’s families as well.

 

When my grandparents died those two silver dollars were passed down to me.  Sometimes I hold them in my hand and contemplate what they really mean.  I think of how much money two dollars was in 1915. Two dollars could certainly have housed and fed three homeless boys for the two weeks it would take to get to that first payday.  I think about how desperate the family’s plight was and how much those coins must have meant to Steely for him to keep them and pass them on.  I realize what a huge sacrifice leaving school must have been for that 13 year old boy and what, at last count, more than 100 people owe to that young man.  In terms of my own life, I think not only of my Papaw Steely, but of all the people who sacrificed so that I can pursue my own education.  It makes me realize that nothing we do is accomplished alone, but only with the help of countless others.  This is why it I take the responsibility of helping my students reach their goals so seriously.  Each of them deserves the opportunities that were denied to that 13 year old coal miner.

Scrip pic.jpg

Figure 1: Scrip from coal mines operating in southeastern Kentucky in the early 20th century.  LEFT: A 25 cent scrip coin from the Creech Coal Mine in Twila, Kentucky.  RIGHT: Beginning at the top right corner and continuing in a clockwise fashion:  A 1 cent scrip coin from the Fordson Coal Company located in Pike County, Kentucky, a 10 cent scrip coin from the Harlan Coal Company in Liggett, Kentucky, a 5 cent scrip coin from the Blackstar Coal Mine in Blackstar, Kentucky, and a 1 cent scrip coin from the Blue Diamond Coal Company in Pathfork, Kentucky.

In the early 20th century coal miners were typically paid with scrip instead of United States legal currency.  Coal mine scrip was only good for goods and services provided by the coal company.  Goods were purchased at the company store.  Housing and furniture was rented from the coal company itself.  It was not uncommon for coal miners to own nothing but the clothes on their backs.  If employment with the coal company was terminated, by dismissal or even death, families were simply evicted from company property.

Note about the Fordson Coal Company:  Beginning in 1920, Henry Ford purchased several coal mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. Two years later, he formed Fordson Coal Company to manage the mines. Ford-owned mines protected the Ford Motor Company's coal supply in the event of labor unrest or government interference. Fordson sold its coal mining operations in the mid-1930s.

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