After more than 50 years teaching at Western Kentucky University, Mary Ellen Miller has become known as a creative writing teacher who asks for the best from her students and doesn’t settle for less.
Miller, who has taught longer at WKU than any other faculty member, came to the university in 1963 after moving to Bowling Green with her husband, Jim Wayne Miller, a German-language professor also known for his poetry and other writings.
WKU has been a good fit, she said.
“He stayed till he died, and I’m staying till I die,” Miller said.
Now, Miller’s scaling back her schedule to teach half-time so she can have more time for her other passion – poetry.
“I wanted to not give up my teaching role, but I also just wanted more time for my writing,” she said.
Miller had been teaching seven courses a year, but that’s now dropping to four.
Robert Hale, who heads WKU’s English Department, said he gets the same comments from students who had Miller 10 or 20 years ago as those who had her the year before.
“She just gives a lot of care to her students and always has,” he said.
Kalyn Goodwin is one of Miller’s former students who’s taken three classes with her, including a creative writing elective that was the first class she attended at WKU. Goodwin was only available to comment through email.
“Through her teaching, I had to learn quickly that there’s no room for triteness in creative writing,” Goodwin wrote.”There were times that I would receive a poem or section of short story back and entire sections would be crossed out with just the word, ‘No.’ That’s her way. She’s tough, but fair and she knew what I was capable of just like she knows what most of her students are capable of creating. If I came to her and said, ‘Help me, I’m struggling,’ she would take me aside during office hours and help me understand what wasn’t working, so that I could figure out on my own what would work.”
As tough as she is, Miller can also be funny. Goodwin remembers Miller calling her Victoria for the first two weeks of her intermediate poetry class.
“When I raised my hand and gently reminded her that it was Kalyn, she looked very confused before stubbornly glaring at me and said, ‘Now, listen. You should be grateful that I gave you such a beautiful name. I could have named you something ugly, like ... Mabel. That’s what I’m going to call you now – Mabel,’ ” Goodwin wrote.
Miller’s achieved more than just teaching, however. Miller helped create WKU’s Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies and the Jim Wayne Miller Celebration of Writing, an annual lecture and writing competition for students. She’s previously served two terms as faculty regent on WKU’s Board of Regents, according to a university news release.
Miller is also the author of many poems, reviews and literary essays. Her book of poetry, “The Poet’s Wife Speaks,” won the Old Seventy Creek Press Poetry Prize, a university news release said. In 2014, Miller edited “Every Leaf A Mirror: A Jim Wayne Miller Reader” with Morris Allen Grubbs, and the book won a Weatherford Award as one of the best books on Appalachian culture.
WKU President Gary Ransdell praised Miller in a university news release.
“Professor Miller has been the consummate school leader at WKU for five decades,” Ransdell said. “Her passion for English, literature and poetry is exemplary, and her personality is delightful. Her service on the WKU Board of Regents was remarkable at a critical time in WKU’s growth. She is a WKU treasure!”
— Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.