Dr. Miles' love of literature and innovative teaching methods inspire student success
By Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representative
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Posted: 05/31/2013
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Dr. Caroline Miles said she's frequently asked, "how does a woman from Great Britain become a William Faulkner scholar teaching American literature to predominantly Hispanic undergraduate students?"

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- Dr. Caroline Miles
"It makes for interesting conversation," said the associate professor of English at The University of Texas-Pan American, who last year was one of six UTPA faculty members who received the coveted 2012 University of Texas System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards. The award of $25,000 is among the highest nationwide to recognize excellence in teaching by university faculty.

The first in her family to get a college degree, the native of London, England said she didn't have a privileged, private education which most college students in Great Britain are required to have. In England you either leave school at age 16 or stay until you are 18 in order to go to a university, Miles said.

"I feel, because of my experience, much more at home at a university like UTPA where I feel like I can make a difference in the lives of first generation students," she said.

An avid reader, her love of literature was nurtured by a mother who loved reading and a grammar school headmistress who had a Ph.D. in the field.

"She (the headmistress) was a very influential person in my life as a person and as a teacher. She believed very, very strongly in the potential of girls in a way I had not been really exposed to before," said Miles, who also directs UTPA's Gender and Women's Studies program.

Miles' affinity for the work of Faulkner and other U.S. Southern writers began with an early exposure to and subsequent fascination with the Deep South via American movies like "Gone with the Wind" and TV shows like "Dallas," "Dukes of Hazard" and a British series based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

At the University of Wales, where she earned her B.A. in English and American Studies, she participated in a student exchange program which landed her at the University of Southern Mississippi. A renowned Faulkner scholar there encouraged her return to the school where she earned her master's and Ph.D. in English.

"Really, the first time I read Faulkner while in Wales, it was quite hard to relate to and I didn't care for it at all. I probably would not have read Faulkner again if I hadn't gone to Mississippi and had this wonderful Faulkner professor - Noel Polk. Also having the opportunity to be in Mississippi, right there in the place he was writing so vividly about, made a difference as well," she said.

When she came to UT Pan American in 2004, she was especially attracted to teaching undergraduate students.

"I enjoy the challenge of inspiring students who are not necessarily interested in reading, writing, or English," said Miles, who often relies on novels by working class authors like Jack London to attract male non-readers in particular.

With her interest in female authors and gender in literature, Miles also took on directing the Gender and Women's Studies Program at the University, which was in its infancy when she arrived. She redesigned the program, which now offers a minor and a certificate. Miles also brought awareness of violence against women and other gender issues through the initiation of innovative events like the national Clothesline Project and a creative arts exhibit and competition.

Miles said she thinks the program is particularly important for Valley students attuned to more rigid values and stereotypes in regard to gender.

"The female students in particular find it very empowering to read about women's experiences and I think it is important for them to realize their potential as women," she said.

Her undergraduate student Katherine Hoerth, who went on to earn her MFA and is now a UTPA lecturer in English, said Miles provided her a new perspective on American literature with thought provoking discussions on class relations, gender roles and the implications of texts on modern society.

In Miles' women's literature course, Hoerth recalled rereading Jane Eyre from a feminist perspective.

"When I read the book before, I remember thinking of it as so romantic. However, in Dr. Miles' class we took a second look at the novel, examining the power structures of class and gender relations between the characters. Needless to say, I no longer daydreamed about finding a Rochester," Hoerth said.

A strong believer that student engagement is the principle key to learning, Miles has been a leader in learning new innovations in pedagogy to maximize that engagement. Her love of teaching, she said, has led to being a lifelong learner herself.

"You have to be a lifelong learner to be an effective teacher because you have to change with the times. If you remain static in your teaching style then I don't think that is a good thing. You have to constantly adapt and commit to learn new teaching methods to teach new generations of students," Miles said.

She has taught fully online courses for years and was selected by UTPA's Center for Online Learning, Teaching and Technology to participate in creating an exemplary online course. In Miles' use of SecondLife, a virtual world that allows teachers to simulate the visual and interactive aspects of the face-to-face classroom, her students contribute each semester to a virtual literary museum that they created.

Miles has also been recognized with a distinguished faculty service award for her commitment and contributions to service learning. She established collaborations between her students and Valley schools as well as organizations like Mujeres Unidas.

"Both SecondLife and service learning provide additional opportunities for students to contribute to something beyond the class," said Miles, who has consistently been rated excellent on student evaluations.

In addition, she has developed a study abroad program to London with another English faculty member, in which students read the literature of transatlantic women novelists and visit the sites they reference. Alumna Erika Flores, who earned a master's in English under Miles mentorship, praised the experience.

"I gained a fresh perception of the world and of truly dedicated educators who are committed to acting as facilitators for their students, by presenting them with experiences that enhance their lives," Flores wrote in her recommendation of Miles for the Regents' award.

Her fellow English faculty member Melynda Nuss calls her a credit to the UT System.

"To me, the most remarkable thing about Caroline as a teacher is that she always puts in extra effort to help her students succeed. It is difficult to find a person who gives more time and energy to her students," Nuss said.

Read more about the Regents Award winners here.