Professor John Gruber-Miller of Cornell College has spent the past twenty-five years building, almost single-handedly, a vibrant undergraduate classics program. Equally impressive is his commitment to promoting scholarship on Greek and Latin pedagogy. The author of countless journal articles, workshops, and conference presentations, Professor Gruber-Miller is a contributing editor of When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin, a volume that has become a staple text for courses on Greek and Latin methodology. He is also the editor of CAMWS’s new online journal Teaching Classical Languages, a peer-reviewed publication for articles on Greek and Latin pedagogy. In every aspect of his work, Professor Gruber-Miller exemplifies the ideal of a “teacher-scholar,” an academic whose research informs his teaching and whose classroom serves as a workshop for his theories on classical language instruction and Greco-Roman literature and culture.
Cornell College offers all of its classes as intensive three-and-a-half-week seminars, which students take one at a time. Only a truly gifted teacher can turn this type of block scheduling into an opportunity for innovative instruction and life-altering learning. In the words of one of his ardent supporters, students who learn Latin and Greek with John speak, listen, compose, and use the languages in ways I never imagined, all of which foster understanding at a critical level. Students who take upper level Latin and Greek classes at Cornell, as I have observed during my time here, are fearless when approaching texts. And they are capable of reading complex texts in their entirety, such as the Germania or the Medea, in the course of three and a half weeks. They make the jump from translating to reading, understanding, and interpreting within a cultural context with more ease, something that leads to interesting and provocative research, from studies of the Ino myth in the Medea and apostrophe in the Odyssey, to Plautus and ancient and modern sex trafficking.
Professor Gruber-Miller’s syllabi for these intensive courses are demanding; they require more reading, writing, and collaborative projects than most professors fit into a sixteen-week semester. In an age of “quick fixes” and “short attention spans,” Professor Gruber-Miller has inspired his students to tackle difficult texts, to engage in meaningful and rigorous undergraduate research, and, perhaps most importantly, to challenge themselves.
During his time at Cornell, Professor Gruber-Miller has taught a staggering array of courses of his own design, including Big Screen Rome, Love and Sexuality in Greece and Rome, and The Epic Tradition as well as upper-level language seminars on Caesar, Catullus, Cicero, Livy, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Lysias, and Arrian. Yet, by all accounts, Professor Gruber-Miller has become “legendary” at Cornell College for his third semester Latin course. One of his former students captures the intensity of this class as well as its magic:
I met John for the first time when I took his Latin 205 class. I brought my notebooks, flashcards and grammar guides, expecting to review the first day by going through a variety of the typical written exercises. John decided instead to address each of us in the class through a series of short verbal exercises. Terror coursed through my petrified body as my brain flipped through the Latin phrases I could remember since my last class. It took me a moment, but soon, without a minute of plodding paradigm exercises, I was conjugating verbs and declining nouns on the spot – albeit clumsily. The method was sudden, immersive, and difficult. … After John finished with this routine and the class was thoroughly alert, he announced with enthusiastic glee, “In three and half weeks, we’ll be performing Terence’s The Eunuch as a bilingual play for the school!”
With only seven weeks of Latin learning, Professor Gruber-Miller’s students translate, produce, and perform a Roman comedy—“nothing short of a Herculean effort,” reports the French professor whose office adjoins John’s. Eleven cohorts of intermediate Latin students have learned the structure and vitality of Latin by immersing themselves in the dramatic verse of Plautus or Terence. A current Cornell student describes his work on a recent production of Plautus’s Asinaria as follows: True to his nature, John let us loose on the creative direction of the play and we introduced, to the rest of the Cornell campus, the ancient lives of Rome as interpreted with a 1980’s theme. With John’s guidance, twenty-seven novice Latin speakers were able to read, interpret and edit the text, flesh-out characters and memorize lines, block scenes, make costumes, build and paint a set. We did all this in an amazingly short of time and enjoyed every minute of it.
Professor Gruber-Miller has created a transformative experience for his students out of what can often be the routine business of intermediate Latin: whether they become lawyers, engineers, doctors, or future classicists, they leave Latin 205 having internalized the beauty of the language through this interdisciplinary and collaborative course.
Yet, what makes Professor Gruber-Miller truly deserving of this award, is the impact he has on his students. Particularly touching are the concluding remarks of a letter to the committee from one of his former students, now an MA candidate in Classics at the University of Maryland: It took me about a month to write this final paragraph, because every time I attempted to end this letter, my eyes would start to water a bit as I realized just how much John has touched my life. John motivated me to become a better student, a better person even; he is the reason I’m currently in graduate school for Classics, the reason I spend hours every week on my lesson plans, the person who taught me what a liberal arts education truly meant, and the person that I strive to be like as I continue on with my academic career. John exemplifies what it means to be a professor of the liberal arts in every way, and all of the students who have had a class with John walk away with an incredible experience that they will always remember. The world needs more teachers like John—hopefully I’ll be one of them.
And so, we are honored to recognize Professor Gruber-Miller’s distinguished record of teaching, his scholarship on Greek and Latin pedagogy, and his work on program and curricular development at Cornell College with the SCS’s 2012 Award for Excellence in Teaching at the College Level.
Mary C. English, Chair
Gregory S. Aldrete