Deacon Profile: Joseph Milner
Joseph Milner, professor of English Education at the university and recipient of the North Carolina English Teachers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, worked as Chairperson of the Education Department for 28 years. He currently serves as the Director of the North Carolina Literacy Project and is working on the sixth edition of a book series he writes with his wife. In his free time, he enjoys reading and going to the opera.
Julie Huggins/Old Gold & Black
When and how did you become interested in education?
I wanted to teach English because I wanted to coach basketball. I did both and loved it, but I found myself overwhelmed by trying to do both so well. After a few years, I decided to earn a Masters in English at UNC. I became even more devoted to my work and involved in understanding English. Coaching basketball was important, but it wasn’t everything for me. About that time, I got a letter from Lefty Drisell asking me if I would like to coach the Davidson JV basketball team.
I was torn because it was a great opportunity, but I had become so involved and excited about English that I turned it down. Terry Holland ended up taking that position, and though he’s become very successful, I’ve never felt any envy about it because I love what I do as a teacher of English.
What is your favorite course to teach?
My favorite is really hard to say. I think the thing that is most important to me is seeing the end product of it, the teachers that come out of that program.
I love Children’s Literature and the First Year Seminar; they are each very different and I love to teach both of them, but they don’t reach out into the world the same way that my course in the teaching of English does. I see the teachers that come through that program becoming outstanding teachers all over the country and being extremely well-received wherever they go.
Did you ever consider another profession?
Not really. I’ve had opportunities to teach at other schools, but someone I really admire once told me if you really love what you’re doing, why would you ever want to go somewhere else? I thought about that a long time and decided I’ll stay right where I am.
It was really perfect for me here. I had the combination of outstanding students, courses I loved to teach and administrators I liked to work with. I was chairman of the department for 28 years. That’s a little bit insane, but I loved doing it because I was trying to shape the quality of what we were all doing together.
What do you like to do for fun?
I was telling someone just recently that one of the deadly things about teaching for me is that it means anything I read or watch gets immediately incorporated into how I could use it in my course. I can’t seem to do anything just for fun. I loved playing basketball, but I had to have a hip replacement so I can’t do that anymore. I do swim, which helps me stay in shape and get away from my work. I love music most of all. Opera is one of my most favorite things. I am a hopeless romantic; I love the beautiful music that is played and the stories that unfold.
I also love to read books. I usually have three or four books that I’m reading at one time. I love to discover new children’s literature, as well.
What is your favorite book?
That’s a hard question. Someone asked me that recently and just off the top of my head I said As I Lay Dying. Shakespeare has some absolutely great plays. Some of them are highly overrated but King Lear, Macbeth and Othello are truly great.
I also like short fiction. There’s a book called Sudden Fiction with short pieces that just capture a moment and give you insight into what’s going on in that little world. I love the brevity of it. I have a wide range of things that I like to read.
How have you connected the education department here to the community?
I’m doing three things that are connected to the community. I developed a project called the North Carolina Literacy Project. Twenty teachers gather once a month for about two hours. Someone teaches a text, and then we talk about the story and how they taught and other ways one might teach such a story.
I also work with principals in an initiative from the Institute for Public Engagement that I really enjoy because I love leadership. We try to find speakers who are powerful leaders in their own field so that the people in education can view others’ fields, such as medicine.
The last thing I’ll mention is my work as President of the Governor’s School Foundation. Our sole job is to locate financial support to help make it a better institution. The strange thing was that two years ago the legislature voted to stop funding The Governor’s School.
We knew we couldn’t let this happen, so we got together to try to bring in funds for the next year.
After we had raised $800,000, we got the legislature to put the Governor’s School back in the budget.
It’s a great place for students to understand the importance of learning: there are no grades or tests. They begin to want to learn as much as they possibly can. It’s a wonderful school that I have loved being involved with.
You are the author of eight books. What is your favorite thing about writing?
Writing is hard. You have to really think deeply about what you want to say. I’m writing something right now about the requirement for text complexity in common core state standards, that we have various kinds of literature for students to read.
I’m trying to argue that throughout the history of literature, the most important innovations have been found in complexity of form and that this complexity can be found in adolescent literature as well. That’s just one facet of our book series Bridging English that my wife and I have worked on, and now Joan Mitchell.
My wife is a great writer and she understands the things we are trying to say — we’re together on those key things.
We’ve just been asked to do our 6th edition because it is the most used text in the field.