English professor makes transition to spend more time writing

Emma Collins

English professor Mary Ellen Miller, the longest-serving employee at WKU, just finished her 53rd year of teaching and doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

She will, however, lighten her teaching load to give herself more time for writing outside the classroom. Miller said her immediate plan is to go to two courses per semester.

“I’m working on a second book of poetry, and I think I realized I’m never going to finish it if I don’t have more time,” Miller said. “So that’s my goal.”

Miller said her love of teaching is what has kept her around for over half a century.

“I’ve never gotten tired of it,” she said. “I get tired at the end of every semester — everybody does — but I’m not tired of the classroom or of my students.”

Owensboro senior Joshua Arend, a creative writing student, took an intermediate poetry class with Miller and said he could tell she genuinely enjoyed her job.

“She’s a little bit more traditional, I guess, than a lot of professors at Western, but still does a fantastic job of exploring and keeping things new,” Arend said. “I think she just really enjoys getting to know students and seeing what they can produce.”

Miller grew up in Willard, Kentucky, and attended Berea College, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and met her late husband, Jim Wayne Miller. She later received her master’s degree from the University of Kentucky and completed coursework at Vanderbilt to work towards a doctorate degree, though she never wrote a dissertation.

“This was [my husband’s] first college teaching job, and mine, too,” Miller said. Both began teaching at WKU in 1963.

“He taught here until his death, which was 20 years ago,” she said. “It just made sense for me to stay here, where he and I had started, where my memories were. It’s home; that’s how it’s always felt to me.”

Home and family are both common themes in her poetry, Miller explained.

“I hadn’t planned for there to be a theme,” she said. “For this second book I’m working on, I made up my mind it was not going to be about Jim Wayne Miller. I told myself I’ve written enough about that man, give it a rest, people are sick of it.”

Miller said she knew she wanted to be a writer since she was a sixth grader.

“I started writing horrible stories, but I thought they were good,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I didn’t even think of combining with teaching; I didn’t even know one could do that, that one could write and teach writing. I thought that’s the best life I could imagine.”

Miller taught high school English for two years and worked in advertising before accepting a part-time job at WKU, a job she said she fell in love with.

“You’re really happy if something you say or share really connects, and you can see the light go on in a student’s eyes,” she said. “I think that’s my favorite part. I get to know some of my students as friends, and I have friends from 53 years ago I still correspond with.”

Elizabethtown junior Bridget Yates, an English major who has taken several of Miller’s classes, said Miller often joked with her that they must be distant cousins, since Miller’s maiden name is Yates.

“Over the break, she added me as a family member on Facebook,” Yates said. “I love her; she’s great.”

Yates said she appreciated the passion with which Miller taught her classes.

“She taught me that writing is not dead and that poetry is very important,” she said. “It’s not a dead art; it’s going to continue for a very long time.”

Miller said she feels very fortunate to have had the career she’s had and the students she’s had.

“As long as I’m able to do it, I don’t think I could ever totally shut down on teaching,” Miller said. “I like it too much.”