Joe Mills shares the blueprint for an engaging classroom

Who is teaching the next virtual reality screenwriter, the must-see breakout actor, the choreographer whose movement combinations captivate you, the animation designer whose work steals the show and the musician whose playing touches your soul? At UNCSA it’s Joe Mills—who was recently recognized as a star in his own profession.

Mills is the recipient of the 2017 UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. He teaches humanities and writing in the Division of Liberal Arts, where students develop knowledge and skills that enrich the content and style of their work in the creative economy.

“I believe we are educating people to have rich lives as human beings,” Mills says.

Joe Mills with a group of students

Joe Mills checks in with a group of students during a small group breakout discussion in class.

Growing up in a factory town, Mills was the first in his family to go to college. He explored majors – business, economics – yet found that being on a college campus is where he wanted to stay.

“I didn’t know that you could be a reader, a thinker, a teacher and make it a career,” Mills says. “I thought I had stumbled on to this wonderful thing.”

While he teaches in various classrooms in the Liberal Arts complex, his main classroom is lined with shelves of books, vinyl records, board games, videos, posters and other eclectic items from everyday life. The materials are classroom-related, but he jokes that he already owned all the stuff and brought it to the classroom really for the storage space.

I try and give the students an environment that is stimulating, safe and an intriguing place to play.

Joe Mills 

“I try and give the students an environment that is stimulating, safe and an intriguing place to play,” Mills says. “Ideas should be fun! It should be a pleasure to learn.”

An engaging conversation

His style of teaching is collaborative with students. The terms “facilitator” or “coach” fit him better, as he often darts around the classroom asking questions, probing for a deeper understanding and building off what students contribute. His classes are conversations rather than lectures.

“My view on teaching is that this is interesting material. Let’s figure out why it is interesting together and I can show you different ways to approach it,” he says.

Students do a lot of compositions as assignments that can be essays, but can also be podcasts, movie trailers or other types of engagement with the material. It is rare for Mills to give a formal test. His students complete presentation work and project-based work with in-class discussions and small group discussions.

The power of stories

Mills’ students are all artists who, through their own art, tell stories. He recognizes that stories affect how we engage with one another.

“Stories affect your world vision and they are very powerful instruments,” he says. “Stories are so powerful they can harm us and they can help us and can lead us into better lives. I tell my students that you are not reading ‘Huckleberry Finn’ so you can get a job. You are reading it so you can be a more informed, articulate human being.”

During his first 10 years of teaching at UNCSA he never repeated a class. He chose to teach classes on subjects that he too would want to learn about. Thinking he was doing the students a disservice, now he teaches classes in a four-year rotation, but still changes the content. He regularly teaches a class on the 1920s and 1930s called “Dancing through the Depression” where students watch films from the 1930s and talk about the culture. A published author of six books of collections of poetry, Mills regularly teaches narrative and storytelling classes that include time travel literature and graphic novels. He says he loves teaching what is called “variation classes.” In a variations class, you read work such as “Hamlet” and also explore where people have made variations of “Hamlet.”

Behind every good teacher

Winning the teaching award is humbling, Mills says, but he says he couldn’t have done it alone.

“So much of teaching is about how the students engage with one another, so there are no good teachers without good students,” Mills says. “And there are no good teachers without good colleagues to learn from and to offer support.”

Joe Mills speaking at 2017 college commencement.

Joe Mills shared remarks at UNCSA's 2017 College Commencement.

Upcoming Classes

Here are a few examples of the courses Mills will be teaching or team-teaching the following in the coming year:

  • Food Culture – First-year students write about food in different ways: essays about how food has played in their lives, memory foods or scientific approaches to food. Plus, they will be watching lots of good movies about food.
  • Story Telling and Story Tearing – Exploring narratives that break themselves apart or ways students can break apart narratives in novels, films and short stories.
  • Jane Austen – Mills will team teach with Assistant Dean Krystyna Puc. “This is hilarious because in college I hated ‘Jane Austen.’ We had to read so many novels I was just looking at the plot, but re-reading novels later in life I realize these novels are really funny.“
  • Science and Rhetoric in Daily Life – A first-year seminar class where Mills will team up with science professor Janna Levin.

June 01, 2017