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Donald L. Miller, Lafayette’s John Henry MacCracken Professor of History, is the lead scholar and on-air host of A Biography of America, a new video series and telecourse on PBS stations throughout the country.

An eminent historian, Miller conceptualized and named the series and helped recruit the other nationally-known historians who participated. He wrote 17 of the scripts, edited the others, and hosted on-air interviews with numerous historians and novelists.

The series of 26 half-hour programs covers the sweep of American history, from the pre-Columbian beginnings to the present. It was produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress, and was funded by Annenberg/CPB. Contact local PBS stations for air dates and times.

The series may also be purchased as a video resource for classes, libraries, and media centers. It covers the range of materials usually dealt with in American History 101 and 102 courses, but with a biographical point of view that breathes new life into the subject. The series features an accompanying textbook, the sixth edition of Houghton Mifflin’s A People and a Nation; study guides and faculty guides, and a Web site.

Produced by WGBH’s award-winning Web creators, the site is keyed to the video programs and invites users to participate in a number of highly interactive features, ranging from interpreting events from a variety of viewpoints to viewing visuals and documents with mouse rollovers. The site presents animated maps to expand content understanding, additional documents for analysis, and lecture transcripts and includes timelines, bibliographies, and links to other pertinent American history sites.

Miller sees the notion of ongoing individual lives and stories as crucial to a strong engagement with the ongoing American story. His vision for A Biography of America is based on years of teaching.

“Over the years I’ve found that students are engaged by stories, by narratives that are anchored in the human being in history, and that are rich in the telling details of those lives,” Miller says. “Litanies and lists stupefy students, and ‘ologies’ and ‘isms’ without the human context often don’t connect. Furthermore, students are engaged when the study of history is not wrapped up in a tidy package, but when they are asked — no, when it is demanded of them – to think critically and creatively.”

Much of the critical and creative thinking in A Biography of America centers on extensive visual materials from many sources, including the Library of Congress and the National Archives. For example, Paul Revere’s famous print of the Boston Massacre is presented not only as an illustration of the actual event, but in the context of the message Revere hoped to convey, and how that message helped kindle a spirit of revolution.

The team of distinguished scholars that Miller assembled for the series includes Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans, Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Waldo E. Martin Jr. of the University of California at Berkeley, Louis P. Masur of the City College of New York, and Virginia Scharff of the University of New Mexico. These professors’ specialties range among areas as diverse as document interpretation, the Revolution, African-American history, and women and the American West.

Raymond Smock, senior historical consultant and former historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, is also on the scholarly team, whose members are joined at points in the series by renowned historian Stephen Ambrose and novelists Charles R. Johnson, author of Middle Passage; Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha), Esmeralda Santiago (America’s Dream), and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Lafayette students Nicolette Stavrovsky ’00, a history major from Bethlehem, Pa., and Rebecca Waxman ’01, a history and psychology double major from Pittsburgh, Pa., had the distinctive experience of working with Miller on the project. As participants in Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars Program, in which students collaborate with faculty on research projects while earning a stipend, Stavrovsky and Waxman did research for some of the scripts.

“Nicolette is a marvelous writer,” Miller says. “She has emotional and intellectual maturity and is disciplined, focused, and dependable.”

Waxman says her work with Miller has been her most enriching educational experience so far. Last summer she conducted research for three shows in the series.

“This was her first truly independent project for me and she did a terrific job,” Miller says. “Her outline and the extensive discussions I had with her influenced the direction and shape of the show. I am proud of her performance.”

Miller is the author or editor of five books. The latest is City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, published by Simon and Schuster in 1996, which won a Great Lakes Book Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book was also nominated for the Urban History Award as best book in North American Urban History for 1996. Miller received the President’s Award of the Victorian Society in America for “outatanding contribution to an understanding of the Victorian world.”

His Lewis Mumford, A Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1989), the first full-scale biography of Mumford, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and named one of the notable books of the year by the editors of the New York Times Book Review. It was also nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bancroft Prize, the American Book Award, the John Hope Franklin Prize, and the Pen/Martha Allbrand Award for Nonfiction.

Miller, who served five years as Mumford’s literary executor, is also editor of The Lewis Mumford Reader (Pantheon Books, 1986). In July 1987 Miller represented Mumford at an awards ceremony and reception at the White House and accepted the National Medal for the Arts from President Reagan on Mumford’s behalf.

Miller authored The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985) with Richard E. Sharpless, professor of history at Lafayette. Nominated for several prizes, including the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Bancroft Prize, Kingdom of Coal was reissued in April 1999 by the Canal History & Technology Press. A seven-part National Public Radio series by Miller and Sharpless based on the book won first prize in the Excellence in Broadcasting Competition in 1989.

Miller is also the author of New American Radicalism: Non-Marxian Radicalism in the 1930s (Kennikat Press, 1979).

Miller has participated in the making of several film documentaries, including America 1900, a special three-hour program that aired November 18, 1998, kicking off the eleventh season of the acclaimed PBS series The American Experience. The program received a coveted George Foster Peabody Award. Founded in 1940, the Peabody Award is administered by the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and is considered by many to be the most prestigious recognition of excellence in broadcasting and cable. Information from the Peabody Awards said of America 1900, “With historical perspective, informed analysis and sheer beauty, this program reviews the confidence, optimism, and anxiety that marked America at the turn of the last millennium.”

Miller has also written numerous articles for national publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune. He has won five awards for excellence in teaching, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.

Miller joined the Lafayette faculty in 1977. He holds a doctoral degree in American intellectual history from the University of Maryland, a master of arts degree from Ohio University, and a bachelor of arts degree from Saint Vincent College. Before coming to Lafayette he taught at Cornell University’s New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the City University of New York, and Monmouth College. In 1993 Saint Vincent College awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

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