Comp Lit Professor Awarded

J. Hillis Miller, distinguished research professor of comparative literature and English here at UC Irvine, received the 2011 Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award. Named after an esteemed professor of sociology at UCLA, the award honors emeriti professors in the entire University of California system.

“It is one of the greatest honors I have received,” Miller said. “I’m delighted, and genuinely surprised. I knew I had been nominated, but assumed the 10 campuses of UC would have many more worthy candidates.”

Miller began his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in physics, but quickly switched to English during his sophomore year.

“My abiding fascination with literature is a displacement of scientific curiosity,” Miller explained. “That is, a fascination with what seemed to me, and still seems, the strangeness of the way literary works use language.”

Miller still remembers the exact poem that intrigued him and triggered the switch to devote his career to English – “Tears, Idle Tears” by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

After reading it, his scientific mind took over, fusing two seemingly dissimilar subjects of science and literature together. Miller began questioning what Tennyson was really talking about and has spent a lifetime trying to answer such questions in teaching and writing.

“The rest of that poem is full of similar enigmas, as they seemed to me, and still seem, and I still think strangeness is the most salient aspect of literature.”

Miller then became a Victorian literature specialist. He received his doctorate in English from Harvard for a dissertation on the famous novels of Charles Dickens, which was later published in his own book.

Slowly, his interest piqued in comparative literature, as well as in philosophy and literary theory. Miller found himself getting more involved in these areas, though he had no formal training.

“I guess this was just because I had no professional responsibility to teach it or do scholarship in that area. I could do it ‘for fun,’” Miller said.

After serving as a professor at both Johns Hopkins University and Yale University, Miller came to UCI in 1986 and became a world-renowned literary critic and theorist along the way.

During his career at UCI, Miller published a total of 21 books and countless articles, as he simultaneously taught at the undergraduate and graduate level and served as chair or member on the dissertation committees of 23 students.

His works typically educate a global audience through his expertise and analysis in British, Irish and continental literature.

Although he retired in 2002, Miller continues to be requested nationally and internationally to give talks and lectures. Invited to countries all over the world, including China and Switzerland, he still makes sure to return every year to UCI to deliver a week-long mini-seminar on critical theory emphasis.

“UCI has been a wonderful place to try out my ideas in teaching. I feel wonderfully lucky that I have been able to make a living doing just what I most want to do, that is, figure out the meaning and force of literary works in teaching and writing about them,” Miller said.

This year’s mini-seminar will be held on May 11, 12 and 13 and is open to the public.

The first seminar will introduce the current situation of literary and theoretical study, as well as examine William Butler Yeats’ “The Cold Heaven.”

The next will analyze Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” in the hopes of suggesting ways to read theory.

Finally, the third seminar will focus on Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo,” providing an opportunity for students to compare how reading fiction differs from reading poetry.

“Part of the pleasure of receiving the Panunzio Award is that I have been rewarded for doing what I most like to do and would have done in any case: teach and write about literature,” Miller said.

Miller is just the 27th professor honored since the award’s inception in 1983. In addition, he is now one of five UCI professors to have received it. According to Chancellor Michael Drake, though, it was an honor well-deserved.

“J. Hillis Miller’s dedication to lifelong learning and research is exemplary and is a wonderful example of how faculty, students and staff at UC Irvine value intellectual curiosity,” Chancellor Drake said. “We congratulate him on this recognition of his many contributions to critical theory and literature – from his early days at Johns Hopkins and Yale to his more recent work here at UC Irvine. He joins an esteemed group of recipients of the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award.