Great Professors: Edward Miller

Edward Miller is an associate professor of history at the college. Miller is known within the Dartmouth community for his Vietnam War elective and his work on the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, a co-curricular experiential learning opportunity centered on gathering and publishing oral accounts of the Vietnam War from members of the Dartmouth community. Outside of Dartmouth, Professor Miller is one of academia’s preeminent Vietnam War scholars and author of the book Misalliance, which examined Ngo Dinh Diem’s relationship with the United States. The Dartmouth Review sat down with Professor Miller to discuss his contributions to the Dartmouth community as well as his views on the academic future of the college.

Ed Miller discusses his work at the College and abroad.

Ed Miller discusses his work at the College and abroad.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): What particularly caught our attention was your work on the Dartmouth Vietnam Project. We were wondering if you could talk a bit about its origins?

Ed Miller (EM): The Dartmouth Vietnam Project was started two years ago and the idea came from one of our education technology people who was interested in doing oral history as part of the Vietnam elective. Many participants are in their sixties and seventies and have many formative experiences of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam era, so the time is now to collect quality oral histories from the generation that lived through the conflict. I had thought of integrating oral history into the class, but it was so jam packed with content already that we had to seek other ways to integrate oral history. So we developed the Dartmouth Vietnam Project.

The program has three distinct features. First, it adds experiential learning to our existing offerings in the Vietnam War. Students are given proper training on how to conduct interviews and gather oral histories their sophomore summer. At the end of this term, they give their first interview. Students work for us for one additional term their junior year, during which they conduct about three more interviews. Second, the program is an example of community building. All interviewees are members of the Dartmouth community. Most are alumni, but a number of them are faculty members, staff members, or members of the surrounding community with some connection to the college that informs their Vietnam era experience. Third, the Dartmouth Vietnam Project enhances the quality of oral history available online.

Oftentimes, oral history is gathered very informally and interviewers lack proper training. Our interviews represent quality scholarship in an area of historiography that has declined in standards.

TDR: Your elective on the Vietnam War is renowned for its quality and intensity. What is your favorite part of this course?

EM: The elective is taught with a flipped-classroom approach, so most of the lectures are available online and assigned for homework. This frees up a significant amount of class time for discussions. Consequently, I am confident knowing that every time I teach this course, I will walk away thinking about aspects of the history in a different way. Students are able to press their peers and myself in discussion and I think the flipped classroom approach really enhances the quality of the course.

The other aspect of this course that I enjoy is bringing in people with experience to talk to the class. Rufus Phillips, a C.I.A. officer stationed in Saigon in the 1950s, will be speaking to the class this term. Rufus’s experience is incredible. He met many of the major players on both the South Vietnamese and American sides of the conflict. The fact that there are many people still alive who have lived through the Vietnam War and Vietnam era allows the class to have the unique experience of hearing history from people like Rufus Phillips. This is something I really enjoy taking advantage of and try to as much as I can.

TDR: What degree of academic freedom do you have to teach the course at your discretion? More generally, what’s the relationship between the administration and the faculty when it comes to course content?

EM: All of our course content is created within the history department. Our professors control the actual content of their respective courses, but our syllabi must be approved by the department chair. Rarely does the content of a course demand changes, but occasionally a professor will be asked to increase the workload of a course if it is deemed to be too light. The administration has nothing to do with actual course content.

I often compare this to academia in Vietnam, where professors are very strictly regulated in their course content and censored. In the United States, this is something we do not need to worry about, thankfully.

TDR: Our staffers have had enough great experiences with you to recommend that you be featured in our best professors list. What do you do differently in the classroom? What do you think contributes to the students’ reverence?

EM: During our first class discussion of the Vietnam War, I ask each student why he or she is taking the course. The majority of students respond by saying that they know very little about the war. Unfortunately the American high school system does a notoriously bad job covering the Vietnam War. Students tell me that their previous courses either didn’t get to the material entirely, or just glossed over it, only covering the basics. Students know that the Vietnam war was and is still important; it is constantly used as a baseline in the news when discussion present conflicts, and is constantly brought up in popular culture, but they have no idea why this conflict in particular is cemented in the American psyche.

I believe students take this course largely to find out more about this conflict and why it is still relevant today. I also believe that the discussions and flipped classroom approach draw students in. Students begin by breaking into smaller discussion groups of about four students to solidify their ideas from the lecture, and then we come together as a class to discuss the material as a whole. I think the strong emphasis on discussion is a significant reason students enjoy the course.

TDR: Over the past few years, Dartmouth has fallen in general rankings, lost its first place ranking for undergraduate education, as well as its “R1” classification. What do you make of these developments? And from the faculty’s perspective, what is the best course of action from here on out?

EM: First off, the methodology of these rankings is subject to concern and the faculty know this. There are many extraneous factors that generate rankings that we honestly couldn’t or shouldn’t care about. Having said that, the faculty at Dartmouth certainly are concerned about the decreasing academic reputation of the college. More generally, there is concern at Dartmouth and nationwide that the liberal arts model is at a crossroads. Some would even say it’s in a time of crisis. I wouldn’t go that far but it is certainly at a crossroads. There is a question from here on out where it’s going to go.

Regarding Dartmouth’s efforts to improve academic research, I’m happy that we’re investing more in post-doctoral fellows. We’ve had a few through Dickey Center who focus on American foreign policy over the past few years and they have been excellent. I am against the formation of a standalone graduate school for arts and sciences, but cultivating stronger programs for post-doctoral fellows would benefit the research side of Dartmouth College without compromising our undergraduate focus.

TDR: How do you think the Dartmouth administration can improve the college’s academic image without compromising our unique status as a liberal arts school with a strong undergraduate emphasis?

EM: One of the biggest issues Dartmouth should tackle is bridging the gap between academic and residential life at Dartmouth. We have to have more opportunities for students and faculty to interact outside of the classroom. The new housing system is a step forward in this respect. Classes could be held in residence halls and the advising system could be integrated into residential life. Other institutions such as Harvard have a college system that allows for students to interact with their professors in a more relaxed and informal space. While it would be costly to implement a system, I think the new residential system is a step in the right direction towards achieving these ends.

TDR: To conclude, what projects are you working on currently?

EM: I recently published a book, Misalliance, in which I examined Ngo Dinh Diem’s relations with the United States, especially what was going on in cities like Washington, D.C. and Saigon, and diplomatic work between South Vietnam and the United States during the war. My second book is much different in that it focuses on counter-insurgency on the ground. Most of the current literature on the topic focuses almost exclusively on Americans and how theory and doctrine thought up by upper-level strategists are what determines the outcome in war.

When soldiers and officers are actually in the field, however, theory and doctrine take a backseat. What some politician in D.C. thought up doesn’t matter to counter-insurgents trying to survive during war. My latest research will focus on reality in the field for counter-insurgents and environmental and cultural history to explain how the war was lost or won. I will be specifically focusing on the province of Ben Tre, which is located on the Mekong Delta.

This is a very new project, but I have been able to go over to Vietnam to begin analyzing archival evidence. In addition to that research, I am working on a collaborative project with Cambridge University Press on a three volume set on the complete history of the Vietnam War. I am part of a team working on the first of three volumes, which deals with the origins and earlier history of the war. This summer, I’ll be hosting a conference here at Dartmouth consisting of about two-dozen preeminent Vietnam War scholars in order to work on this project.

TDR: Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.                                  

  • Andy Chen

    Mr. Edward Miller should be removed from Darmouth College since he has untrue bias view about Vietnam War with no logic and true facts about Vietnam War. He is a communists’ lover and he should be sent to live in Vietnam instead.