For many, the world changed drastically the night of Nov. 8, 2016.
As the polling numbers came pouring in and the electoral college votes mounted, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.
For longtime Southwest Baptist University communications professor Dr. Brett Miller, that night was the catalyst for a huge change in his life.
Professor at SBU since 1998 and vocal Democratic party supporter, Miller began making plans to move out of the classroom and onto the open road as he and his wife, Betsy, begin what he calls a “journey to understanding.”
Hoping to understand more about the current political and cultural landscape and the way Americans communicate about their beliefs, the Millers will travel across the nation and ask the people they meet an important question — "What separates us?"
The couple has tentatively named their project “Something Gigantic,” after a song Miller wrote for his band, Brother Wiley.
“The idea is we're doing something really big in our lives,” Miller said. “We're making a really big change to take on what we see as a really big problem in our society that needs really big solutions. We need new models, new paradigms, new ways of thinking about how we communicate publicly.”
'How we do this better'
While the election spurred him to action, Miller said his concerns about communication in America have been building for some time.
"It's not all about the election," Miller said. "In fact, to me it's really much more about the culture than it is about the election results."
Miller said when he went to the dean of his department to hand in his resignation papers, his reasons for leaving were two-fold.
"One (reason) is because I don't currently believe in my discipline anymore," Miller said. "We're having to back up and regroup, because so much of what we taught students doesn't hold to be true anymore … That doesn't mean people shouldn't teach my discipline anymore, but I need to leave and go figure out how we do this better."
Following the election, Miller said he told his classes information he shared about journalism — like newsworthiness, accountability, evidence and credibility — was "historical information, because this is what we used to believe was true based on the evidence available, but that's all changed now."
In his classroom, Miller said his students seemed disengaged during this election cycle.
"I have not seen very dramatic political ideologies expressed this time around," Miller said. "If anything, … I see an apathy. I think students are exhausted to the point of perhaps complacency."
'Build up to violent rhetoric'
Miller said Trump's election reminds him of the "punctuated equilibrium" metaphor in evolution.
"There are these moments of dramatic change," Miller said. "Yeah, a lot of these are issues that have been simmering and growing, but with the election, there's been an emboldening and a validation."
Miller said both his wife and daughter, public school teachers in Springfield, have seen increases in bullying and harassment in their schools. Miller said this is "pronounced tension" links to Trump's rhetoric during the election.
One thing Miller said he does not understand — and his second motivation for taking on this project — is white evangelical voters' overwhelming support of Trump.
"When 81-percent of white evangelicals, an unprecedented number, lined up behind this candidate, I said something's going on there that I have to go figure out," Miller said. " … I'm not suggesting people should vote one way or the other, but it seems absurd to me that evangelicals would have lined up so aggressively behind a candidate that is unprecedented in the language of violence, aggression toward vulnerable people and discrimination."
Miller said he wants to better understand this cultural shift among evangelicals.
"It’s just so interesting that almost the entire white evangelical culture shifted to one side," Miller said. "Ultimately, it's not about who won the election. It's about this build up to violent rhetoric from the evangelical world."
He said the shift was "pervasive," with Republican candidates dominating elections from the national level down to the state and local level.
"Is there this silent majority? This whole population of Americans that no one’s listening to, that no one’s getting to at all?" Miller said. "If so, who are these people, and what do they have to say? Until we figure out what they have to say, we can’t possibly address it. It will just continue to manifest as blowing off steam. It’s not going to show up in real policy change or leadership. (It could result in) generations of us being divided for reasons we don't really understand."
Opening up the conversation
Miller hopes to find answers by "invit(ing) people into a conversation," asking them to tell their stories and explain why they believe what they believe. He hopes to meet with anyone willing to talk — from national politicians to scholars, celebrities to regular people.
The couple will head out on the road in late May or early June, after both are finished teaching for the spring semester.
Miller said they are purchasing either a trailer or camper van and will make a loop around the nation, potentially starting on the east coast in Washington, D.C. He said they will make stops in New England, Canada, the West Coast, the deep South and the "Rust Belt."
While some interviews will be formally arranged, Miller said he also hopes to have "fireside chats" along the way.
"We'll have a campfire, sit around and play guitars and talk about what's going on in the world," Miller said.
The couple already has a website set up, somethinggigantic.org, where they will document their journey. Miller said he plans to write a book about the experience and the data he gathers. He is also looking into the possibility of writing an online travelogue, writing columns for publications, lecturing on university campuses and teaching online courses along the way.
"We’re not going to accept that this is just like a little private hobby," Miller said. "We’re going to lean into the idea that this is a big conversation that people want to have … But doing this well will be difficult."
He said he plans to be up front about his own political perspective and will not come at the project with an agenda in mind.
"I'm going to say, so here's what I think — tell me you think," Miller said. "I truly want to see it from your perspective. I'm certainly not setting out to bait or argue with people. I'm not interested in converting people to my way of thinking. It's more about how do you rationalize what you think and how did you come to that perspective? Because I don't think most of us are asking those kind of questions. We're making assumptions about people who disagree with us."
Miller said the timing for the project was perfect for the couple. Betsy was already scheduled to retire following this school year. They recently sold their house and were just days away from breaking ground on a new home when they came up with their plan.
"We recognize we’re at a very unique place in our lives that we have the opportunity to do this," Miller said. "And so … we’re not taking that lightly. We’re taking on the obligation to do it well because there are a lot of people who would like to do what we’re doing and can’t. … We’re just lucky. We’re fortunate to be at this place in our lives that we have the chance. And so now that it’s presented itself, we can’t imagine not doing it."
He said they have experienced a universal reaction of "interest, excitement and envy" from family and friends. He said around 60 people from around the country have volunteered their time or homes, wanting to get involved in some capacity.
Miller said SBU has been supportive of his new adventure, although he said his dean was sad to hear Miller was leaving the university.
"Every administrator I’ve talked to so far has been wonderful and supportive," Miller said. "As always, in my case with SBU, they have always been very encouraging about everything I’ve ever pursued professionally. … I’ve always been happy that SBU has been tolerant of me, but I think it speaks to their commitment to a liberal arts education. They’ve always been completely supportive of me even though I don’t always have the same perspective as everyone else."
Although many details are yet to be determined, Miller said he and Betsy are ready to move ahead with their project.
"It should be an interesting journey," Miller said.
Lyrics to "Something Gigantic," by Brett Miller
Whether it ends in fire and ice
And whether or not we paid the price
After we have rolled the dice we wait
It’s bigger than me and bigger than you
It’s the dropping of the other shoe
It’s evolution pushing through the gates
Your profile pic’s our epitaph
But life is more than photographs
I see you laughing lying next to me
You have left us stranded here
With nothing left to fear but fear
It’s not exactly clear what we should be
Let something come of it
This kind of love needs to survive
Let something come of it
It’s keeping all of us alive
We fear when we return to dust
That no one will remember us
After we are crushed beneath the earth
But we were then and we are now
Not I and It it’s I and Thou
Love alone allows what we are worth
Even when we change machines
Nothing’s ever as it seems
Left is right and right is left behind
No matter what may come of this
We were built for this abyss
I just want your kiss if you want mine
Lord, let me die, but not die out
Don’t let me disappear
Lord let me die, but not die out
We’re still here (5x)
Let something come of it
© 2016, Brett Miller, ListenHear Records