Words From Wartime

For veterans in college, “writing what you know” is not so simple.
April 8, 2011

ATLANTA -- Robert M. Hazard, an assistant professor of English at the College of DuPage, outside Chicago, recently had a student named Tim who seemed, at first, to be thriving.

“He was a great student,” Hazard said of the pupil who had cruised through his literature course. “He smiled and said all the right things in class.”

But when Tim, who is in his 30s and came to college to earn a degree in automotive technology after serving two tours in Iraq, enrolled in Hazard's composition class, things changed, the assistant professor said here Thursday during a packed session, “Generation Vet: Composing with a New Student Population,” at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communications.

Tim stopped coming to class. Hazard, who also serves as the faculty adviser for the veterans' association at DuPage, reached out to him. He cajoled and pleaded for his student to come back to class, but it was too late: Tim had lost interest. “He just disappeared,” said Hazard.

While it is almost certainly a coincidence that Tim dropped out of college at the same time he was in Hazard's composition course, the confluence nonetheless illustrates the complicated reaction that student veterans can have to classes that require them to write about their personal experiences.

For some students, it can be therapeutic to write about life-or-death incidents and emotions that few who have never seen war could understand, some speakers said. But for others (including Hazard, who, for the record, does not require his students to write about their personal experiences), giving such an assignment can seem intrusive. Moreover, what student veterans write can bring to the surface larger tensions between the ethos of the military and that of higher education.

More than 220,000 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are enrolled in colleges across the U.S. thanks to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many colleges are keenly aware that student veterans are coming to campuses with backgrounds and needs that differ greatly from those of their traditional peers. Hazard described how some of his students, while they were on active duty, had to pick up the body parts of their fellow soldiers who had been attacked by a car bomb so that the next of kin could bury the remains back home. “Those students are bringing those experiences into our classrooms,” Harzard said. “Other students are bringing the experience of getting drunk on prom night.”

To help smooth the transition from battlefield to classroom, some institutions have started veterans' associations, established special offices staffed by student veterans, held orientations geared solely to them or experimented with veterans'-only cohorts that proceed through their initial semesters as a group. Others have focused on addressing the unique administrative headaches that can confront student veterans in the admissions, financial aid and enrollment processes.

And, while many in higher education point to the valuable leadership skills, maturity and diversity of experience that veterans can bring to their campus, veterans can also face academic challenges. Research suggests that student veterans tend to enter college with weaker records of achievement in high school. When they were in high school, 11.5 percent of the students who later entered the military had A or A+ averages, which was less than half the percentage of non-veteran students who had earned those grades. Nearly 1 in 5 students who later joined the military had a C+ average or lower in high school, or more than quadruple the rate of their non-military peers, according to 2009's American Freshman Survey, which is produced by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles (and which only surveys students entering four-year institutions).

If more and more student veterans are entering college, and many of them will pass through at least one composition course on their way to graduation, it can prove tempting to help them succeed by trying to make course work relevant -- and by encouraging students to write what they know.

For Sandra Jang, an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, in Fort Monmouth, N.J., having her students write what they know has proven to be positive. Her students attend West Point Prep, as it's known, to beef up their grades in order to gain acceptance to West Point. Many, but not all, of her students have seen active combat, she said. Those who have fought bring with them a hunger to learn, she said, an impatience with their fellow students' complaints, and a willingness to read the essays of Montaigne and Bacon.

“You can definitely see the maturity and human experience really being exposed,” Jang said of their writing. “These guys have a lot to say and what they have to say is pretty deep. They're writing about tagging bodies and attending funerals.”

A sampling of her students' writing included just a few pieces that dealt directly with their time on active duty. But those that did might be arresting to the uninitiated composition teacher.

“He can joke around with the best of us, but the minute it is time to work his face turns to stone and he is all business,” one of her students, Alex Brammer, wrote in describing a first sergeant who led him in battle in Tikrit. “On target he is an efficient killing machine, executing his duties with a calm fury and directing the tempo of the battle with the finesse of a choir conductor. With a quick bark he gives commands in a tone that sends chills down the most hardened killer's back.”

Writing frankly about combat and killing has proven vexing on campuses in which the military culture is not as firmly rooted as it is at West Point Prep. In November, Charles Whittington, a veteran of the Iraq War who attended the Community College of Baltimore County, was barred from class and forced to submit to a psychological evaluation after writing an essay describing the rush he felt from killing enemy soldiers. He didn't return to the college.

Whittington's experience became the subject of a lesson thousands of miles away, in the class of Lisa Langstraat, associate professor of English at Colorado State University. They read his essay, “War is a Drug,” and discussed whether veterans should be made to write about their experiences in battle.

Responses split down the middle, she said, with some saying they shouldn't be forced to write about it if they don't want to, while others at least wanted the opportunity. Others said that the task of writing about battle provided them with the first opportunity to talk about their experiences, and that it had proven therapeutic.

Still, some in the audience warned -- and many on the panel agreed -- that a certain degree of caution is in order when asking students, not just veterans, to delve into their painful memories. “English teachers are not psychologists or priests,” one audience member observed. “We sometimes have a voyeuristic motive in this.”

Langstraat's experience also demonstrates how difficult it can be to assign the right kind of writing to veterans. Assigned to teach a class made up entirely of veterans (the majority of whom were just four months removed from combat), Langstraat said she pitched her students the idea of writing a campus handbook geared especially to their fellow veterans.

To her surprise, they balked. “How can it be that these guys, who found so much solace in a community of fellow veterans, were resistant to opening up to other veterans?” she asked.


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