Front Line Instructors

March 20, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – When student veterans open up to Lydia Wilkes, associate instructor of writing at Indiana University at Bloomington, she’s sometimes overcome by the “sense [that] this is a profoundly human moment that I’m going to screw up.”

Although made in some jest, the statement summed up many of the anxieties professors of writing shared about serving student veterans during an all-day workshop on the topic Wednesday at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Professors – some of whom were veterans, too – said their student veterans had complex and sometimes contradictory needs, such as wanting to engage in material that would resonate with their military experience and at the same time make them emotionally vulnerable.

Because many composition instructors encourage their students to write about what they have experienced, they -- more than many other professors teaching veterans -- find themselves reading essays about the realities and tragedies of war. And sometimes course readings strike unexpected nerves. Student-instructor conferences and class discussions can raise all kinds of issues that go beyond the experiences of a non-military 19-year-old. That creates opportunities for education and outreach, but also can create tensions that might not turn up in a physics or business class, for example.

Some of the other issues that are coming up: Student veterans want to be subject matter experts on military-based readings, but don’t necessarily want to “out” themselves as veterans to the whole class. Student veterans want services and certain accommodations for their status, but don’t want to be perceived as weak or needing help, participants said. And while student veterans crave structure, they don’t want to be babied.

Student veteran panelists supported many of those observations. (And of course there are some veterans who would disagree with all of them.)

“My professors are pretty good for the most part, but I have some now treating everyone like they’re 18-year-old freshmen who are wet behind the ears, and that just drives me insane,” said Ryan Koch, a recent veteran and sophomore at Drake University. “They [assume we’ve got] no life experience, and I’m just sitting there with years of it.” (Note: An earlier version of this sentence misidentified Koch's university.)

Professors’ anxieties also come from a lack of training. From instructors who want to better-serve the few veteran students they have to those looking to get through to large numbers of veteran enrollees, they’re largely on their own.

That training gap is particularly apparent in writing courses, said D. Alexis Hart, a Navy veteran and associate professor of English and director of writing at Allegheny College who has researched veterans and writing. Writing courses, universally required, are often a point of “first contact” with veterans, and the subject matter is frequently personal. Despite that, Hart said writing program directors and professors often are unaware of veterans' services on their campuses, and have received little to no formal training on best practices for teaching student veterans.

And that’s somewhat ironic, since workshop participants said best practices for veterans frequently are best practices for all students.

For example, said Catherine St. Pierre, a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University, a professor shouldn’t call on a student and ask him or her to “speak for all of your kind." But even well-meaning professors might be tempted to do so.

Student veterans also reported hostility from professors who disagree with U.S. military policy -- part of the reason they’re commonly reluctant to “disclose” their veteran status.

Matthew Bumbalough, a Ph.D. candidate in literacy, language and culture education at Indiana University, said he once had an adviser who said, “Oh, you’re one of those,” upon finding out he had spent seven years in the Army. “Bringing politics into it and not validating military experience is a good way to get yourself on my no-no list,” he said, noting he promptly changed advisers.

David Collins, a former Army Ranger who now teaches composition at Metropolitan Community College’s Blue River campus outside Kansas City, Mo., said he expected a certain amount of respect from professors.

“What makes you think your time is more valuable than mine?” he recalled telling one of his college advisers who was late to a meeting.

While best practices for veterans are still evolving, conference participants shared ideas based on their own research and experiences.

Joanna Want, a Ph.D. candidate in English and education at the University of Michigan, interviewed several dozen veterans on issues of access. She said veterans largely describe college as a work paradigm, not a social one. Fellow students aren’t valued as peers, but as colleagues, especially if they’re four things: experienced, reliable, hard-working and open-minded.

Marion Wilson, assistant director of the Muir College writing office at the University of California at San Diego, said she never envisioned even five years ago, upon moving to San Diego, that she would be teaching a course called “Military Matters.” But over the course of several years, the military became the lens through which she teaches her upper-level argument and analysis course. That's because of the strong military culture in San Diego and the military’s proclivity for documentation -- great for research. Students are required to write a 13-15 page paper on one aspect of how the military matters in everyday life, and topics are as varied as alternative medicine in the military to civilian computer design products that are the product of defense-related research.

Because the course is for transfer students only, Wilson, said many students have military experience and can personally connect to the subject matter.

Bumbalough advised blogging as a medium for student veterans, noting that it’s popular among veterans in general. One common type of military blog is satire, he said, through which some veterans might feel more comfortable talking about uncomfortable experiences. Noting that past generations of veterans have written letters as a mode of catharsis, or “confession,” he mused over whether the immediate and public nature of blogging has fundamentally changed the way veterans process trauma.

Of course, he noted, students can’t be forced to confront their traumas, but professors should offer opportunities for them to do so. (Those in attendance said student veterans also should choose for themselves whether or not they want to confront death, killing and other potentially upsetting issues in war literature. The professor’s job is to warn them and offer an alternative, but not decide for them).

To leave room for such discussions and declare a safe space for her student veterans, Katherine Blackwell-Starnes, assistant professor of English at Lamar University, puts the following statement in her syllabus: “I recognize the complexities of being a member of the military community and also a student. If you are a member of the military community, please inform me if you are in need of special accommodations. Drill schedules, calls to active duty, complications with GI Bill disbursement, and other unforeseen military and veteran related developments can complicate your academic life. If you make me aware of a complication, I will do everything I can to assist you or put you in contact with university staff who are trained to assist you.”

The statement also includes on-campus resources for veterans.

And at Eastern Kentucky University, Travis Martin, now a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Kentucky, helped design what he believes is the first-ever veteran studies minor and certificate program. Similar to ethnic or gender studies programs in design, Martin said the program approaches veterans’ issues “not in a stereotypical way, but in a critical way.” It also provides role models and advocacy for student veterans.

Martin, an Army veteran who deployed twice to Iraq, in 2003 and 2005, said he hoped the program would spread, and that it was time for higher education to invest in and formalize veterans studies, while the memories of war are fresh in students’ minds.

If there was one take-away from Wednesday’s workshop, he said, looking around, it’s that, “This should be bigger.”

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