Generation Vet: Composition, Student Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University

Generation Vet: Composition, Student Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University

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Institutions of higher education are experiencing the largest influx of enrolled veterans since World War II, and these student veterans are transforming post-secondary classroom dynamics. While many campus divisions like admissions and student services are actively moving to accommodate the rise in this demographic, little research about this population and their educational needs is available, and academic departments have been slower to adjust. In Generation Vet, fifteen chapters offer well-researched, pedagogically savvy recommendations for curricular and programmatic responses to student veterans for English and writing studies departments.

In work with veterans in writing-intensive courses and community contexts, questions of citizenship, disability, activism, community-campus relationships, and retention come to the fore. Moreover, writing-intensive courses can be sites of significant cultural exchanges—even clashes—as veterans bring military values, rhetorical traditions, and communication styles that may challenge the values, beliefs, and assumptions of traditional college students and faculty.

This classroom-oriented text addresses a wide range of issues concerning veterans, pedagogy, rhetoric, and writing program administration. Written by diverse scholar-teachers and written in diverse genres, the essays in this collection promise to enhance our understanding of student veterans, composition pedagogy and administration, and the post-9/11 university.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874219425
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 242
Sales rank: 977,226
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Sue Doe is associate professor of composition at Colorado State University. Lisa Langstraat is associate professor of composition and director of composition at Colorado State University.

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Generation Vet

Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University

By Sue Doe, Lisa Langstraat

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-942-5


Veterans in College Writing Classes

Understanding and Embracing the Mutual Benefit


DOI: 10.7330/9780874219425.c001

There is a gulf between those of us in the services and those of us who have remained civilians. We have only heard about each other second hand, and in the press. This is not good enough. We must get together. We must understand each other. Otherwise, the gulf will grow wider, bitterness and distrust will increase, and this period of demobilization will be all the more difficult.

— CPT Robert Maugham, HMS (Bolte 1945, 145)

This "gulf" between civilians and their military counterparts to which Captain Maugham drew attention at the end of the Second World War is perhaps even more evident today in an era during which only 1 percent of the US population serves in the active military and only 7 percent are military veterans (Elliott, Gonzalez, and Larsen 2011, 282). Yet, as more veterans take advantage of the post-9/11 GI Bill and matriculate on college campuses in numbers not seen since the 1940s, we college writing instructors are increasingly likely to encounter opportunities to engage with student-veterans and to facilitate their transition into the academy, opportunities that may seem both intimidating and appealing.

On the one hand, as veterans enter our writing classrooms with experiences neither more traditional students nor we are likely to have encountered, we college writing professionals may find ourselves wondering if we need to reevaluate our approaches to writing instruction. On the other hand, we may find ourselves sharing an appreciation for the mutual benefit to be had when teaching student-veterans. As community college writing professor and Marine Corps veteran Galen Leonhardy remarks, "Composition instructors must first recognize that we have much to learn from veterans, just as we have much more to do for them." He goes on to suggest that since veterans are likely to "make up a fair number of potential students... It is important to understand them" (Leonhardy 2009, 340). Drawing upon Morrow's experiences during the recent wars as an active-duty military officer, a graduate-student veteran, and a composition instructor of both veterans and nonveterans, and on Hart's experiences as an active-duty military officer serving during the relative peace between the First Gulf War and the more recent combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a professor of writing at a public military college, this essay brings together the insights of a relatively new initiate to academe and a more seasoned academic, of a post-9/11 and a pre-9/11 veteran, to offer an insider perspective meant to provide college writing faculty with some understanding of military culture and to offer some suggestions about personal and pedagogical approaches that may serve to assist this new generation of student-veterans in college writing classes.

First, the essay examines the range of experiences of contemporary military personnel, discusses how these varied experiences result in similarities as well as profound differences among veterans, and considers how recognizing and acknowledging these varied experiences might help writing teachers productively interact with student-veterans and more effectively incorporate these students into the broader classroom structure. Next, Morrow relates some of his personal experiences as a veteran in graduate school and then as an instructor of both veterans and future soldiers in the freshman writing program at West Point. The nature of some of his experiences may have a slightly different resonance since Morrow's postcombat experience as a student was in a graduate classroom and his college teaching experience has been limited to students who have made the commitment to serve in the military; nevertheless, the insights provided by these narratives are transferrable. Finally, the essay discusses some approaches writing instructors can cultivate in the classroom to find points of connection that can serve to bridge the civilian/military gulf mentioned above and increase the likelihood that the experiences writing instructors share with student-veterans will result in enhanced learning and increased understanding for all.

Understanding the Scope of Veteran Experiences

As is the case with other minority student populations, the scope of veteran experiences is substantial. What makes veterans different from other minority-student populations is that even though their experiences vary widely, the context of those experiences retains a high degree of similarity. This shared context affords teachers of writing the opportunity to gain insight and understanding about their student-veterans by asking a few general questions likely to resonate with most (but, admittedly, not all) student-veterans.

Why did you join the service?

Was your military-service experience what you expected?

What did you learn from your time in the service?

Why did you choose to come to this college/university?

What do you want to get out of and/or contribute to this class?

Of course, these questions are not all inclusive, nor do they represent a checklist to be administered to each veteran who walks through a writing teacher's classroom or office door. They do, however, enable us as instructors to gain some insight into the type and scope of experiences student-veterans may have and can provide an early indicator of veterans' willingness or desire to be open about their status as veterans within the context of the classroom and the campus. As Morrow observes,

These are the types of questions that give veterans a chance to decide and to convey to their instructors how they prefer to navigate their college experience relative to their experiences as veterans. As opposed to later in this essay when Professor Hart and I offer suggestions about ways for writing teachers to strive to cultivate productive learning environments for student-veterans , these questions are really designed to help veterans understand themselves as they transition from military members to college students. I imagine many student-veterans, especially in the undergraduate realm, have not stopped to ask themselves these questions yet. Most veterans I know get so busy living from experience to experience that they don't take the time to reflect on the significance of their military service as it applies to their own understanding of themselves and to their expectations for their future.

The experiences and insights I share in this essay come from a nuanced perspective acquired by serving as an infantryman during the invasion of Iraq and then returning for a fifteen-month deployment during the Surge in 2007 — 2008. Shortly after my return, I entered graduate school. Although I was still on active duty, I attended class in civilian clothes and rarely mentioned my profession unless certain questions or conversations naturally led to that disclosure. After graduate school, I served as a teacher of both veterans and nonveterans in the composition and literature classroom at the United States Military Academy. While the dynamic of teaching at West Point may render my experiences different from those of writing instructors at civilian colleges and universities in the sense that all of my students chose to potentially go to war and therefore tended to maintain a different appreciation for their veteran peers, the reality was that the fears, curiosities, and apprehensions of these future officers in the presence of their classmates who had already served in combat were scarcely different from the interest, indifference, appreciation, questions, and assumptions of my classmates and faculty at a civilian graduate university exhibited in relation to me. In a sense, I lived this essay on both sides of the equation. While my experience may seem esoteric at first, I hope you will quickly find that being asked the questions above and being given the opportunity to reflect on the answers will resonate with the eighteen-year-old private who never finished high school, the twenty-five-year-old married mother of two who signed up to receive healthcare, the forty-year-old sergeant who joined because patriotism runs deep in her family. The experiences of these military members are undoubtedly vastly different, as discussed in the ensuing paragraphs, yet all veterans share a common bond no matter what their level of education, socioeconomic background, branch of service, or rank; all are part of the community of veterans. How that status affects veterans as students varies from veteran to veteran, and how veterans choose to publicly represent their veteran status (or not) is impossible to predict from one veteran to the next. Yet I contend that striving to understand the reasons student-veterans joined the military, how their military service affected and continues to affect them, what they hope to gain from attending college, and even what they hope to gain from any particular course, is central to making the most of any veteran's higher education experience.

It is important to recognize that the decision to enlist in the military is prompted by many factors. Some enlistees crave the challenge; others hope to travel. Some are motivated by patriotism; others just want their first steady paycheck. Some follow a family tradition of military service. Some are running toward war; others are running away from trouble. Some hope the military can provide a greater sense of identity, and some are deliberately seeking a pathway to college. Some are not quite sure how or why they ended up in a recruiter's office but leave with a signed contract. Yet whatever their motivations or recruitment experiences, all enlistees eventually end up in a fairly common basic-training course.

During basic training, successful recruits learn to adapt to the strict regimen of military life. They are awakened early each morning to conduct physical-fitness training, and every moment of the remainder of their day is scheduled: they are told where to be and when to be there. If they fail to comply or to show up in the right place at the right time, not only does someone with authority track them down and bring them to where they are expected to be, but other memorable consequences result as well. Having left their loved ones and all that is familiar, many feel alone and afraid, so they must quickly learn to rely on each other to get through those trying times. They eventually learn how to function as an operational unit, how to become members of a team who can depend upon each other not only to complete a mission but also to help each other return safely. As a result, no matter where they go after the service, when they meet other veterans, they experience an instant bond of shared ethos.

After basic training, these men and women join new, but equally cohesive, units. Once they are in a unit, however, their experiences often differ vastly. Many post-9/11 veterans have never had a rocket screech over their tent to wake them up, nor have they seen first hand the spilled blood of a fellow human being. These veterans may have wished to be at war, or they may be grateful that they never experienced combat. For those deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq — even those who do not serve in "official" combat roles — combat is a daily experience. Logisticians face attacks from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rockets, and small-arms fire to ensure the infantry gets supplies. Knowing they might find or perhaps even be blown up by an IED, engineers keep the roads safe for others. Some have seen friends die. Others have made split-second decisions they later regret. In fact, Morrow notes that a common trait among veterans is guilt.

All veterans tend to harbor some form of guilt, often framed as, "I didn't do enough." Veterans nearly always underestimate their contributions to the fight. Those who remained stateside may feel as if they shirked their duty. Those who deployed but lived in relative comfort may feel guilty that they didn't face the same deprivations and dangers as others. Some who were on the front lines may be dismayed they never engaged in a firefight. Those who exchanged fire with the enemy may be quick to say that what they did "was nothing." Most who acted heroically may humbly note that "anyone else would have done the same." You may even encounter veterans who seem to thrive on the notion of war and want to live out the video games they grew up on, but most veterans I know are peaceful in nature and aren't out looking for a fight. Once the fighting begins, however, they feel a commitment and a duty to contribute as much as possible, not so much for the thrill or for notions of honor or glory but out of a commitment to protecting the soldiers or civilians near them who may be in harm's way. I tend to believe that, in a broad sense, most soldiers see themselves as caretakers and problem solvers. Therefore, as long as war continues, there is a subconscious notion that we have failed to solve the problem or to provide sufficient safety to those entrusted to our care.

Being aware of the broad range of veterans' experiences is a vital first step toward engaging productively with them as students. Indeed, today's student-veterans have been giving researchers "a consistent message ... that they [hope] faculty members [will] acknowledge their veteran status and attempt to understand them as a student population" (DiRamio, Ackerman, and Mitchell 2008, 89). How professors attempt to honor this wish, however, will require careful consideration. The military training and mindset of humbly downplaying personal contributions affect student-veterans' decisions about whether or not and to whom to disclose their veteran status, which can make it difficult for professors to identify student-veterans because "they often [do] not want to be seen." In addition, "Student veterans [are] not inclined to announce and use their veteran status to receive preferential treatment" (Livingston et al. 2011, 322). Student-veterans may also "have difficulty in their relations with college faculty [particularly] when faculty disrupt their efforts at anonymity and unveil their military experience in class" (Radford 2009, 18).

In Morrow's experience, some veterans want to keep their status private because they feel as if they have spent enough time being defined by their uniforms, and the chance to (re)enter a college classroom simply as another student is a welcome relief. For these students, the desire to receive external acknowledgment or attention is minimized by the fact that they either do not want to relive what they have been through, or they are sufficiently confident about what they achieved during their service and consider college to be their next challenge, their next mission, with no need to dwell on their past experiences.

On the other hand, Morrow has found that some veterans want to ensure that professors, classmates, and everyone else within earshot knows they served in a military uniform. These young veterans often seek recognition and validation and expect those around them to acknowledge and honor them openly.

The following section presents some additional considerations for professors when encountering these seemingly contradictory positions — student-veterans' personal desire for acknowledgment and understanding of their veteran status coupled with their public reluctance to disclose that status.

Negotiating Disclosure, Cultivating Trust

Recent studies of post-9/11 veteran enrollment demonstrate that "military veterans are in many ways more prepared to flood onto college campuses than most institutions are to receive them" (Lederman 2008). However, as teachers of writing we must also recognize that many returning veterans are still likely to "experience culture shock resulting from the stark contrast between the military world and civilian institutions such as higher education" (Zinger and Cohen 2010, 39). As they transition from their military commands to college campuses, student-veterans are leaving a world (as described earlier) in which "authority is absolute, responsibility for actions lies in the hands of superiors and ... the rules are clear" (Zinger and Cohen 2010, 39 — 40). Therefore, for many veterans, the relative autonomy of life as a college student requires significant adjustments. As Rosalind Loring and Edward Anderson discovered when developing a program in the 1970s to prepare Vietnam veterans for college courses at UCLA, student-veterans tend to be highly motivated, seek respect for their experiences, and want their opinions to be recognized, but they also tend to feel anxiety about their age and have "a low self-concept regarding academic matters" (Loring and Anderson 1971, 100 — 2). Consequently, they often request that their professors provide them with "specific assignments, explicit standards, and stated expectations for behavior" (Starr 1973, 246). In addition, due in part to the individualistic nature of most college coursework, many veterans report feeling "painfully alone, without the camaraderie of their military brethren" (Zinger and Cohen 2010, 47). Today's veterans also report that they often have difficulty relating to classmates "who tend to be younger, less respectful of authority, ignorant of what military service entails, and even critical of the very conflicts in which the veterans have just risked their lives" (Elliott, Gonzalez, and Larsen 2011, 281). Not surprisingly, therefore, student-veterans are most likely to relate best to individuals who share their military background, thus they tend to seek both academic and social support from "military colleagues whom they already [know] or faculty members to whom they [are] introduced," that is, people with whom they feel "more comfortable associating ... because of the common military experience and challenges they [share]" (Livingston et al. 2011, 323). Morrow experienced such connections and sought support from veteran faculty members he met early in his graduate-student career.


Excerpted from Generation Vet by Sue Doe, Lisa Langstraat. Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction / Sue Doe and Lisa Langstraat Part I: Beyond the Military-Civilian Divide: Understanding Veterans Chapter 1. Veterans in College Writing Classes: Understanding and Embracing the Mutual Benefit / Sean Morrow and Alexis Hart Chapter 2. Uniform Meets Rhetoric: Excellence through Interaction / Angie Mallory and Doug Downs Chapter 3. Not Just “Yes Sir, No Sir”: How Genre and Agency Interact in Student-Veteran Writing / Erin Hadlock and Sue Doe Chapter 4. Faculty as First Responders: Willing but Unprepared / Linda S. De La Ysla Part II: Veterans and Public Audiences Chapter 5. “I Have To Speak Out”: Writing with Veterans in a Community Writing Group / Eileen E. Schell and Ivy Kleinbart Chapter 6. Closer to Home: Veterans’ Workshops and the Materiality of Writing / Karen Springsteen Chapter 7. Signature Wounds: Marking and Medicalizing Post-9/11 Veterans / Tara Wood Chapter 8. Exploring Student-Veteran Expectations about Composing: Motivations, Purposes, and the Influence of Trauma on Composing Practices / Ashly Bender Part III: Veteran-Friendly Composition Practices Chapter 9. Recognizing Silence: Composition, Writing, and the Ethical Space for War / Roger Thompson Chapter 10. A New Mission: Veteran-Led Learning Communities in the Basic Writing Classroom / Ann Shivers-McNair Chapter 11. The Value of Service Learning for Student-Veterans: Transitioning to Academic Cultures through Writing and Experiential Learning / Bonnie Selting Chapter 12. “Front and Center”: Marine Student-Veterans, Collaboration, and the Writing Center / Corrine E. Hinton About the Authors Index

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