We never know in advance how someone will learn: by means of what loves someone becomes good at Latin, what encounters make them a philosopher, or in what dictionaries they learn to think.
—Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (165)
They have tentacles languidly stretching forth from their minds, feeling, vaguely for substance, & easily applied by a guiding hand to something that [they] could really grasp.
—Virginia Woolf, “Report on Teaching at Morley College” (203)
My primary concern when approaching this presentation on student-veterans in the classroom was a general one: to explore the educational necessities of the student who comes back. How can I, as an educator, best reach the student who has returned from living another life? Both my mother and father were student-veterans, having completed a year in the Air Force and “a little over four years” in the Marine Corps, respectively, so I have firsthand accounts of how isolated such nontraditional students felt on their campuses. How unprepared their universities were to address their academic and non-academic needs. How sparse, how virtually nonexistent were the conversations about PTSD and the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life.
There were no student-veteran resource centers in the early 1990s—at least not at my parents’ schools. In fact, it was not until my uncle Bill Meirose returned to South Dakota after serving in the armed forces that the universities under the South Dakota Board of Regents began to offer such resources to student-veterans; Uncle Bill told me last fall that it was his work in adult education and veteran suicide-prevention that led the charge in establishing these centers on SDBOR campuses, including the University of South Dakota.
As I dove into my research for this presentation, I began to realize that my initial essential question (“What do these students need?”) was a perpetuation of a common problem in educative discourse about student-veterans. Michelle Navarre Cleary and Kathryn Wozniak write on the difference between a “deficit approach” and an “asset-based approach” (para 1). If one approaches educating a student-veteran with the consideration of what one/they already has/have, rather than what is missing or what is needed, then one destabilizes the common idea that in order to even begin to reach the student-veteran, one must acquire “specialized knowledge, instruction, funding, [or] research” (Cleary). One likely already has the resources, or at least some resources, to help reach that student.
The perceived deficit is not as wide or as difficult to bridge as many administrative committees would like to believe, since many of the challenges a student-veteran may face when returning to school are similar to, if not the same, as what transitional challenges a non-military nontraditional student may also encounter. While it is important to not totally divorce one’s perception of the student-veteran from his or her military service, it is important to shift one’s focus and view him or her as another kind of adult learner. We have the tools to help adult learners. So, let us begin there.
Currently, to my knowledge, I only have one student-veteran in my sections of ENGL 101 this semester. I would not have known he is a student-veteran had he not emailed me one Friday morning to let me know he would be absent from class because his unit would be gone all weekend for training. I never would have even suspected—although, I suppose his grin when I told my class I previously attended and worked at a military academy could have been an earlier sign that we had some shared experience. This student, whom I shall call Joe, was one of four students (out of my forty-two total) who earned full points on his first major paper. He was surprised about the grade, and asked me after class, “I’m not sure how to interpret this, because I know it wasn’t perfect.” I simply told Joe that his writing was thorough, thoughtful, and displayed a level of insightfulness and intellectual labor that earned an A. “I hope this is a paper you’re proud of,” I said, “because your work here was truly impressive.”
Joe is easily one of my strongest students. He participates in and often ends up doing most of the heavy-lifting during discussions of assigned readings (except on the day we discussed two articles about war; he was uncharacteristically silent; not angry, not disagreeing, just listening to his peers’ thoughts). He asks questions when he is unsure. Sometimes, Joe will rephrase and repeat back to me a concept I just introduced, so that he can be sure he gets it (though I often think he also does so to put the idea in simpler terms so his classmates have another way of approaching or understanding the material). I suppose it is like what my mother said when I asked her about her experience as a student-veteran: “That’s the thing about coming back…I’m not afraid of your homework assignment. I’ve been to war. Give me that damn homework assignment.”
One of the largest challenges which student-veterans face in their return to academia, according to Michelle Navarre Cleary and Kathryn Wozniak, is that “they often do not understand how or why they need to know how to write academic essays.” The challenge these assignments pose is one of difference: military vs. academic expectations. Military writing is brief, sticks to the facts, and is not analytical or interpretive, whereas academic writing is often perceived as “overly wordy and unnecessarily long with lots of padding.” What will resolve this dissonance, Cleary and Wozniak write, is the instructor taking time to explain the value of developing and supporting claims, thinking critically about information rather than taking it for granted. The clearer the instructor is with his or her expectations—length requirements, specific examples, etc.—the better prepared a student-veteran (or any student in general) will be when he or she begins to write. Student-veterans tend to think of writing as a “perishable skill,” so easing them back in with “explicit instruction, low-stakes writing, frequent feedback, and [models/templates] can help reduce the anxiety” that many student-veterans share with adult learners when it comes to academic writing.
Cleary and Wozniak also address the importance of acknowledging experience: “Encouraging students to write about their prior learning experiences signals acceptance of who they are.” This report also suggests that students complete an “experience portfolio” at the start of the semester, in which “they document their areas of expertise, review their writing experiences, and provide samples of their current writing.” This experience portfolio is of considerable interest to me as a Portfolio Composition instructor—I see as much value in the assemblage of one’s past work as a writer as I do in the process of developing more work and furthering one’s perception of oneself as a writer.
In “An Emerging Population: Student Veterans in Higher Education in the 21st Century,” Mary E. Falkey immediately addresses the difficult of locating and applying to a “veteran-friendly school,” and the transitional difficulties student-veterans face in terms of the comparatively unstructured university atmosphere. Falkey also raises an important concern regarding the post-9/11 GI Bill: it “provides the most generous education benefits for military veterans since the first GI Bill was implemented in 1944…[but] benefits alone are not enough to help student veterans succeed in higher education” (29). The issue here, then, is that the government is providing financial assistance for veterans to return to school, but the schools are typically not providing effective/enough transitional assistance once the veteran arrives. Due to the additional/increased benefits of the post-9/11 GI Bill, universities will likely see an increase in their student-veteran populations, many of whom will have been in combat, so this presents an additional challenge re: access to treatment for PTSD and the delay of symptoms after the conclusion of the individual’s service.
Falkey writes on the correlation between high stress levels and impediments to learning, stating that “For student/veterans the risk of high stress levels is probably, especially for those returning from combat zones. These individuals may need assistance in identifying academic situations that could become stressful before they become problematic” (34). This speaks to the necessity of firm, fair, consistent, and clear course policies and classroom structure: the more the student-veteran knows about what will be asked of them, the better prepared they will be to approach these learning tasks and successfully engage with and complete them. The more structure an instructor can provide (rules, models, etc.), the more navigable the course becomes, and the less stress the coursework places on the student-veteran (or adult learner, or traditional learner). The military “language” is one of structure and discipline, and there is value in adopting/appropriating useful elements of that rigidity into one’s classroom: be clear in one’s expectations re: policies, assignments, etc., and hold one’s students and oneself accountable to those expectations.
Furthermore, Corrine Hinton writes that student-veterans complicate our ideas of what it means to be a “novice”: “The potential challenges for applying the novice-to-expert model to student veterans in first-year composition courses stem from the way in which first-year writers are expected to operate as new (almost) members of the community.” Student-veterans have already been members of communities (military cohorts: platoon, squad, company, battalion, etc.) in which they may see themselves as writers (of reports, of logistical strategies, of inventories, etc.). Hinton writes that “the revising processes of Marine student veterans suggest a position that is neither novice nor expert,” because of the way in which an individual is taught in a military educational structure: there is “a complex organizational learning system” which is designed to encourage the individual to “be critical, strategic, and reasoned thinkers; self-motivated; detail-oriented; and assertive, confident communicators in class,” “ask questions, participate actively, volunteer for leadership roles, and support struggling Marines.” Because of this educational system, when a veteran returns to academia following their enlistment, they are not starting as “fresh” as our freshman students.
Much of the structure and skills our courses are designed to impart, the student-veteran has already been developing these skills. Most of the Marine student-veterans Hinton interviewed for this article reported that they were already aware of the ways in which they have evolved as writers: “This self-awareness was demonstrated by [their] ability to (1) make connections between previous and current literacy habits […] (2) identify salient points of difference, (3) determine the origin of the changes they identified, and (4) connect those prior experiences and the changes that have occurred to current successes or failures.” The military writing style demands objectivity and structure, so the student-veteran has been trained to step outside of him- or herself and can then likely be more aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Lastly, Allison Lighthall’s 2012 “listicle,” “Ten Things You Should Know About Today’s Student Veteran,” provides readers with an impressive overview of the student-veteran population in the United States. According to Lighthall, in addition to being a minority population on many campuses, student-veteran cohorts are highly diverse, featuring a wide range of religions, sexual orientations, political views, ages, and races. Lighthall also notes that even when student veterans are “psychologically struggling or physically wounded, they see themselves as powerful warriors,” so they struggle to ask for help in the classroom (82). Once a veteran is no longer attached to his or her brigade/battalion/company/platoon/squad/battle buddy, they often feel entirely alone in an unfamiliar social system with no clear chain of command; establishing a mentor-mentee program through student-veteran resource center may help them better navigate this adjustment.
Lighthall continues, writing that many student-veterans are “often unaware of their own mild traumatic brain injuries” which can hinder cognitive functions like memory, attention/concentration, abstract reasoning, etc.; the instructor can and should make his or her classroom more accommodating by such methods as posting notes online ahead of time, wearing a microphone if lecturing in a large hall, captioning lecture videos, and/or using texts that can be obtained digitally. When it comes to a student-veteran’s peers in the classroom, other students asking intrusive questions about the student-veteran’s experiences in war is oftentimes unavoidable, so taking measures to model awareness of other viewpoints and explaining how the “did you kill anyone?” questions/comments can be hurtful will ease the emotional/psychological transition. Item Five on Lighthall’s list specifically addresses the struggles of a female student-veteran: female veterans faced not only war traumas, but “at least 22 percent” also faced sexual harassment or assault while serving, and the female student-veteran suffers deeply and often in silence (86).
Despite the adjustment to a comparatively “boring” civilian life, student-veterans “value and honor authority figures,” so the instructor must not take the student-veteran’s adjustment behaviors personally, give him or her the space he or she needs to feel safe, and sometimes be the one to reach out to the student-veteran to determine where the gaps in his or her education may be (88). Lighthall concludes her list with the following: “Student veterans are one of America’s greatest untapped human resources,” in that they are emotionally mature, goal-oriented, mission-driven, and experienced leaders who search for answers and think globally (88).
Cleary, Michelle Navarre, and Kathryn Wozniak. “Veterans as Adult Learners in Composition Courses.” Composition Forum 28, 2013, http://compositionforum.com/issue/28/adult-learners.php
Falkey, Mary E. “An Emerging Population: Student Veterans in Higher Education in the 21st Century.” Journal of Academic Administration in Higher Education, vol. 12, no. 1, 2016, pp. 27-39.
Hinton, Corrine. “‘The Military Taught Me Something about Writing’: How Student Veterans Complicate the Novice-to-Expert Continuum in First-year Composition.” Composition Forum 28, 2013, http://compositionforum.com/issue/28/novice-to-expert.php
Lighthall, Allison. “Ten Things You Should Know About Today’s Student Veteran.” The NEA Higher Education Journal, 2012, pp. 80-89.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. 1968. Translated by Paul Patton, Columbia UP, 1994.
Woolf, Virginia. “Report on Teaching at Morley College.” Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972, pp. 202-204.