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Student Veterans in the College Composition Classroom: Realizing Their Strengths and Assessing Their Needs

Conference on College Composition and Communication
March 2015

In 1999, the NCTE resolved to “[a]ffirm, seek, and encourage all teachers to include a diversity of perspectives, cultures, aesthetic responses, and experiences in the teaching and learning of English language arts.” Yet, as Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, observes, “many professors harbor stereotypes about the military, not recognizing the diversity of opinion within military circles on many issues and the remarkable minds of many young [military servicemembers].” In order to reflect the spirit of the NCTE resolution, this document asserts that “learning about the military, war and combat, and servicemembers’ experiences [can actually] complement a campus’s broader commitment to diversity and social understanding” (Rumann 31).

This document first identifies multiple assets student veterans often bring to writing classrooms and then acknowledges some of the special considerations that writing instructors and WPAs should take into account when working with student veterans.  After presenting these generalizations, the document offers classroom instructors and WPAs some more detailed answers to the question, “What do I need to know about working with student veterans?”  A list of references and further reading, organized roughly by field of study—from composition and writing studies to disability studies and student services—is provided at the end of the document.  This organizational structure is meant to present a deliberate move away from deficit-model thinking about military veterans—that veterans are damaged or unprepared or otherwise problematic—to representing military servicemembers as considerable assets and sources of strength, vision, and leadership for our universities, colleges, and our society at large.

Student Veterans’ Assets
  • Student veterans are experienced writers and communicators who are familiar with military genres of writing and questions of authorship sometimes different from but related to those encountered in higher education.  That expertise and familiarity should be acknowledged, explored, and built upon.1
      
  • Student veterans have served as part of a team and have often served in leadership roles for which problem-solving and thinking on one’s feet were daily requirements.  This experience should be valued, honored, and recognized.  For example, instructors might invite student veterans to take leadership roles in the classroom, as small group facilitators, or as mentors to other students.
      
  • Many student veterans have spent considerable time overseas and/or working with diverse populations and therefore can contribute meaningful insights they have garnered from these experiences to classroom discussions.  As Corey B. Rumann and Florence A. Hamrick explain, “learning about the military, war and combat, and servicemembers’ experiences [can actually] complement a campus’s broader commitment to diversity and social understanding” (31).
      
  • While student veterans may not choose to write about their military experiences for classroom assignments (see Leonhardy), providing venues for student veteran publications and creative work (essays, narratives, creative writing, video making, art work) and sponsoring on-campus events related to military and veterans topics can create opportunities for student veterans to portray the complexities of veterans’ individual as well as collective experiences.  Veterans’ writing groups and programs are growing across the country (see Schell), and faculty members can help establish and/or facilitate such groups on their campuses, collaborate with local community groups, or encourage students to take part in already existing programs (e.g., Words After War, Military Experience and the Arts, The Veterans Writing Project).
Student Veterans: Special Considerations
  • While student veterans have access to benefits that help them pay tuition and other expenses, difficulties processing or receiving benefits can result in retention risks and distraction from academic work.
      
  • Veterans can sometimes feel alienated by campus and classroom cultures (in terms of age, politics, and experience) and thereby also be at risk in terms of retention. 
      
  • “Veterans who sense that academia regards them as broken, willfully nonconformist, or unworkable in the college environment will react with understandable frustration, which puts them at risk for attrition.” (Gann)
      
  • Some student veterans may have service-related disabilities: “Surveys with student veterans and student service members on their experiences using the Post 9/11 GI Bill, found that most of these survey and focus group participants encountered substantial transition challenges while adapting to life on campus.  Among these students, one of the most frequently discussed challenges was coping with service-related disabilities and PTSD….Participants cited such difficulties as being unable to move quickly from one class to the next across campus, hyper-alertness and anxiety caused by PTSD, difficulty concentrating due to TBI, and difficulty relating to other students.” (http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/policy-government-affairs/key-policy-priorities/objective-2-economic-empowerment/initiative-2.aspx)
      
  • Student veterans may be reluctant to seek assistance—whether through disability services, counseling, or the Writing Center.
      
  • Student veterans, like other adult students, are more likely to have family and work obligations in addition to their academic workload.
      
  • Student veterans may have to miss classes for VA appointments or may be recalled to active duty, necessitating flexibility in attendance policies.
      
  • Instructors should consider including a syllabus statement indicating their awareness of the complexities of being a student veteran, such as this example created by Katt Blackwell-Starnes:

    “I recognize the complexities of being a student veteran.  If you are a student veteran, please inform me if you need 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.” (Hart and Thompson, “An Ethical Obligation”)
FAQs

I’m a classroom composition instructor. What do I need to know about veterans?

  • Veterans are a diverse population in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.  Many student veterans, like other adult students, have job and family responsibilities.
      
  • Veterans will often be older and somewhat more mature than conventional college students.  They are often disciplined students who exhibit a keen sense of purpose (mission accomplishment) and a strong work ethic.
      
  • Veterans are accustomed to following orders, and therefore they will often value structure and clear, straightforward instructions for writing tasks.  They may be unfamiliar with process models of writing and academic documentation styles.  They will likely seek explicit standards of assessment.
      
  • Because concerns about the chain of command are important to veterans, they tend to regard their professors as authority figures and may therefore be uncomfortable with informal classroom atmospheres or a perceived lack of structure within a classroom setting.
      
  • Veterans often draw on a range of experiences broader than those associated with typical college-age students, and they often wish to have those experiences valued and respected.
      
  • Veterans also value their privacy, so professors and classmates should not demand that veterans disclose the particulars of their experiences, nor should student veterans be expected to function as stand-in military spokespeople.  Veterans may also sometimes be uncomfortable with explicitly or overtly politicized course content.

I’m a writing program or writing center administrator. What do I need to know about veterans?

  • WPAs should familiarize themselves with the veteran resources on campus; should make faculty, graduate students, and staff in the writing program aware of the resources available to student veterans; and should encourage instructors to inform student veterans of these resources.
      
  • WPAs should offer training to writing instructors to facilitate a better understanding of military culture, the assets that student veterans bring to writing classrooms, and the challenges that veterans may face.  Such training could raise awareness of available resources for veterans on campus (see above) and in the local community.2
      
  • Writing Center directors should consider offering writing consultations in the campus veteran center (if one is available) and should try to ensure that consultations are offered when student veterans are on campus, as many student veterans are likely to be commuter students who have job and family responsibilities off campus.  Writing Center directors may want to consider offering online consultations, as well.
      
  • Writing programs should have plans in place to accommodate veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) concerns and with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI concerns), as both of these sometimes manifest in a need for additional time for reading and writing as well as difficulties concentrating and short-term memory loss.  In addition, syllabi should be made available to veterans in advance of registration, when possible, and instructors should consider offering alternative assignments and readings if triggering material is part of their existing course.

1 “Student veterans who were able to identify and then translate previous learning and rhetorical experiences from the military into academic writing contexts reported positive perceptions about that writing.” (Hinton)

2 It may be possible and even desirable to coordinate this training with the Veterans Services Office on campus (if there is one) and/or with the student veterans’ organization on campus (if there is one). See also Sander: “research shows that where support services for veterans exist, those students do well in the classroom.”??

References and Further Reading

Composition/Writing Studies

Dalton, Kelly Singleton. From Combat to Composition: Meeting the Needs of Military Veterans through Postsecondary Writing Pedagogy. MA Thesis. Georgetown University, 2010. Web. 26 June 2013.

Hart, D. Alexis, and Roger Thompson. “‘An Ethical Obligation’: Promising Practices for Student Veterans in College Writing Classrooms.” Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2013. PDF file.

Hart, D. Alexis, and Roger Thompson. “War, Trauma, and the Writing Classroom: A Response to Travis Martin’s ‘Combat in the Classroom.’” Writing on the Edge 23.2 (Spring 2013): 37. Print.

Hart, D. Alexis, and Roger Thompson, eds. Composition Forum 28 (Fall 2013). Web.

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 (Fall 2013). Web.

Leonhardy, Galen. “Transformations: Working with Veterans in the Composition Classroom.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 36.4 (May 2009): 339–352. Print.

Martin, Travis. “Combat in the Classroom. A Writing and Healing Approach to Teaching Student Veterans.” Writing on the Edge 22.1 (Spring 2012): 1–9. Print.

Schell, Eileen E. “Writing with Veterans in a Community Writing Group.” Composition Forum 28
(Fall 2013). Web.

Valentino, Marilyn J. “Serving Those Who Have Served: Preparing for Student Veterans in our Writing Programs, Classes and Writing Centers.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 36.1 (Fall/Winter 2012): 164–178. Print.

Disability Studies

American Council on Education. Accommodating Student Veterans with Traumatic
Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Tips for Campus Faculty and Staff
. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/Content/NavigationMenu/ProgramsServices/
MilitaryPrograms/serving/AccommodatingStudentVeterans_06222011.pdf

Shackelford, Allan L. “Documenting the Needs of Student Veterans with Disabilities: Intersection Roadblocks, Solutions, and Legal Realities.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 22.1 (2009): 36–42. Print.

Woll, P. Teaching America’s Best. Preparing Your Classrooms to Welcome Returning Veterans and Service Members. 2010. Give an Hour/National Organization on Disability. Retrieved from http://www.nod.org/assets/downloads/AmericasBestTeaching.pdf

General

American Council on Education. Veteran Success Jam: Ensuring Success for Returning Veterans. 2010. Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/Content/NavigationMenu
/ProgramsServices/MilitaryPrograms/serving/index.htm

Byman, Daniel L. “Veterans and Colleges Have a Lot to Offer Each Other.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 Dec. 2007: B5. Print.

Gann, Sarah. "There Is a Lot of Self-Reliance." Journal of Military Experience 2.1 (2012): 211–228. Web.

Glasser, Irene, John T. Powers, and William H. Zywiak. “Military Veterans at Universities: A Case of Culture Clash.” Anthropology News 7 May 2009: 33. Print.

Military Family Research Institute. Frequently Asked Questions about the Military and Student Service Members and Veterans on Campus. 2013. Retrieved from https://www.mfri.purdue.edu/resources/public/MFRI_OpDiploma_FAQ.pdf. Web.

Radford, Alexandria Walton. Military Service Members and Veterans in Higher Education: What the New GI Bill May Mean for Postsecondary Institutions. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2009. Web. 20 June 2013.

Sander, Libby. “When Support Services Exist, Veterans Fare Well in Class, Report Says.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 Nov. 2013. Web.

Steele, Jennifer, Nicholas Salcedo, and James Coley. Service Members in School: Military Veterans’ Experiences Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Pursuing Postsecondary Education. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010. Print.

Taylor, Paul, ed. The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2011. Print.

Wilson, Robert M., Susan Leary, Matthew Mitchell, and Daniel Ritchie. “Military Veterans Sharing First-Person Stories of War and Homecoming: A Pathway to Social Engagement, Personal Healing, and Public Understanding of Veterans’ Issues.” Smith College Studies in Social Work 79.3 (July–December 2009): 392–432. Print.

Student Services/Student Affairs

Ackerman, Robert, David DiRamio, and Regina L. Garza Mitchell. “Transitions: Combat Veterans as College Students.” In Creating a Veteran-Friendly Campus: Strategies for Transition and Success. Ed. Robert Ackerman and David DiRamio. New Directions for Student Services 126 (Summer 2009): 5–14. Print.

Bauman, Mark. “The Mobilization and Return of Undergraduate Students Serving in theNational Guard and Reserves.” In Creating a Veteran-Friendly Campus: Strategies for Transition and Success. Ed. Robert Ackerman and David DiRamio. New Directions for Student Services 126 (Summer 2009): 15–24. Print.

Elliott, M., C. Gonzalez, and B. Larsen. “U.S. Military Veterans Transition to College: Combat, PTSD, and Alienation on Campus.” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48.3 (2011): 279–296. Print.

McBain, Leslie, Young M. Kim, Bryan J. Cook, and Kathy M. Snead. From Soldier to Student II: Assessing Campus Programs for Veterans and Service Members. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2012. Print.

Rumann, Corey B., and Florence A. Hamrick. “Supporting Student Veterans in Transition.” In Creating a Veteran-Friendly Campus: Strategies for Transition and Success. Ed. Robert Ackerman and David DiRamio. New Directions for Student Services 126 (Summer 2009): 25–34. Print.

Zinger, Lana, and Andrea Cohen. “Veterans Returning from War into the Classroom: How Can Colleges Be Better Prepared to Meet Their Needs?” Contemporary Issues in Education Research 3.1 (Jan. 2010): 39–51. Print.

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