The Uneasy Civilian: On Campus with Faculty and Student Vets

Written By: Professor Sue Doe, Colorado State University

At Colorado State University, together with my colleagues Professor Lisa Langstraat, an Army brat, Colonel (retired) Jenny Pickett, Director of Adult Learner and Veteran Services and recent graduate student (and current U.S. Military Academy English instructor) Major Erin Hadlock, we have been offering, over the past few years, faculty short courses on working with student veterans. We developed this professional development series as a result of the frustration we felt with the scant attention being paid to classroom practices and faculty needs in terms of student veteran transition. Indeed, after reviewing the literature, it seemed to us that while good strides were being made in terms of veteran-informed admissions processes, student services and certifying official functions, attention to classroom issues was relatively slight.

Further, when we queried faculty, we learned that most were unfamiliar with the actual challenges faced by student veterans, or were too often guided by stereotypes of veterans as  wounded shells of people who were struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives. A few faculty members we talked to were vaguely familiar with the case of Charles Whittington’s violence-laced classroom writing that was published (at his urging and without benefit of professional editing) in his school’s newspaper, setting off a firestorm of concern about the mindset of the student veteran. However, in most cases, faculty members we talked to did not know the specifics of the case and hence rushed to judgment.

On the flip side, we had also read articles in a major military periodical in which faculty were characterized as liberal elites who needed to be carefully screened by vets so as to avoid classes which were likely to undermine student veteran experience. We saw language which suggested that many faculty are inclined to “bait” student veterans into defending their military service or conservative views.  The implication was that student veterans would need to guard against predatory faculty and the liberal ideology of the academy.

We were dismayed by both sides of the equation, faculty misapprehension of student veterans and student veteran misunderstanding of faculty, since such assumptions and stereotypes re-inscribe the military-civilian divide. As a result, we decided to research veteran transition into the college classroom and developed a short course that would assist faculty in our local setting.  In our four-hour workshops, we introduced faculty to basic demographic information about military service, conveyed local and national GI Bill enrollment information, developed a presentation on the presentations of PTSD and TBI in the classroom and presented a bibliography of sources for further reading. In addition, we did role plays and debriefed a variety of classroom scenarios involving student veterans and faculty. For these scenarios, we invited a panel of student veterans to lead the discussion and take questions from the faculty.

These student panels had quite an effect; among other things, faculty got to see the poised carriage of the student veteran panel, which handled their questions with confidence, clarity and substance. In turn, student veterans were able to see that faculty were as ready to learn from students as they were to teach them.

Another of the tools that participants found helpful was our presentation of strategies of strength-based pedagogy. The idea of strength-based pedagogy is to focus on the strengths and skills students bring to the classroom, rather than only on students’ weaknesses and shortcomings—the latter being a deficit model of instruction. Certainly, it was not a challenge for us to come up with a set of strengths that student veterans bring to the classroom directly as a result of their military service. Among these were the probabilities that student veterans are:

  • mission and project oriented and hence can be relied upon to complete tasks
  • time conscious and hence are able to manage time toward task completion
  • able to give and receive orders
  • respectful of authority
  • articulate and able to speak with clarity and conviction
  • aware and concerned about the needs of  their classmates
  • vigilant about the broader physical and social spaces of the classroom
  • well-traveled and culturally literate about parts of the world beyond U.S. borders

We added that student veterans are frequently also:

  • prepared and interested to be asked their opinion on world events
  • eager to share knowledge gained during service
  • prepared to take peer leadership roles
  • responsive to mentoring
  • committed  to being held to a high standard
  • poised and convincing in oral situations due to strong speaking/presentation skills
  • professional and determined to polish their projects

Having established these strengths and having seen them demonstrated by our panel of student veterans, we discussed ways to invite and engage these strengths.  Along the way, however, the student veterans themselves rejected the list as a comprehensive descriptor, suggesting that such lists tend to valorize the veteran, which they described as being nearly as deleterious as vilification, since such generalizations fail to deepen understanding of veterans and instead reassert stereotypes.

One student veteran put it this way, after hearing a faculty member describe veterans as capable and competent: “If you think that’s a universal, then you haven’t met many veterans.”  With this encouragement in mind, we also addressed challenges that faculty might be prepared to expect among student veterans in their classes. Among these are the following:

  • Although high school graduation rates are higher among veterans than the national norm, many student veterans may have struggled with school and may have been less likely than most student in college classrooms to have been in college-prepatory classes during their high school years
  • May not have grown up in reading households
  • May be first-generation college
  • May have little or no familiarity with the “look” of academic products

These tendencies may or may not also be accompanied by these characteristics:

  • May feel that the defining experience of their lives is over and hence that college is not particularly important in the grand scheme of things
  • May misunderstand priorities, perhaps advantaging surface polish at the expense of deeper critical thinking
  • May expect a certain kind of authority at the front of the classroom and misunderstand the cultural shift demanded by a new form of authority and expertise

This final set of possible characteristics suggests the productive space into which faculty and the college experience might enter the lives of student veterans.  In particular, we have found that military training’s tendency to defer to explicit guidance and hierarchical leadership causes some student veterans to struggle when such certainty and authority does not exist in classrooms or more generally in civilian settings.  As such, we believe that instruction can and should explicitly address this “learning difference” and the opportunity it represents for student veterans to entertain controversial ideas, or even perhaps to articulate them without anxiety about the ramifications of doing so.

Understood in this light, even the “absent-minded professor” might be recast by student veterans and their advocates as valid purveyors of alternative points of view and alternative ways of engaging the world.  In other words, leadership at the front of the classroom, as well as in other civilian environments, takes many forms and the student veteran’s ability to appreciate leadership in its variety may be an essential ingredient to transition.

In short, the student veteran may need to develop a more capacious understanding of what counts as legitimate leadership, not to mention legitimate activity. Erin Hadlock explains that student veterans may perceive themselves as moving from “always doing, never thinking” to “always thinking, never doing,” as they transition from the military environment to the college classroom. However, Hadlock also points out that in both cases this exaggeration of experience tends to oversimplify the actual complexity of these differing cultures.

Practically speaking, the student veteran transition might be eased by transition instruction that involves a gradual tapering of control, moving toward a model of increasingly open-ended discussion and assignment. Student veterans need exposure to varied models of leadership and explanations of why varied forms work in differing contexts.  The goal of such efforts would be to help student veterans expand their repertoires of learning and leadership, extending their existing skills in ways that are useful beyond the university classroom. Indeed, the campus setting, if it is able to impart this lesson, can serve as an important bridge to civilian workplaces and communities, shifting disappointment (in these locations’ seeming absence of leadership) into an appreciation for leadership’s varied forms.

My colleague, Lisa Langstraat, and I explore these ideas and others in our forthcoming book, “Generation Vet: Student-Veterans, Composition, and the Post-9/11 University” (Utah State Press, expected release fall 2013.) This collection features articles by faculty and student veterans from across the country.

Sue Doe teaches courses in composition, autoethnographic theory and method, research methods and graduate student preparation for writing in the disciplines at Colorado State University. Doe conducts research in three distinct areas—academic labor, writing across the curriculum and student veteran writing in the post-9/11 era. Co-author of the faculty development book, “Concepts and Choices: Meeting the Challenges in Higher Education,” she has published articles in College English, College Composition and Communication and Writing Program Administration, as well as several book-length collections. She serves on the board of directors of the New Faculty Majority Foundation and represents the National Council of Teachers of English on the Coalition of the Academic Workforce.