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Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

A Class For Vets, Not By a Vet: Developing a Veteran-Friendly Composition Course at City College of San Francisco

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Darren Keast

Abstract: This program profile describes the motivation to create a “veteran friendly” course offered within the composition program at City College of San Francisco. The author provides a discussion of the course and considers the challenges and successes he has faced over the three years of teaching it.

It was in my initial semester as a tenure-track instructor at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) when a student first “outed” himself in class as a military veteran. CCSF is the quintessential “large, diverse, urban college,” with over 90,000 students, approximately 70% of whom identify as other than white, and home to the first Gay and Lesbian Studies department in the nation (Griffin 4). Yet many of the students and I were taken aback when this “outing” happened as we were introducing ourselves to each other in my composition course. As an icebreaker, I had asked the students to describe their worst jobs, and a Latino student who looked slightly older than the average undergraduate said, “I had to burn the crap that my unit produced in Iraq.” Silence followed. When I asked him to elaborate, he explained that one of his jobs in the military was to incinerate the sewage from his Army base. I attempted to diffuse the deepening awkwardness in the room with a joke: “That must be good for the environment.” To this quip he replied, “Well, it’s not our country.” Seeming to notice the bafflement in the room for the first time, he added, “or at least that’s what my commanding officer said.”

After getting through that first uncomfortable class, this recently returned veteran turned out to be a fine student. Diligent, gracious, and coachable, he had perfect attendance (a rarity at community colleges) and a polite and easy manner in class discussion. As I got to know him and learned some of the identifying characteristics of many veterans—desert-tone boots, high and tight haircuts (on men), backpacks with digital camouflage—I noticed student veterans in all my classes. In an article in the student newspaper about a recently opened Veterans Resource Center, I learned that CCSF was seeing an explosion of veterans, more than most other colleges and universities (Romano). This was surprising to me for a number of reasons. Military personnel from large cities enlist at a rate fifty percent lower than those from rural areas (Fisher), and only three San Franciscans have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (“California’s War Dead”). The city had some of the largest protests in the country against the invasion of Iraq, and activists in 2005 proposed a local ballot measure to end military recruitment inside the city limits, entitled “College Not Combat” (Associated Press). But because of the way the Post-9/11 GI Bill calculates benefits—basing them on the cost of living in the zip code in which the school is located—veterans who enroll at CCSF receive some of the most lucrative payments in the country, approximately three thousand dollars a month (“The Post 9/11 GI Bill”).

As a result, CCSF has one of the largest student veteran populations in the nation, with approximately twelve hundred veterans enrolled at the college for the last two years. One of the Veterans Affairs (VA) counselors on campus told me he routinely gets calls from veterans from all over the country who say they are planning to move to San Francisco to attend the school. After noticing that the veterans in my classes seemed to be experiencing multiple versions of the culture gap with civilian students that I had experienced in the icebreaker described above, I decided to design an English composition class that could leverage their military knowledge.

Many veterans report feeling frustrated and underutilized when returning from military service: a former medic who has performed an advanced procedure dozens of times being relegated to supporting a civilian surgeon with no experience with it, for example, or a tank driver who takes a job operating a forklift. In composition classes, we frequently invite students to leverage their preexisting knowledge and explore previously held assumptions. One Marine told me outside of class, “I learned how to apply the Geneva Conventions to determine suitable targets when firing my howitzer. What can I use this skill for now?” Why not an essay about the moral implications of such rules and restrictions on military efficacy that these rules impose, I thought. However, I was unsure of how this student demographic would take to grappling with such questions in a nonmilitary setting, especially when such inquiry is discouraged and sometimes outright prohibited while in service. I first consulted my wife, who is a psychiatrist at the San Francisco VA hospital and now works one day a week at the CCSF VA clinic. She thought many but not all veterans would welcome the opportunity to explore through writing in a group setting topics close to their own experiences—several of which may have been traumatic. She urged me to move forward with the idea despite the fact that she has had difficulty getting newly returned veterans to commit to group therapy programs, likely because public discussion of weakness or health problems is often discouraged in military culture.

My next step was to get approval from the English department, the chair of which suggested I put together a proposal for our departmental curriculum committee. Since the GI Bill only covers classes that are transferrable or are part of a plan that leads to graduation, I wanted to choose a standard course in the composition sequence and tailor the readings and essay topics for students with military experience. I also knew that working at an open admissions college, I would have to offer the class to all students, and I also suspected it would be unlikely that I would end up with a majority of veterans in the class. It was at this early stage of the planning process that I found my first and most persistent dilemma: to offer a curriculum specific and substantive enough to appeal to those with military experience but also accessible to those without it. And since I am from the latter group, achieving this balance has been an elusive goal for the three years I have offered the course, which is titled English 1A: University Reading and Composition with a Focus on Veterans and Military Issues. I believe it was the first of its kind in the country during the Post-9/11 era. In what follows, I will describe the context for the course and my ongoing attempts to meet the challenges of serving the needs of student veterans while also fulfilling the needs of other students and the course outcomes.

The Composition Program at CCSF

The English department at City College serves as many students as many entire small colleges do—around seven thousand. As this group of students is incredibly diverse in age, familiarity with the English language, and academic preparation, the department has historically fought to preserve its uncommonly long sequence of composition courses. A student who scores the poorest on a placement test may take as many as six classes to finish the English requirement, although recently added accelerated options can cut this to four. English 1A is the first transfer-level composition course; however, only nine percent of students place into it. Since it is assumed students have developed essay structure and sentence clarity in previous classes, 1A has been held out as a rigorous introduction to higher-order skills like argumentation and research methods. It is required for graduation and transfer to California public universities and is followed by either 1B, which focuses on writing about literature, or 1C, which focuses on argumentation and critical thinking. (The student learning outcomes for 1A are listed in the syllabus included below in Appendix 1.) The department makes decisions about course requirements in workgroups that propose changes to course outlines, which must be approved by the internal curriculum committee and then the Campus Curriculum Committee.

English 1A instructors are allowed to choose textbooks, essay topics, and course themes with almost complete freedom. Many sections of the course have content themes that are not listed in the course catalog; only nine of the forty-seven sections offered in the upcoming semester have identified themes, some of which are environmental sustainability, women’s studies, Bay Area arts, and LGBT. In the curriculum meeting when I first proposed my military-themed section of this course, I encountered more resistance to my proposal than I had expected, particularly from older faculty. Some assumed that antiwar students would enroll in the class just to disrupt it—these concerns came from instructors who had lived through the Vietnam War era, some as faculty at the college. I felt that this scenario was unlikely due to the general sense of apathy and lack of awareness of current events I had sensed among the student body, not to mention the enormous disparity in the scope and intensity of the protest movements against the Vietnam War and the Post-9/11 wars. Others worried that the department would have to start offering different “flavors” of its composition courses if my topics-based course set a precedent. I pointed out that there were already composition classes in the course catalog that targeted particular student identities—women, gays and lesbians, food service workers, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Now, after working with dozens of student veterans in the years since this meeting, I would argue that military service can be as much of a universally-influencing and -transforming experience as gender, ethnic or racial identity, or even sexual orientation can be. Growing up African American, for instance, can mean attending underperforming public schools or privileged college-preparatory academies or anything in between. Coming out of the closet in San Francisco is likely different than in East Jesus, Missouri. But enlistment (almost all undergraduate student veterans are enlistees since officer candidacy usually requires a four-year college degree), with its at-minimum of four years of push-ups, chains-of-command, low pay, camaraderie, heightened readiness, and teamwork, seems to be a shaping experience shared fairly equally regardless of military branch, gender, ethnicity, class, or region of origin.

Yet another faculty member worried that I would not get enough veterans to enroll in the class, given CCSF’s unusually long sequence of composition courses, which, at the time, was six, beginning with the lowest developmental course and continuing through to second-year university-level composition. The length of the sequence, this person argued, would likely result in the total number of eligible veterans being spread out too thinly. Also, as I mentioned previously, since the college is open enrollment, an instructor cannot limit enrollment in a class to any particular group of students—for example, Puente, a retention program on campus originally restricted to Latinos, has since been required to allow students of all ethnicities to participate. The English department chair advised that I look into which course in the sequence had the most veterans enrolled in it that semester (since students can check a box indicating their military experience, this data was easy to find). It turned out that the first-year transfer-level class—English 1A—had the most. I further argued that 1A, with its longer research essay that many instructors allow students to choose a topic for, would enable veterans to explore areas that few courses at any other civilian college would cover. I pointed out that veterans often report not connecting with civilian interests and trends in popular culture; a war reporter with PTSD symptoms as a result of covering the invasion of Iraq describes this common feeling: “how could [Americans] go on talking about such trivial things—iPods, celebrities, the latest fashions—when there was a war going on!?” (Glantz xvii). Giving vets ownership and control over their academic explorations, I argued, would allow them to write about topics they found relevant and yet also nonthreatening, as those with PTSD could avoid ones that might trigger their symptoms.

Student Enrollment and Curriculum Dilemmas

After I addressed the numerous reservations of members of the English Department Curriculum Committee, the argument that eventually tipped the scales in favor of my proposal was that more “flavors” of 1A might help with the course’s low retention and pass rates, the latter of which is approximately sixty percent, a number that had been getting scrutiny from campus student advocacy groups, administrators, and trustees. English 1A is frequently called a gatekeeper or bottleneck course, and meeting students’ interests has been a general trend to address retention at the college.

At CCSF, the outcomes for first-year composition are much more focused on research than those of most other community colleges in California. While first-year writing courses are usually devoted to teaching essay structure, argumentation, academic conventions, and the like, the centerpiece of English 1A at CCSF is a research essay with minimums of ten pages and ten sources. Teaching MLA mechanics, academic database searching tips, source credibility, and avoiding plagiarism tend to take up a fair amount of class time. As a result, some professors prefer to have no class theme so that discussion of the topics of the associated readings will not take time away from research instruction. Fortunately, however, I have found the military theme particularly conducive for encouraging students to search a diversity of databases. For instance, if a student wants to know how many Iraqis have been killed since the invasion, she can look for sources from the Department of Defense (.mil), State Department (.gov), research universities (.edu), nongovernmental organizations (.org), and newspapers (.com). She will get wildly different estimates from each source, a surprising finding for many undergraduates. In addition, the fact that many of our topics are currently unfolding—Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the end of the ban on women in combat as my class was working on as essay about it—makes for a “moving target” effect rare for college research projects.

Indeed, I decided to focus the class on contemporary issues central to the military and the veteran experience that have broader ethical resonance because I felt they would not only allow the vets to explore aspects of their military lives that they were likely not encouraged to interrogate while on active duty but would also be accessible to civilians. I also wanted to touch on some of the adjustment challenges my wife and her therapist colleagues at the VA help veterans deal with, but to do so indirectly as military culture can stigmatize admitting weakness. And yet I had to be careful not to stereotype veterans as damaged or unstable. Lastly, I knew I should, as much as possible, avoid liberal versus conservative political tiger traps, as well as the personal politics of serving or not serving. I should note that coming up with four essay topics that met these guidelines has proven to be impossible, though I have been struggling to achieve this goal for the three years I have been teaching the course. Nonetheless, based on this general direction for the class, the committee approved my English 1A section without qualifications or modifications to my proposal. Yet no new course outline was created, so the future offering of this section remains at the discretion of the department chair.

Approval of the section in spring of 2009 proved to be the smallest of my challenges with the course, however. Since I began teaching it in the fall of 2010, the problem of attracting students with military experience (based on feedback from the CCSF Veterans Alliance, a student group, I avoid the word “recruiting,” as many veterans are dubious of the term) has persisted. Out of a class with enrollment capped at 31, the highest number of student veterans I started a semester with was 12, the lowest 6. I have promoted the class in a number of ways—presenting to the Veterans Alliance and larger gatherings of student vets, emailing a description of the class (see Appendix 2) to all veteran students via the Dean of Student Affairs, putting posters up around the Veterans Resource Center, and asking other English faculty to mention it to their classes. Although the veteran turnout has been less than I would like, I have discovered that civilian students have registered for the course for a variety of reasons I had not anticipated.

Based on surveys I give on the first day of class, the majority of students indicate that they chose the course for reasons other than the content, and indeed a significant number did not know of the veteran focus until the first meeting. However, many others state they did consciously choose the section based on its veteran focus, and for a myriad of reasons: some were considering enlisting in the military or enrolling in ROTC programs, others had a sibling or significant other who was deployed overseas, and still others had a strong relationship with a veteran in their families. Two young women stated they chose to take the course because they loved war literature (despite the fact that all the readings for the course are nonfiction). Of the civilian students in the class and the campus at large, most seem to have only a vague sense of the country’s current military involvement (on the same survey, I ask how many wars the United States is currently engaged in; many write “no idea” or “too many”) and seem to have “absorbed by osmosis a liberal distrust of the military” by virtue of living in the Bay Area, as one colleague put it.

Given this demographic split, I have found myself in a challenging position, both in terms of managing classroom dynamics and meeting the student learning outcomes of the course, shared by all sections of 1A, which emphasize finding and “engaging with multiple sources” (see Appendix 1 for a list of course outcomes). For example, when discussing the conditions of urban combat in Iraq, up to twenty-five of the students could confuse an IED (improvised explosive device) with a birth control device (an IUD), while five to ten might know how many IEDs a Humvee convoy can expect to encounter when driving through Baghdad. One of my students knew where in Iran many IEDs originated from and exactly how to safely detonate one (“My unit was the real Hurt Locker,” he told me). I often find myself caught in the middle between these two camps, having culled most of my war knowledge from the New Yorker, soldiers’ memoirs, my high school friend whose Humvee was hit by an IED three times while in Iraq, stories shared by student veterans from previous semesters, and various Frontline episodes and Hollywood films like Hurt Locker, which every Iraq vet I have asked hates for being factually inaccurate.

In an effort to be upfront with students, at the first class meeting I announce that I have no military background whatsoever, and I invite those who do to please correct me when I am incorrect in my details. I also request that those with military experience translate their jargon for the non-specialists in the room. One veteran later told me he welcomed my honesty and willingness to be corrected, and he disliked it when other professors “shot from the hip” and invented or blurred facts when lecturing about the military. However, after observing a class session during my first semester teaching the course, my department chair said she thought I was talking too much to the veterans and not including the civilians enough. Later, a former Marine in that class wrote me an email expressing his sense of alienation from the civilians “who know absolutely nothing about what’s really going on in the world.” Yet because of his combat experience, this same student could not read one of the assigned books, Aaron Glantz’s The War Comes Home, because its descriptions of roadside bombs and the mistreatment of injured soldiers by the Department of Defense were triggering his posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Finding a balance between substantive readings that might limit the trauma triggers for veterans and yet are accessible and informative for civilians has not been simple. Since City College is fortunate to have a rotating staff of mental health professionals working in its on-campus VA clinic, I have had a social worker come to class to give a primer on PTSD and the services the VA offers. But even this use of outside speakers seemed to backfire—an enthusiastic and outgoing Army veteran had his symptoms activate after this guest lecture. Fortunately, however, he also told me this episode brought him back to treatment.

(Trying to) Mind the Gap

After my first semester of teaching the veteran-focused English 1A course, by the end of which the veterans were isolating themselves from their civilian classmates by deliberately sitting in the two farthest right columns of the room, I tried a few interventions to promote cohesion. In the first week of the next semester, I designed an icebreaker with the intention of having the two groups communicate with each other more directly. I divided the civilians into small groups and asked each to write down every question they had about military and veteran life. The veterans, in one six-student group, listed all the important things they thought a civilian should know about their experiences. Then, as the civilians asked their questions, the veterans answered them. It started fairly well: the civilians were uncertain how to frame their questions, and the veterans were rather terse in their answers, but we got through five or six rounds before the civilians ran out of questions. Next I asked the vets if they wanted to add anything, and an Army Reservist said, “They should know that there is something called secondary PTSD, where they can sort of catch symptoms of PTSD if they are our friends or girlfriends. It happened to mine.” It was a heartfelt and incredibly candid disclosure, delivered without a trace of embarrassment, but it definitely caused a lull in the discussion. In an attempt to recover the interactive exchange, I asked the civilians if they had a final question. One asked, “If you had known then what we know now, would you have volunteered for the Iraq war?” The veterans exchanged tense looks, and then the class was over before anyone could respond.

I initially considered this activity to have failed as well, but with lessons learned, at least on my end. In the next meeting and in my subsequent syllabi, I established a ground rule that as a class we would explore controversial issues from an academic distance as much as possible, but that the rightness of current conflicts would not be one of them. Based on consultation with my wife, whose clinical specialty happens to be PTSD, I determined that this topic and a few others had too great of a potential to trigger certain veterans (it should be noted that the majority of veterans—even combat veterans—do not suffer from the disorder [McCaslin et al.]). My wife explained that since students in the classroom were likely to have had friends who died in the war, to imply its immorality or futility would be extremely difficult to integrate for a PTSD sufferer—or many other veterans or military family members, for that matter. I now ask the veterans at the start of the semester what painful question civilians frequently ask them. “How many people have you killed?” is the quick and universal answer. I try to explore with the entire class the damage this question can cause and suggest they will likely not be prepared for the answer. One veteran told the class his pat answer is “none today.” Another veteran told me in office hours that he resented the voyeuristic nature of the question, as if his job was to entertain the asker with some colorful yet sanitized war stories. Since I frequently read anonymous student papers to the class and students comment on each other’s work during peer review, establishing some ground rules for civility is crucial in order for students to feel free as writers to explore the charged ideas from the course honestly. In the meeting before the first essay is due, after weeks of exploring the morality of the all-volunteer military, I ask the class, “What do you think I feel about the draft?” After a bit of silence, a few brave souls attempt to summarize my views, referencing clues they have picked up during the class discussions. “Actually,” I reply, “I’m not sure what I think about it. I shift my position a little after each essay of yours I read. Please do not try to fit into what you think my political views are. And I promise not to consider what you write your final stance on the topic, so don’t worry if you are undecided also.”

I have come to recognize that, beyond the Internet, civilians have few public forums to discuss moral issues related to these wars, and the impetus to do so in such a class is a legitimate one. But I decided when I designed the course that one of my top priorities would be to avoid contributing to the sense of alienation I had seen in some of the student veterans I taught. I also instituted a policy for all students that if a movie shown in class causes them stress or they think it might, they are free to leave the room without being counted absent. I also inform them that I will replace a reading if it does the same, as I had to do with the Marine veteran. The book that bothered him, Glantz’s The War Comes Home, proved to be a lightning rod for many vets over the two years I used it. Glantz, who contributes to progressive media sources and wrote another book titled How America Lost Iraq, directs his polemic at the Bush Administration for its mistreatment of veterans and politically motivated underfunding of the war effort, though, importantly, he does not argue the rightness or wrongness of the war itself. He expresses empathy for the veterans themselves and suggests that as a war reporter in Iraq, he also had PTSD symptoms. Still, many veterans in my class find his attack too forceful and broad, outrage being a response particularly stifled in military life. (I have recently started to explore how academic culture, with its privileging of self-expression, questioning of authority, and encouragement of individual style, can clash with life as an enlisted person, and more specifically, the type of writing that one is required to do in the enlisted ranks. One student, whose Military Operation Specialty (MOS) was in working with intelligence reports, told me, “Man, it is night and day. When I started school, I didn’t know what to do without any direction of what to say and not to say.”) Another student veteran, now attending officer training for the Marines, went to enormous lengths in one of his essays to defend Bush’s performance, to such an extent that he avoided answering the assigned question. Yet for others, having seen the deficiencies in armor on vehicles firsthand, for example, Glantz’s criticism resonated deeply. One Army veteran bought copies of Glantz’s book for all his friends and family, and another told me the book “turned [him] from the deepest red Republican to a Democrat” (though that, of course, was not my intention when assigning it).

The book proved to be divisive, but it was the only one of its type that I had found—one that focuses on veterans of the Post-9/11 conflicts and also makes a succinct argument to which students can directly respond, an important criteria for my class. Of the nine department-approved student learning outcomes for English 1A, four directly mention engaging with arguments or logic. Given these criteria, the first three essays students write are persuasive. But the last time I taught the course, I administered an exit survey to the class as well, and one veteran wrote that some of the other veterans had expressed uneasiness about talking in class about PTSD, which is a central topic of the book. He added that discussing PTSD in class did not personally bother him; he claimed he was simply concerned for the other veterans. I have found this to be a mode of expression common with veterans—to downplay their own experiences and emphasize those of their comrades.

More than their civilian counterparts, many veterans are particularly adept at avoiding help—in a discussion panel put on by the VA clinic at CCSF, one veteran divulged the Army jargon for a soldier who seeks medical attention. “We call them shitbags,” he told a room full of faculty members. “If someone’s in the medical tent faking an injury, he’s making someone else carry his weight.” I have had students tell me they suffer from acute PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), both of which affect concentration and memory, but none have taken my suggestion to see the Disabled Students Programs and Services, which can give them accommodations. “No one wants to be a special case,” they told me. Instructors who want to extend help might want to do so to a group of students rather than individuals, and to frequently keep in mind and try to leverage the many strengths veterans bring to a classroom. Focusing on deficits does not play well to students with or without military experience. When explaining special services or the general point that, unlike the military, academic life encourages help-seeking, professors will likely be better heard if they announce them to the whole class or ask the veterans as a group to stay after a session for a few minutes rather than pulling individuals aside. From my experience, student veterans are indeed special cases, in the best and yet most challenging senses of that phrase.

Content versus Student Learning Outcomes

Right before the current semester began, I decided to change the book to one hopefully less psychologically immediate for former service members. I chose What Terrorists Want by Louise Richardson, which explores the profiles and motives of terrorists from a perspective Richardson intends to be apolitical. However, as a result, I have had to lose a significant part of the focus on veterans’ issues, and now we only touch on PTSD and veterans’ adjustment issues as they relate to our other topics. Currently, I divide the eighteen week semester into five units, each with a topic the readings and essay assignment draw on, the other four of which are: 1) the fairness of the all volunteer force (should the draft be reinstated?), 2) the ethics and effectiveness of private military contractors (should the military continue using them?), 3) the justness of the ban on women in combat (needs to be altered now that the ban has ended), and 4) a research question students design themselves on any topic as long as it is connected to the military or veterans in some way. Without Glantz’s book, the challenges facing veterans are only mentioned tangentially in the other units—PTSD comes up with women in combat and the draft (a consequence of a small pool of military personnel is repeated redeployment, which increases PTSD rates). The issue of high unemployment rates for veterans is relevant to private military contractors, which often hire former service members at good salaries. Even so, I have found that the veteran focus of the course gets buried, and I think civilians need to know more about their travails. Likewise, I feel strongly that veterans might benefit from understanding the bigger picture of what they are going through.

Considerations like these, however, threaten to distract from the core focus of a composition course. According to Stanley Fish, any “theme” will subsume the actual purpose of a writing course—teaching writing. Indeed, CCSF instructors are required to list the student learning outcomes of a course in the syllabus, so after the nine department-approved objectives about reading, writing, and research skills, I added a content-related one: “understand and write about some of the issues facing veterans and military personnel.” As a department, we agree that composition skills take precedence over the content of the readings. Because of the intensity of the subject matter and the lack of awareness of many of the civilian students, I do spend a significant amount of class time discussing background information, much of which I try to elicit from the veteran students in the class.

I have found that encouraging veterans to contribute their own expertise to class discussions seems to help them feel more relevant to academic life. Student veterans often report having their experiences overlooked, undervalued, or unappreciated by civilian society, and including their expertise in class discussions is one way to honor their commitment. As one vet told me, “I felt like I had street cred in your class.” Veterans often bring other benefits to classes as well. One night I was complaining to my wife about yet another plagiarism case in one of my composition classes. “I bet it wasn’t a vet,” she said. I thought about it, and then checked my records for the semesters since I consciously met my first student veteran—sure enough, I had identified no plagiarism in the work of any veterans. Of course, this is anecdotal information, and surely many plagiarists are clever enough to avoid detection, but I have a hunch there is something to this finding. Veterans have other self-defeating tendencies—perhaps first among them is the inability to get started writing essays—but outright dishonesty probably is not one of them. I have had many veterans fall into the category of students I call the “Bartlebys”—they show up for every class but prefer not to turn in any of the essays. Veterans who were enlisted personnel, by definition, chose to delay college. For some, this may have been because they found academic work challenging or intimidating. A few of my students seemed to be looking for proof that college is not right for them. Many have told me outside of class that they were also dealing with PTSD, TBI, back problems, marital issues, sleeplessness, unemployment, and general confusion about their roles in society. Some were contemplating reenlisting. (An Army vet told me “I’m just in school to kill time until North Korea does something stupid enough to allow me to fight them.”) Not surprisingly, writing an argumentative essay about the risks and benefits of conscription might not rank highly on the to-do list of some of these young people. On the other hand, a recent report conducted by the Student Veterans of America (SVA) found that “approximately two-thirds (68%) of veterans” report that they have “completed their training, or received the primary degree or certificate for which they were enrolled and receiving VA Educational benefits” (Cate 3), suggesting that most student veterans do persist in their studies.

As for the civilian students, many who indicated in post-semester surveys that they were lukewarm about the theme at the start of class or felt handicapped by lack of prior knowledge of military issues and culture said they enjoyed finding a topic for the research essay that related to their intended majors. One, a fashion design student, wrote about the innovations in functionality of American military uniforms since the Revolutionary War. Future doctors and nurses often write about advances in field medicine. One particularly memorable essay focused on the tension between the Hippocratic Oath and military policies about not treating civilian casualties, and another focused on the need for more physical therapists in the Army and Marines. Military sexual trauma (MST) has been a popular topic among women students. A civilian who planned to major in civil engineering wrote about the history and future of the Army Corps of Engineers, which was unknown to him before the class. These essays must cite ten sources—at least three of which are from military, government, or academic publications—so they fulfill the research-focused outcomes for 1A, but I have found they also allow the students to relate to military life in ways they are perhaps more comfortable with. Veterans have chosen a wide variety of topics, but they tend to fall into two types. Either 1) they favor narrow investigations into military policies that relate to their particular branch or MOS (e.g., why the Army changed its standard-issue handgun) or history (e.g., how the Marines became the most effective branch at urban combat, a controversial claim for the other veterans in the class) or 2) they explore bigger picture political issues that perhaps allow them to contextualize their own experiences in the service. One Navy veteran argued that the military’s interaction with the media has been undermining its tactical effectiveness in the current conflicts. An Army veteran assessed the probability of a “homegrown” terrorist threat and concluded that it was being exaggerated by the Homeland Security Department in order to expand its resources to the detriment of the military. Another chose and abandoned multiple topics because each, he said, triggered his PTSD symptoms. When he finally settled on a research question (will the conflict in Libya turn into the next Iraq war?), he subsequently disappeared from class for a week. Later he told me that when SEAL Team 6 finally killed Osama Bin Laden, he went on a celebratory outing to a bar that turned into a five-day drinking binge that landed him in the psychiatric ward at the VA hospital. Such disappearances from class are not uncommon for student veterans in any college course—whether the course is focused on military and veteran issues or not.

I also suggest that instructors build flexibility into their attendance policies—many recently enlisted personnel have extensive duties as reservists, including being on-base for five or six days in a row. One student had to fly to San Diego to sign a single form. For a student veteran to succeed in a college class, the professor might have to be more lenient than the United States military. I do require reservists to provide documentation for each absence—one student, who deployed to the Philippines to track terrorist groups in the middle of the semester, also missed many other days he could not account for due to military obligations.

Does every institution of higher learning need a composition course for veterans? Probably not. But colleges and universities are being inundated with this unique demographic and are struggling to respond to it (Rumann and Hamrick). Making room for these students, some of whom were on the battlefield just months or even weeks before arriving on campus, will require modifying existing approaches. My own policies have gotten less rigid as a well-meaning veteran finds himself or herself in a situation I had never seen another student get into. Dropping a veteran from the class roster for absences might mean he or she will not get the GI Bill benefits needed to survive, and yet the president of the Veterans’ Alliance told me “more than half the guys at City College I’ve met are here for the money and are not working toward a four-year degree” (an explicit requirement of the GI Bill). I continue to look for this balance between accommodating individual needs and maintaining the sort of rigorous expectations each veteran must have met to a large extent during his or her enlistment (by definition, students on the GI Bill successfully completed at least a substantive portion of their military obligations). Of course, I also began to see more that my civilian students, many of whom are from economically or academically disadvantaged backgrounds, struggle with obstacles that I will never know about. Community college instructors never seem to stop moving back and forth on the continuum of permissive and strict.

In the years since I created the themed English 1A course and faculty members have come to know that my wife works in the VA clinic on campus, many have asked me about problems student veterans are having in their own classes. I try to give general advice based on as few oversimplifications as possible and urge them to direct specific questions about certain perceived symptoms to the clinic. I have noticed a tendency in many well-meaning faculty members and support staff to see all of an individual veteran’s behaviors through the lens of PTSD and other possibly combat-related issues. For example, in an English department meeting, a VA academic counselor presented a thumbnail sketch of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, after which one instructor said she was going to pull aside a student to discuss his PTSD, although he had never mentioned it. Certainly this sort of outreach may have benefited that student at that moment, but most likely it would have been unwelcome, counterproductive, and a violation of the college’s academic code of conduct. Other professors have become frustrated when they have brought a student to the VA clinic and then heard nothing from the social workers and psychiatrists afterward. What they may not realize is that patient privacy is vigorously protected by the VA, a policy that often clashes with the usual openness valued in academic institutions. As many colleges and universities are struggling to accommodate the influx of student veterans, I think more liaisons (as I have unofficially become) between faculty, veteran groups, disabled students services, and student health services are warranted. The more official these positions become the better, because incorrect information or lack of awareness can have serious consequences—City College has lost at least two student veterans to suicide in the last three years. My call for more official outreach should not be construed as believing that professors should act as social workers. Such overstepping of professional boundaries can cause confusion and may also alienate veterans, who value self-reliance. My point is that faculty members need to be aware of resources they can query and refer students to because I have found that most faculty do not know where to look for such information. Sometimes student health services can help, but frequently the nearest VA clinic or Veterans Center can provide the most pertinent direction. At CCSF, Swords to Ploughshares and other federally-funded veterans’ service organizations have been coming to campus to train faculty about these issues.

When instructors reach out to me as a resource, I tell them that the veterans in their classes are largely just like any other students, but there are certain actions they can take to make their veteran students feel more comfortable. Developing this military-themed English 1A course allowed me to see what vets often do when in groups—sit together, sit in either the last row or the first row (allowing clearer observation of the room), develop relationships of camaraderie—and also to see how frequently an individual vet will not fit these patterns. A few students I have met at Veterans’ Alliance events told me the last thing they would do is take a class about the military they were so happy to leave; many choose not to self-identify as a veteran inside the classroom or even to other vets outside it. But in general, student veterans tend to appreciate an orderly classroom, with expectations clearly laid out in syllabi, and instructors who maintain some control over the behavior of students. They particularly resent students who disrespect the teacher and teachers who disrespect the military or talk flippantly about military values or present their opinions about the military as if they are facts. I have heard that students in the Veterans’ Lounge swap names of professors to avoid for perceived antimilitary bias; I have also been told by a few student veterans who have transferred to four-year universities that much of what made them bristle when they were fresh from their service now barely irritates them. At one meeting of faculty who wanted to work more closely with vets, it was suggested that the group make signs for professors to put up in their offices that identified them as vet-friendly, similar to ones put out by the Queer Resource Center, or place a special symbol in the class schedule. I opposed this for seeming to imply that those without the marking were by default anti-veteran, and for the way it turned a personal position into bumper-sticker politics. I also recommended not getting known as “the professor who is cool to vets” either, as this can have unintended consequences as well.

Build it and Don’t Fret Over How Many Come

Veteran and civilian students, from what I can tell from my anecdotal experience with their work, have essentially the same needs as writers. Maybe the vets have gone for longer stretches without writing an academic paper, but maybe not. Some can take college courses during enlistment, and, of course, many civilians have long gaps in their own writing careers. I do think more research is needed into what sort of writing the military requires and allows of its enlisted personnel (active duty members in some situations are not allowed to blog, for instance) and how these rhetorical expectations influence their later understanding of writing for college courses. But in advising other composition teachers or program administrators wanting to design a similar course, I would suggest keeping in mind that the help student veterans most need from us is to make them competent academic writers. Thankfully, this is the help we are most qualified to provide. Other considerations are important, but not mission critical, to use a military term.

As such, instructors will do best to design such a course if they are genuinely interested in military topics. First and foremost, I wanted to teach a class for student veterans, but once I got my proposal approved, I had only the vaguest sense of what we would study. Every professor knows that inviting students to spend a semester reading and researching topics of the professor’s choosing often leads to unintended consequences, enlivening some minds while closing down others. If the person standing in front of the class is less than certain why the topic at hand is important for everyone in the room, this lack of enthusiasm will surely become contagious. I have grown to love the big questions of “what do citizens owe to their government?” and “should a profit motive change how we think about those who fight?” Prior expertise is not required or even advised, as the questioning and reflection an instructor does in the classroom and in written feedback is an ideal model for students.

I frequently remind myself that my primary goal in picking the topics is not maximum audience acceptance. Rather, it is to create a space broad enough for students with a wide range of experiences and predilections to write essays that engage and challenge them and are informed by careful research. In the future, I also want to base less of my own satisfaction on how many vets I manage to add to my roster at the start of the semester. Retaining those who do enroll is another matter, and I feel compelled to extend myself to make the class work for individual veterans once they are showing up for it. Universities, where the requirement of open enrollment that community colleges must follow usually does not pertain, may have opportunities to design courses that are vets-only. I encourage this, but I also believe the mixed classroom has potential for helping bridge the civilian-military gap that many critics have observed.


Appendix 1

English 1A

University Reading and Composition with a Focus on Veterans’ and Military Issues

Spring 2013

Instructor: Darren Keast

Required Texts and Materials
  1. What Terrorists Want, Louise Richardson
  2. United We Serve, E.J. Dionne
  3. Women in Combat, Lorry Fenner and Marie deYoung
  4. Eng 1A Course Reader, PDF file (you will need to print this out and bring to class each day)
  5. A notebook for taking notes
Course Objectives
  1. Compose research-based essays engaging with multiple sources

  2. Write both in-class and out-of-class essays that respond to class readings, discussion, and research

  3. Analyze university level readings and make connections between abstract ideas

  4. Analyze strengths and weaknesses in assumptions and support

  5. Evaluate logical reasoning of written arguments

  6. Independently synthesize multiple, often competing, abstract ideas in reading, writing, and discussion

  7. Formulate ideas using complex organizational methods rather than a basic listing structure, supporting, unifying, and interweaving ideas throughout an essay

  8. Choose appropriate rhetorical strategies when composing and revising sentences

  9. Integrate sources using MLA style documentation

  10. Understand and write about some of the issues facing veterans and military personnel

Course Guidelines
  1. If you are confused about anything in class or the readings, would like to ask questions about writing in general, or want help with an essay, please visit me during office hours or email me (phone is generally not good for me). Note that I might take a day or two to return an email and I do not check email regularly over the weekend.

  2. Some students in this class will be veterans with lots of knowledge about military life; some will be civilians with knowledge in other areas. Please respect the experiences of those on either side and do not disparage the decision of others to serve or not serve. If you have military knowledge, feel free to explain something that civilians might not understand, and if you are a civilian, please ask a question of the veterans if you are not familiar with something.

  3. This course is designed as a seminar. Therefore, being in class is foundational for your success, which is why I expect 100% attendance. I do realize that emergencies arise, so you are allowed to miss six class meetings without penalty, which is the college’s attendance policy. But if you miss more than that I will drop you from the course. The only absences that will be excused are appointments given by the government (military obligations, VA appointments, immigration hearings, court dates, etc). Please bring documentation after the missed class. Attendance incentive: Any student with a passing grade and perfect attendance at the end of the semester does not have to take the final exam.If you do miss class, you can ask a classmate what you missed (do not email me):

    Name:           Email:           Phone:

    Name:           Email:           Phone:

  4. Please do not be late to class—it is distracting and disrespectful, and quizzes are given at the start of class. If you are late three times, I will mark you as absent. Also, if you are more than fifteen minutes late, I will mark you absent, as I will if you leave class early. Please let me know after class if you arrived late so you will not be marked absent.

  5. All homework and drafts of essays must be typed to earn credit. I accept late homework only one class meeting late for half credit.

  6. Essays are due at the beginning of class—essays turned in after will be considered late. I accept one late essay during the semester, without penalty to your grade, with the Late Essay Coupon (on page 3). This coupon allows you an extra week to work on the essay, and please note that you cannot use it on the first essay. If you turn in a late paper after you used the coupon, it will be given half credit (an ‘F’ but better than a zero) if it is adequate or a ‘D’ if it is strong. All essays must be submitted, in order, to pass the class. If you cannot make it to class on the due date of an essay or your printer is malfunctioning, email me a Word file of your essay. Bring a hardcopy to the following class meeting.

  7. Keep all devices that connect to the Internet off while in class. You are not learning when you are staring at your phone.

  8. The only make-up exams will be for those you schedule with me before the test time.

  9. English 1A has a distance learning option, which is an additional unit of work that you do outside of class. You can see a writing or reading tutor, work in an English computer lab, or use the online reading improvement software Reading Plus from home. I will give more detailed information about this later.

  10. English 1A also has a separate requirement that you complete five hours of library research skills training. To do so, you will attend one in-class session with a librarian and complete two workshops on your own, either in the library or online. Completing these workshops is required to receive a passing grade in English 1A and also fulfills the library research requirement for the CSU system, so save your proof of attendance.

  11. I realize that not everyone clearly understands what constitutes plagiarism, so we will spend time learning what it entails. The simplest definition is taking the ideas and/or words of someone else and misrepresenting them as your own. If you plagiarize once, you will receive an ‘F’ for the assignment; if you plagiarize again, you will receive an ‘F’ for the course and will be reported to the Dean.

  12. Please let me know at the beginning of the semester if you have a documented learning disability.


Essays: 75%

Essay 1: 5%

Essay 2: 10%

Essay 3: 15%

Essay 4: 20%

Essay 5: 25%

Midterm: 10%

Final: 10%

Homework/qizzes: 5%

(Return to text.)

Appendix 2

Email I sent to veteran students via the Dean of Student Services

Subject: English 1A class about veterans' issues

Body: This fall semester, the English department will be offering a 1A class that focuses on military and veterans' issues. Like other English classes required for graduation, it will teach writing skills but will do so with reading and writing topics relevant to the military experience. The intent is not to engage in political debate or explore the justness of current conflicts. While the class is open to all students, the instructor is hoping as many vets enroll as possible.

(Return to text.)

Works Cited

Associated Press. San Francisco Mulls Military Recruiting Ban. Fox News. July 12, 2005. Web.

California’s War Dead. Los Angeles Times. N.d. Web. December 1, 2012.

Cate, Chris Andrew. Exploring Student Veterans’ Post-Secondary Completion Rates with Two National Surveys. Washington, D.C.: Student Veterans of America, 2013. Web.

Fish, Stanley. What Should Colleges Teach? New York Times. August 24, 2009. Web. December 1, 2012.

Fisher, Douglas. Rural Areas Losing more Soldiers in Iraq. Contra Cost Times. March 17, 2008.

Griffin, Don Q. Preliminary Report on the Student Achievement Gap and Social Equity Report. 2009. PDF file.

McCaslin, Shannon et al. Overcoming Barriers to Care for Returning Veterans: Expanding Services to the College Campus (under review). San Francisco Veterans Affairs, November, 2012.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill. Department of Veterans Affairs. N.d. Web.

Romano, Robert. Veterans Resource Center Holds Grand Opening. The Guardsman. NP. October 27, 2010. Web.

Rumann, Cory B., and Florence A. Hamrick. Supporting Student Veterans in Transition. New Directions for Student Services. No. 126, Summer 2009. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Web.

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