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Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

Reacting Responsibly to Veterans in the Writing Classroom: An Interview with Marilyn Valentino

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Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson

Abstract: In this interview, former CCCC Chair Marilyn Valentino expands upon her call to action at the 2010 CCCC, when she drew attention to the “ethical obligation” college writing professionals have to “react responsibly” to veterans in our classrooms and asked, “How can we build relationships, connect one-to-one, to help all students more fully invest in writing?” During this discussion, she focuses in particular on what role WPAs have in relation to student veterans as a demographic.

Marilyn Valentino is an Emeritus Professor of English and Oral Communication at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Elyria, Ohio, where she established both the Writing Center and the Learning Center and launched the Center for Teaching Excellence. An award-winning educator herself, Marilyn is the recipient of two National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) faculty awards, the TYCA-Midwest “Unsung Heroes” award, and two LCCC Teacher Excellence Awards. As an advocate of active engagement in the profession, Marilyn has taken on many leadership roles, including Chair of CCCC, Chair of TYCA, President of the Ohio Association of Two-Year Colleges, and service on the CCCC College Forum Committee, the NCTE Executive Committee, and the NCTE Resolutions Committee. She is co-author of Guidelines for the Preparation of English Faculty in Two-Year Colleges. Other publications include Responding When a Life Depends on It, the TETYC 1997 article of the year, Interpreting Teachers’ Responses in the EC Writing Centers Journal, Joining TYCA at the NCTE Table: Our Roles as Guests, Speakers, Writers, and Advocates in the English Journal, and Serving Those Who Have Served: Preparing for Student Veterans in Our Writing Programs, Classes, and Writing Centers in the WPA Journal. We interviewed Marilyn after she had presented on this topic at the 2012 WPA Conference in Albuquerque.

Hart and Thompson (HT): In 2010, as head of CCCC, you stated in your Chair’s Address that college writing professionals “have an ethical obligation to react responsibly” to veterans in the classroom. What led you to make that call to action?

Marilyn Valentino (MV): Part of our job is to make sure that we have the right environment, an environment conducive to writing. That’s probably one of the hardest things to have because people fear writing and people often work in groups and talk about intimate matters when they’re writing. So if [student veterans] are invisible to us, or if we’re not aware that we have veterans in our classroom, we’re likely to make an uncomfortable or even hostile environment for these students. Beside patriotic reasons—we should serve those who served us—there are also pedagogical reasons. The worst thing would be for these students to drop out. Or, they might just tune out. So I thought it was important for teachers at this point to be mindful, just to be aware, so that they don’t do more harm. That was my main concern, more than anything else. At the WPA Conference this summer, I was surprised at the number of people who said that they’d never even thought of veterans. So, it’s just necessary to create awareness.

Now, the ethical obligation, besides our sense of doing the best for everyone, is that sometimes teachers may say something that puts a particular person [such as a veteran] in an uncomfortable position. They may have some kind of video that’s not appropriate, or engage in some kind of discussion that’s inappropriate, and so, being aware, as in any kind of minority situation—race or gender—becoming aware of veterans is something I think is a must for 2013.

HT: As a featured speaker at the 2012 WPA Conference, you were invited to speak on veterans’ issues. Do you view that invitation as recognition by the profession-at-large of veterans as an important student demographic?

MV: Honestly, I have to tell you that they just wanted me. And not because it was me, necessarily, but because of my position as CCCC’s past chair. So I chose this topic [of veterans]. I was offered the choice of discussing what it’s like to be a community college professor, but I decided to say something that people really might not have been aware of. When I was in front of people talking, it was quiet—even during some jokes I made. They were taking notes. The feeling was, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even realize this. I have some work to do.” People afterward came up to me saying, “Thank you for your references. We need to read these books on veterans. We need to really educate ourselves because we’ve kind of ignored it, or put it on the back burner.” They’re still teaching The Things They Carried, but I said, “Students today don’t even want the Vietnam stuff. That’s over. We’re into a new age.” [Many individuals] came up to me after the speech or during the conference who were saying, “Thank you so much. I had a veteran in my class, but I wasn’t really sure what I should do, and really, I have an obligation as a WPA person to educate other faculty about this.” And that really came from you, Alexis and Roger. I was just putting forward your advice that as WPAs we really have to have workshops for teachers to just make them aware of what they can’t do and also to put away stereotypes. The two videos I showed of veterans from my school really demonstrated that. They were just guys talking, and they were fine, and they gave advice to teachers about what to do and what not to do.

HT: That must have been particularly powerful coming from the veterans themselves. Do you see WPAs having a different obligation to veterans than classroom teachers?

MV: Well, I think they have a greater obligation, a more campus-wide obligation. I gave them six decisions, and I told them these are six decisions based upon your campus and what environment you have and what your position is. You know, some WPAs don’t have much power. So, I said the first decision is that you might offer extracurricular writing experiences for your student veterans. And I gave models of that. The other decision, too, within their power is whether or not to offer dedicated writing classes for veterans, cohort classes, or hybrid classes. I gave some advantages and disadvantages of each and said, “That’s your decision, but here are some models from different universities, and you can get in touch with them.” A third decision would be talking to professors in workshops about assigning readings and essays on war. “Do you do that? If you choose to do that, how do you handle it?” I said that [through workshopping], you could have some kind of forewarning, some experience or understanding with what could pop up (but might not necessarily pop up) because you just never know. Another decision [I discussed] was assigning personal essays on war experience. I asked WPAs, “Do you assign personal essays? And if you do, what might you expect from veteran students?” And then, finally, [I told them they need to make] decisions, even within those workshops, about comments [on student writing]. What kind of comments are appropriate or not, what comments are worthless, when you deal with personal experiences? I talked about preparing to be resources and mentors for faculty by planning programmatic changes to assignments and courses, and [I also discussed WPAs’] responsibility for preparing faculty and tutors and for working with disability services, counselors, and, if there is one, the veterans’ office. I told them WPAs should know whether there is a vets’ office on campus, who’s the point of contact, how many veterans are on campus—those are things they should know.

HT: Do you think this is an obligation for all WPAs or do some WPAs have stronger obligations than others?

MV: Well, I would think that most WPAs would probably agree that the first responsibility they have is to be more aware themselves. [First they need] to go get the resources, to read the journals. I mentioned the forthcoming anthology Generation Vet, the recommendations that will be coming out of the CCCC Committee [on student veterans]; I mentioned your study. So their job is to do that. I also said that they’re lucky being in CCCC because we’re going to have some kind of “best practices” as guidelines for them. I think they’re saying to themselves, “OK, now that I realize I should be aware, where do I go for help?” It really depends on each WPA, and how many other obligations they have. Even so, they can make a point to have that statement [forthcoming from the CCCC Task Force on Student Veterans]—when it comes out—to have that statement on their desks as a resource. And I told them that if they do nothing else, they should read The Good Soldiers by Finkel. To at least be educated somewhat about what this war is like compared to Vietnam.

HT: Do you have a sense about any institutional structures or disciplinary structures that might create barriers to broader discussions about veterans across campuses or throughout the academy?

MV: By disciplinary structures, do you mean if there should be an incident in a classroom or something?

HT: No, we mean academic disciplines. So does Student Services, for example, say, “Well, we should really be the folks on campus who are discussing veterans and conducting training on student veterans.” Or is there any dissonance between Veterans’ Services staff who are not necessarily academics themselves and academics—any barriers to communication based on training and culture, the academic culture and the military culture, for example?

MV: I said there were two things that I thought might be a problem. Some people might have texts or articles or books that talk about war. There might be essays or discussions about war in classrooms, and teachers might give their own opinions about things. So that can be awkward—especially when there’s disagreement. Yet, I find that when I talk to veterans they have kind of a—I don’t know if they’re taught this when they’re in the service—but they often say, “Well, everyone has a right to their own opinion.” That’s coming out from somewhere; they’ve learned that phrase somewhere. So, even if they disagree, they tend to fall back on that phrase, “Well, everyone has a right to their own opinion. And that’s OK. That’s why this is America.”

HT: A kind of “this is what we fight to preserve” attitude?

MV: Yeah, So, on my campus at least, we haven’t had an incident or any problems on campus. I talked about [looking carefully at] syllabi [and] about different aspects of universal design being a help. [I shared a story about] one female veteran who said that she saw on the syllabus that the teacher was going to be showing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so she dropped out of that class and added another class right away when she saw the syllabus the first day because she knew that the loud noises and depictions of violence would be triggers for her. She didn’t have a problem with the teacher showing the film; [she said] he had a right to teach the class the way he wanted to. She was just glad he had the information on the syllabus so that she could decide to switch sections. That’s a good thing, to just put everything on the syllabus, so that students are aware ahead of time and there are no surprises.

HT: From your perspective, even within the larger writing community, do you sense any barriers or resistance to trying to understand or engage with veterans as a distinct student population? Or can you imagine any barriers or problems that might arise within the CCCC community or among the larger community of teachers of writing?

MV: No, I didn’t hear anything like, “Oh, not another group we have to think of, not another thing we have to do.” I didn’t hear that kind of thing. I’m thinking that some teachers might be a bit too excited and might get into [the veteran students’] business too much. So I talked [at WPA] about respecting people’s privacy and things you don’t want to do: you don’t want to out someone in class, you don’t want to treat someone like the representative of everyone in the military, you don’t want to put a veteran on the spot and expect them to give “the military perspective” in class. So I did mention the things you don’t want to do. I recommended instead that teachers should try to talk to veterans individually about their military experiences outside of class. And that’s when you should ask them, “Is there anything I can do? What might be helpful to you?” I urged [audience members] to be understanding when people have VA appointments and they have to miss class. Sometimes teachers may not realize how important [those appointments] are and may fall back on the response that, “Well, this is my attendance policy.” Sometimes non-veteran teachers seem to think that veteran students prefer veterans as teachers, or that they prefer men as teachers. But [in my experience], veterans don’t care. Veterans just want to be treated fairly, and that’s all. I suggested talking to student veterans after class, just informally. I said it’s better to avoid saying things like, “Thank you for your service,” because many veterans tend to see that as an empty salute. I said that I tend to ask questions such as, “Where did you serve?” “Do you have a family at home?” and then we may just talk about their family for another hour, because the family’s number one and that’s something positive to focus on.

HT: So you didn’t get any sense that WPAs or writing teachers were saying, “Well, this is just the latest ‘boutique’ student group; this is just the latest ‘minority fad.’ It’s going to run its course, so why should I invest time and energy and training on student veterans when next week/month/year I’m going to be told there’s some other student demographic I’m supposed to be highlighting?”

MV: Oh, no. Well, of course, no one said that to me! I didn’t hear that. I got the sense that mostly they hadn’t thought about it. Most people felt as if they did have a responsibility. They said, “Well, now that I’ve been made aware of this, I need to take action.” You know, when you give them the numbers, when you said it’s not just the veterans, it’s the veterans’ children, the veterans’ parents who are in the room, they listen. And it’s not just U.S. military veterans. There are refugees who are coming to many campuses who have also had war trauma. And so I brought that out a little bit, too, because a lot of campuses have refugees from Burma and other countries. So, universal design would help for a number of reasons. So I think that they were surprised by the numbers—that there were so many students affected by war.

Actually, some people said they didn’t think the four-year colleges would get many veterans. I said, well, you know, with this Yellow Ribbon Program, it’s not just a community college thing. Four-year schools and private colleges are going to get veterans coming home and showing up on their campuses. And so I asked again, “Are you prepared?” And I think they really weren’t. They thought maybe it would be one or two, not dozens or more.

HT: So other than perhaps slightly less awareness of the numbers of veteran students on the part of four-year colleges, did you get any sense of difference in the obligations of the two-year colleges who may more often get veterans who have just recently discharged from the service and the four-year colleges who may be getting more veterans who are transferring from two-year colleges?

MV: Well, someone who gets a veteran as a freshman, no matter what kind of school they’re at, they have more responsibilities either because some of the veteran students at that level may have a real need to brush up their skills, they may need more developmental work, or they’re trying to balance adjusting to home life and getting reacquainted with their families—it’s that first entry point, no matter whether that’s in a two-year college or a four-year college. Four-year colleges may have it easier if they’re getting transfer students, because those veteran students are more likely to have already adapted to college life—and they have succeeded. But it’s also the case that community college teachers are more likely to have experience with other students who may be experiencing difficulties with balancing home life, school life, working, and everything else. I could tell you lots of stories about non-veteran students, but that would take too long! I will tell you about one veteran student though. He came in to my class, he said right away that he was a Marine, and he said he was very proud of it, but then he missed class. He missed a test, and then he shows up and he has a broken arm—a full cast. When I asked him what happened, he said, “Well, I was in a bar fight. My wife got mad at me.” So, keeping in mind that I should try to be understanding and flexible, I allowed him to take the test another time, and he made it through, but he had all these other things that he was going through, and many of them probably had nothing to do with the fact that he was a veteran, but it’s still a real adjustment. He’s got a lot of responsibilities he didn’t have before. When he was in the service, he was focused on the mission. But now, he’s got his kids to worry about, his wife is mad at him, he’s got all these classes. So I think once [student veterans] get used to that [by the time they transfer to the four-year college], they’re better able to focus. And, of course, I’ve had other veteran students who are quite well-adjusted and may be some of the best students in the class and may be very, very mature. I’m thinking of one student veteran like this in particular who was a part-time teacher in the Police Academy at the same time as he was trying to get his college degree—and the other students in the class never knew he was a vet. Yet he was thankful that I stopped by after class and said, “Is there anything you need? Let me know ahead of time if you have any appointments coming up this term.” You know, he was thankful.

HT: You mentioned that the other students in the class weren’t aware that this student was a veteran. So is that something he disclosed to you privately?

MV: Yes. He had mentioned that he was a part-time teacher on his self-information sheet. So we talked two or three times after class for a couple of minutes, and then he mentioned to me that he was a veteran. The other student [the Marine], he came up to me right away and said he was.

HT: So, in your personal experience, have more of the student veterans self-identified publicly, or have they chosen not to share their veteran status with their classmates?

MV: I’ve been in classes where students never say anything. I had one student who didn’t say anything until the last day of class when someone was giving a presentation on food, and this student all of a sudden spoke up and said, “You think that’s bad? I had to have food rations when I was in Iraq.” He didn’t mention it until the very last day, and then “poof.” I think it was because he knew that he was leaving, and he was younger. The older students—and I’m talking about 30-year-olds, 30+--seem to be much more well-adjusted just because they’re older, and they say things like, “We realize young kids may say stupid things about the war because they just don’t know due to their ignorance.” But [these older student veterans] tend to be very mature; the ones I’ve had in class. I had an older student veteran in one class who chose to read a book about Bosnia, and I explained to him that it was a book about war and that there were sections that were pretty graphic, and I told him that he had a lot of other choices, but he wanted to read it. He came back to me and said, “I’ve never read a book before cover-to-cover. This was really powerful.” So, each person is different, and we don’t know ahead of time who [the student veterans] are. We had 300-350 veterans in our college [LCCC]; that would be about 5%. And I told people that’s about the percentage that they should expect—4-5%.

HT: Do you know, does your college track separately attrition rates, or GPA, or graduation rates of the veterans?

MV: I don’t know. I will be checking later. They do know who the vets are, but they really only help them with their finances. Students tell me they don’t know them really well. If they need counseling… I had this one student; I mentioned to him after he didn’t do really well on the first test, “I’m wondering if you might have a reading difficulty. Have you ever been tested on that?” And he said, “No.” So I said, “Well, you know, we have a special needs office on campus and they can test you and they can help you with that.” And he said, “Oh, well I didn’t know that.” And another student veteran said, “I’ll take you over there. I use it.” And he went over there, and he came back, and he was really happy. He got special accommodations for tests. So I think the special needs office helps the vets more than the vets’ office at my school. But there’s only one person in that office doing all the work.

HT: And the other thing to consider is that she is likely to only be aware of those veterans who are receiving benefits. There may be other veterans on campus who haven’t actually been to the veterans’ office because they aren’t using their GI Bill Benefits.

MV: That’s true, and I do sometimes see one veteran student helping out another after class.

HT: In our research, we’ve learned of some schools that have created formal student veteran mentoring programs, so that a student veteran who has been on the campus for a while will be paired up with an incoming veteran student in order to help that student navigate the peculiarities of that campus’s systems. They may also make recommendations about classes and/or professors.

MV: That might actually be better, I think, because those students could actually “talk the talk” with each other. They could feel more free to complain or something or admit that they’re not sure, whereas with an official of the college, they may not say that.

HT: What kind of initiatives would you like to see within the profession to support veteran students and their families? Are there specific things you’d like to see the discipline do?

MV: Well, research is the best way to start. Once we have the research, I’d advise WPAs to conduct faculty workshops. In fact, I’m doing one in two weeks. I’m keeping it really positive and calling itNew Approaches to Teaching Student Veterans in Your Classes. All of us can do things like that to kind of educate people, or, at least, I would say the best thing is having a group together that can have shared discussions/shared experiences. I don’t know how many people came up to me after the speech and said, “Oh, I had a vet in my classroom and I wasn’t really sure what to do,” so it’s good to have that discussion. You don’t necessarily even need to have answers, but I think the one thing we can do is to offer the opportunity for people to get together and share their experiences and have some resources. Having some “best practices” will be a great starting point for use in such workshops. This is where people can begin to talk about things like universal design. Some people know it; some people don’t. You can have reading groups if you want. I recommended that people go to the veterans’ SIG at CCCC. So our own discipline can educate ourselves and become a community of learners. I told people, I’m not an expert; I’m just a facilitator. I’m just the one who brings it up. So, I encouraged them to go to sessions at conferences, to go to the SIG, and ask questions of the people that know more than I do.

I just wanted to add that when you’re talking about it, there’s a delicate balance when talking about veterans as a group. It’s the same as when you’re talking about women as a group. It’s the same with men. Yes, we have special interests, but veterans are normal students as well. And yet, there are certain things that you should be aware of. Veterans are a special group, but you don’t want to assume they’re a “wounded warrior,” and you don’t want to make them invisible either.

Hart: Yes. And even my experience from the time when I was on active duty is so different from the experiences of these students who are coming back—especially those who have seen direct combat. I was close to combat, but never directly engaged. In fact, given the time period I served (1993-1999), I am not considered to be a veteran who served during an active period of war.

MV: It’s very complex, isn’t it?

Thompson: And that speaks again to the point we made earlier that there are going to be veterans in our classes who are not going to be “counted” by the registrar’s office or even visible to the veterans’ services office.

Hart: Likewise, if some institutions are considering veterans-only classes, they may need to be aware of the fact that the machinist who served on a submarine for his entire tour of duty and the medic who cared for Marines who were seriously wounded in a firefight or roadside bombing are going to have had very different experiences even though they are both young men who were enlisted in the United States Navy. There may be a tension there, and it’s a delicate balance.

MV: What do you two think about the number of books coming out from individual military members focused on the craziness they feel upon coming home—it’s kind of a real violent, negative focus.

Thompson: I don’t know exactly which books you’re referencing, but I do think there’s an impulse to categorize conveniently. So I think there’s a nice dichotomy between the hero and the villain. Even this news story that came out recently that a group of veterans had bonded together and were planning to kill Obama speaks to this and is not going to help the public vision of the veteran. What’s more is that such depictions tend to stereotype veterans as extremely conservative reactionaries. There’s no doubt a conservative culture in the military, but that kind of pigeonholing is not useful to us as writing teachers. Yet there is going to be a consumer’s market for that, so there’s going to continue to be those kinds of books coming out perpetuating such stereotypes.

Hart: And we’ve received a number of comments from teachers who admit their worry that they’ll get the “Rambo,” unbalanced, volatile veteran in their class, when our research suggests that’s going to be a very small percentage of the veteran students in our classrooms—particularly, as you said, in the four-year colleges where the student veterans are more likely to—and, of course, we have to be careful not to over-generalize—but those veterans are more likely to have had some success as students at the two-year colleges already and are more likely to have confidence that they’ll be able to continue that success at the four-year college. So this tendency among some academics to approach veterans with trepidation is something that we are working to overcome. At the same time, we don’t want to act as if we should have no concern about the mental health of veteran students, about the “signature wounds” of these wars: PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Yes, we need to be aware of these possibilities, but we also need to be cautious about assuming that every veteran is affected, or affected the same way, by those wounds.

Thompson: We’ve also got to listen to the researchers in those fields. We’ve got to listen to what the neuroscientists and psychologists are telling us about it. We can’t just hope that we understand. If we’re going to understand the veteran population, that’s got to be part of it. It can’t be situated just in writing studies.

Hart: I agree. For example, Paula Caplan, in her book When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, really urges readers not to over-psychologize veterans. Many of the things you said, Marilyn, about how you interact with individual student veterans in your classes, are exactly what she advocates: a willingness to listen and to listen non-judgmentally—to let veterans tell their stories without there being any sense that they have an obligation to do so or that they are going to be judged when they do so. So if the veteran wants to talk about his or her family and not his or her combat experience, let them.

MV: Well, one thing I did tell people is that veterans are used to a certain way of writing. You know, [they’re probably] used to having specific directions given to them or writing concrete, sequential texts, and then they get into academic writing where they have to do a thesis. It’s okay to give veterans a more prescribed assignment, more prescribed objectives to start with, and then eventually wean them away and move them toward something that’s more inductive. But be aware that veterans may benefit from more instruction up front. For example, I had a colleague who told me she was conferencing with a veteran and when she said to him, “Well, writing is revising, and you need to revise this thesis,” the veteran responded, “Well, why didn’t you tell me that up front? In the military, they give you an order and you execute it. Why do I have to go back and write this assignment again?” So, I told this colleague, “Well, first of all, next time you give an assignment to this student, you’re going to need to explain up front what you’re going to do and why and you can maybe give more specific directions to the student from the beginning.” Then, eventually, you can ask the student to make more decisions; you know, wean him away. But don’t be surprised if this is the initial reaction you get.

HT: And that can be considered a principle of universal design—being more explicit about assignment expectations can benefit many of the other students in the class as well, not just the veterans.

MV: Right, and I do think it’s really helpful to have models from particular types of universities and what kinds of initiatives they’re sponsoring because then people can just get on the phone and ask, “What would you recommend I do?” or maybe get a speaker (like you guys) to come to their school. That’s how things can often get traction—when they don’t have to start from the very beginning but have some models to look at.

HT: We can certainly say that it has been so rewarding and personally fulfilling to do this work and to meet folks like you and all the people who we’ve been able to connect with through this research, and to feel like we’re making a real difference in the lives of students and teachers.

MV: And with your research, and the CCCC SIG and Task Force, I think this subject is really beginning to gain momentum and it’s becoming a known entity. I’m just really happy that it’s moving in this direction. I think it’s something that people have wanted for a long time, and I think that it was finally just the right time.

Works Cited

Caplan, Paula. When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Finkel, David. The Good Soldiers. New York: Picador, 2009. Print.

Grasgreen, Allie. Veterans Only. Inside Higher Ed. 4 January 2012. Web.

Samet, Elizabeth. On War, Guilt and ‘Thank You for Your Service.’ 2 August 2011. Web.

Sander, Libby. Veterans Tell Elite Colleges: ‘We Belong.’ Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 January 2013. Web.

United States Department of Veteran Affairs. Benefits of the Yellow Ribbon Program. 15 March 2013. Web.

Valentino, Marilyn. Serving Those Who Have Served: Preparing for Student Veterans in Our Writing Programs, Classes, and Writing Centers. WPA 36.1 (Fall/Winter 2012): 164-178. Print.

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