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Composition Forum 42, Fall 2019

Service before Self: Military Leadership and Definitions of Service for Composition Studies

Laura J. Davies

Abstract: This article revisits the relationships among gender, service, and composition pedagogy through a qualitative study of active-duty military officers who teach first-year writing at the United States Air Force Academy, one of the five major U.S. national military service academies. The U.S. national military service academies are under-studied sites of writing; there is little published about the experiences of the active-duty officers who comprise a significant portion of the first-year writing teaching faculty at these institutions. Interviews with the officers about their first-year writing pedagogy are framed by an analysis of military leadership policy as well as scholarship on writing teacher development, feminist composition pedagogy theories, and critiques of the role of service in composition studies. This study describes the officers’ first-year writing pedagogy and argues that the experience of these officers, framed through the theories of military leadership and the military service ethos, introduces a new way to understand how the concept of service could operate in first-year writing pedagogy. The officers’ experiences also support arguments that service in composition classrooms is still problematically gendered: even within a military environment, female officers report that they have less freedom than their male colleagues to demonstrate an ethic of care towards their first-year writing students.

I ducked out of Fairchild Hall, a satchel filled with essays swinging at my hip. A loose and sudden rain poured down. Cadets, changed out of their blues and into their identical shorts and t-shirts, hurried down the Vandenberg Hall stairs, off to the Cadet Gym for intramurals. A trumpet fanfare blasted over the speakers, calling the entire United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) base to attention. It was 1630, the end of duty hours for the day. I was still getting used to that, to all of this: tripping over my conversions to military time, learning the ranks embroidered on my colleagues’ shoulders, doing a double-take when students addressed me as “ma’am.” It was September, five weeks into my first semester as one of the few “pure civilian” professors at USAFA (Laski 77). Unsure of my role here as a civilian and a newly minted Ph.D., I often caught myself looking around in startled awe at the precision and beauty of this place, nestled into the fir-covered foothills of the Rocky Mountains Front Range.

As the first scratchy notes of the recorded national anthem blared out, I realized I was the only one still dodging raindrops. All around me, cadets and officers stood ramrod straight and faced the lowering flag with a sharp salute, the rain soaking their shirts. The cars in front of Fairchild and Vandenberg were stopped in the middle of the road. A few wipers squeaked across windshields. I stopped walking and blinked away the rain. To my left was USAFA’s Core Values Ramp. Above this ramp hang steel letters that declare the Air Force’s three core values: “Integrity First. Service before Self. Excellence in All We Do.”

These phrases did not always flank this ramp, an iconic threshold where USAFA’s incoming cadets begin basic training on their June in-processing day. I saw these new cadets the next year, rushing off the buses, greeted with shrill whistles and shouted orders out in the blinding sun. That scene knotted my gut as I remembered when my little brother marched past me a decade earlier at the end of West Point’s in-processing day, his head shaved and his eyes fixed straight ahead. Prior to 2003, this ramp at USAFA was adorned with different words: “Bring Me Men.” Only after sexual assault scandals rocked USAFA in the early 2000s was “Bring Me Men” taken down, replaced with these statements of the institution’s core values. The decision to remove “Bring Me Men” was and still is contentious (Schifani). Public monuments such as this ramp are rhetorical and political arguments, and the difference between reverence and remembrance stay tangled up in claims appealing to warrants of heritage, inclusivity, misogyny, and political correctness. History is never lost, and this ramp, though the words were changed, represents for me an underlying tension surrounding issues of gender in the military and an essential identification with masculine notions of service and leadership that inform current norms, values, and practices that I saw and learned about in my time as a civilian professor at USAFA.

There, in the downpour, I studied these core values. My gaze stayed with the second: “Service before Self.” What a fraught and interesting phrase for a scholar of rhetoric and composition. This term, service, binds and complicates our disciplinary identity. A whole body of research has argued that the perception of teaching writing as service work has resulted in the field being “feminized” (Enos 61; Miller; Phelps; Schell Cost; Schell Gypsy). As Theresa Enos contended over twenty years ago, the discipline of rhetoric and composition suffers two-fold from “gender and disciplinary bias” and thus is “caught in the web of gendered experience that has led to the devaluation of the field as ‘women’s work.’” (9; 2). Bruce Horner’s materialist critique of composition studies expands Enos and others’ arguments by naming how the commodification of writing and composition’s location on the “margins” of the university, in part due to first-year writing’s position as a service or required general education course, contributes to problematic and gendered labor practices in the field (16). Horner and Min-Zhan Lu go on to describe the ways in which the required first-year writing course lead to a dichotomy between the terms “rhetoric” and “composition,” with the former connected to critique and theory and the latter associated with pedagogy and service (476-7). In both striking and subtle ways, the term service has shaped our field’s theories, research, pedagogies, policy statements, and administrative practices. This term service is powerful, and it rightly makes us uneasy. In the wider academy, critics have argued that service is anti-intellectual, feminized, devalued. Yet here, emblazoned in bold metal at the heart of the United States Air Force Academy, service is proclaimed, masculinized, valorized.

After the final notes of the anthem, I drove home on slick roads, mulling over that phrase, “Service before Self.” I’m still thinking about it, five years later. In my short time at USAFA, I studied the active-duty military writing instructors with whom I worked. The five major national military service academies—the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Naval Academy, the United States Military Academy, the United States Coast Guard Academy, the United States Merchant Marine Academy—are under-studied sites of writing within composition studies. There is little published research that investigates the first-year or writing across the curriculum programs at these institutions, such as histories, studies, or profiles of their program’s curricula, pedagogical philosophies, students, or faculty. As a writing program administrator and a scholar who researches writing teacher preparation and development, I wanted to address this gap in scholarship. Specifically, I was curious how my colleagues’ identities as Air Force officers might affect their pedagogy, including what they thought about first-year writing, how they approached teaching first-year writing, and how they were prepared to teach college-level writing. I investigated the space where their dual identities as “military officer” and “writing instructor” overlapped.

In my interviews with ten of these active-duty Air Force officers, the officers talked in depth about their responsibility toward their students. They kept coming back to the terms “service” and “duty” to explain their work as writing instructors. I had never before encountered the term “duty” in writing pedagogy theory, and the ways in which the officers spoke of their service in the writing classroom gave me pause. On one hand, how some frame military service conflicts with some of my values as a teacher, scholar, and administrator: there is a popular, albeit oversimplified, understanding of military service that depends on particular gendered, classist notions of chivalry, a pledge to obedience, and a commitment to protecting the nation-state through military might. However, a closer examination of the U.S. military doctrine that defines a military leader’s service responsibilities presents a more complex portrait of what military service entails. Service is a central, influential concept within the military. Both enlisted personnel and officers in the military are expected to subordinate their individual desires, needs, and goals in order to serve their unit’s larger mission. For officers, the mission requires that they attend to and provide for the needs of all people within their command. This implication, that military leaders have an ethical responsibility towards others, is important for understanding why the military officers at USAFA portrayed their teaching of first-year writing as a “service” and a “duty.” I heard, in their description of this “service,” echoes of some of the central principles inherent in the feminist and critical pedagogies central to many scholar-teachers in rhetoric and composition. The officers, by describing their work in the classroom as a form of military service, offer our field another way to see how this term—service—operates in first-year writing classrooms, first-year writing programs, and first-year writing pedagogy. The examples I give in this essay, of a first-year writing pedagogy grounded in the military’s framing of the term “service,” do not negate the disciplinary critiques of how the concept of service has operated historically and currently in civilian first-year writing classrooms. Indeed, as this study demonstrates, USAFA’s military context, coupled with the military’s demographics, history, and traditions, seems to further tangle the relationship among gender, service, and pedagogy in the first-year writing classroom.

This essay presents the results from a two-year study of how active-duty military officers at USAFA think about and enact the work of teaching first-year writing. I explain the study’s methods, analyze the data, and focus on the ways in which the military officers I interviewed used the concept of service to describe their teaching. I put this term in context with conceptions of service and leadership in the military as well as rhetoric and composition’s theories on service as it relates to first-year writing pedagogy. This study offers three important interventions in current conversations in the field of rhetoric and composition. First, the study gives insight into a first-year writing program at a national military service academy, an overlooked site of writing in the field. Second, the study complicates commonly-held assumptions about what military leadership, command, and service entails, naming unexpected theoretical resemblances between the military’s ethic of care and feminist composition pedagogy. Third, the study demonstrates that the work of teaching in a first-year writing program is still problematically gendered, even within a military environment, because the roles of commander and mentor, central leadership positions within military service, are more accessible to male officers.

Context and Methods

The faculty at USAFA, as well as the other major U.S. service academies, is comprised of both civilian and active-duty military instructors. At USAFA, approximately 30% of the faculty is civilian, which includes both retired officers and “pure civilians,” academics without any previous military experience (Keller et al 5; Laski). Although the military academies had periodically hosted civilians through sponsored “distinguished visiting professor” positions for decades, full-time civilian faculty like myself were first integrated at the service academies in the early 1990s. The goal of the Congressional directive to hire civilian faculty was to provide stability and consistency within the academies’ academic departments (Keller et al 1). On average, active-duty military faculty at USAFA have three years of teaching experience, as compared to civilian faculty at USAFA, who reported having an average of 13 years of teaching experience (31-32). The vast majority of the active-duty military instructors at USAFA are “rotational military faculty,” typically captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels who hold either masters or doctoral degrees (7-8). Many of these officers are sponsored by the Air Force to study full-time for their graduate degrees. In general, when they are sponsored by the Air Force for full-time graduate study, officers are given between 12 and 18 months to complete their master’s degrees and three years to complete their doctorate degrees (79). Because the Air Force pays for their tuition, these officers do not hold graduate teaching assistantships as they earn their graduate degrees (34). What this means for the military instructors teaching first-year writing is that very few take a composition pedagogy class or practicum that is typically part of graduate assistantships in English studies. Even though these officers were not formally trained in composition theory or pedagogy before they arrived at USAFA, they participated in ongoing professional development in first-year writing pedagogy once they began teaching.

By the end of my first year at USAFA, I took on the role of first-year writing program administrator. Most of these military instructors I worked with in USAFA’s first-year writing program were novice teachers with fewer than five years of teaching experience, held 4/4 teaching loads, and taught primarily USAFA’s required writing and literature classes. Of the 10 officers I interviewed, three have their PhD, one was ABD, and the remaining six have their master’s degrees. Almost all of the officers studied literature; only one officer I interviewed earned a graduate degree in rhetoric and composition. In my conversations with them about teaching first-year writing, I learned I was not the only one who felt like the newcomer at USAFA. I was a civilian at a prestigious military academy navigating the uncertain authority inherent in my position as a junior, untenured writing program administrator. For my military colleagues, though, it was the college classroom—in particular the college writing classroom—that was the strange place.

As the WPA, I was interested in the ways these officers brought their military experience into the first-year writing classroom and the connections they saw between being an officer and being a writing teacher. In Fall 2013, I worked with USAFA’s director of faculty research to develop a study that investigated these questions. What makes this study important for rhetoric and composition is that instead of being centered within a civilian context, as recent studies of veteran students and veteran writing are, this research takes place within the military, at a U.S. national service academy (Corley; Doe and Doe; Hart and Thompson; Langstraat and Doe; Valentino). My study was welcomed: the administration at USAFA is invested in improving how it prepares officers to teach, and in recent years, USAFA has expanded its new faculty orientation towards this end. My study uses in-depth qualitative interviewing, a well-recognized methodology in rhetoric and composition that has been used to research the preparation and development of new writing teachers (Charmaz and Belgrave; Chin; Reid, Estrem, and Belcheir). Over the course of 18 months, I interviewed 10 active-duty military instructors who had fewer than five years of teaching experience. I asked each instructor the same series of questions, including questions about how they were prepared to teach writing; what kinds of writing they did in their operational Air Force assignments; how they felt their operational Air Force experiences affect how they teach in the college classroom; the role of mentors in their development as teachers and as officers; and the relationships they see between their work as an Air Force military officer and as a writing teacher. I also asked them about the challenges they faced as they occupied both these identities. The interviews, which I conducted both face-to-face and on the phone, lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. I used a digital audio recorder to record each interview, and after transcribing the interviews myself, I sent the transcripts to the participants for fact checking. I used grounded theory methodology to systematically read and code the transcripts, analyze patterns emerging across the interview data, write conceptual memos, and verify those key concepts with the interview evidence (Glaser and Strauss). The idea of service, among others, emerged immanently from the data, and I analyzed these concepts through the lenses of composition history, feminist critiques of the teacher-caretaker role in the first-year writing classroom, government policies related to academic staffing at U.S. military academies, and theories of military leadership studied in U.S. military academies and officer development schools. For this essay, I focus on the connections between writing pedagogy and the military concept of service. My study extended over the tenure of two chairs in USAFA’s Department of English and Fine Arts, and both approved the research as the supervisors of the participating officers. I obtained IRB approval at USAFA for this study, and because I changed my institutional affiliation in the middle of the study, this study also went through the CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement) approval process, which is necessary with research collaborations between federal and non-federal entities.

The officers I interviewed were very concerned about confidentiality. In fact, one officer who fit the parameters of the study chose not to participate because she worried that her responses might be traced to her and impact her future military reviews and promotions. In order to protect the identities of the officers I interviewed, I assigned each person a pseudonym. To further increase the officers’ anonymity, I also chose to refer to officers as either “junior officers” (second lieutenants, first lieutenants, and captains) or “senior officers” (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) instead of by their specific military rank. I also removed specific deployment or assignment locations from the transcripts. Finally, because I conducted the 10 interviews over the course of three academic years, the identities of particular cohorts teaching in USAFA’s Department of English and Fine Arts are obscured.

In my conversations with them, the officers talked candidly about the complexity of their positions as both officers and novice writing teachers. The officers made strong correlations between the work of teaching and the military’s idea of service. They explained at length how their teaching is informed by their extensive military leadership training, which cultivated for many of them an ethic of care that values respect for differences, empathy, and personal relationships. The officers’ experiences as first-year writing teachers, grounded in military frame of service, demonstrate a different way the concept of service might operate in the first-year writing classroom and complicate our field’s gendered and much-critiqued portrait of the composition teacher as “caretaker.”

Military Definitions of “Selfless Service”

Service functions as a “god term” in the military, and military service—as opposed to just the military—is regarded as inherently honorable in popular American civilian culture. As Richard Weaver explains, a god term is a “rhetorical absolute…[a term] to which the very highest respect is paid” (212). God terms, such as Weaver’s example of “progress,” are “so sacrosanct” that people willingly sacrifice their well-being and even their lives for those concepts (214). Just as service weaves through the scholarship and identity of our field, service is also embedded in the language and core identity of the U.S. military. A member of the armed services does not work: she “serves” her country. A young enlisted recruit “enters the service.” To the man wearing his uniform at the airport gate, we say “thank you for your service.” The term service implies an obligation or a higher calling that comes with a kind of imperviousness that functions, in part, to insulate both civilians and those in the military from the horrors of war that are central to the military mission (Fleming).

Military leadership theories describe the ethos of a good officer as multifaceted, including characteristics such as flexibility, vision, and intellect. For the purposes of this study, though, I want to draw attention to the policy and theories that explore how service is defined as part of military leadership as well as the ethical obligation military officers have to those they lead. Military leadership theories and military command policy explain that in order to lead well, officers must cultivate a climate of trust and respect. That trust and respect is bound in multidirectional service: service to the commander, service to subordinates, service to the mission, service to country. Although military leaders have almost “complete” authority over the people that they lead, that authority should not give an officer carte blanche power: “With that authority goes the frightening responsibility to respect the dignity of individual subordinates” (Wakin 528). Military leaders must walk a fine line between asserting authority and acting with respect and care towards their subordinates. In order to find this line, Leon A. Edney and Henry G. Chiles argue that a military leadership must be founded on “a moral base, a set of ethical values” (59). This moral base develops in part from leaders accepting their legal and ethical responsibility towards the holistic wellbeing of every person within their command. In military circles, one of the most recited definitions of this attribute of command comes from LTG John M. Schofield, a Civil War Army general who served as the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy from 1876 to 1881. In an 1879 speech addressing the problem of hazing at West Point, Schofield critiques leadership based on intimidation. Rather, he encourages leaders to “[feel] the respect which is due to others,” maintaining that the Army fulfills its mission best when commanders treat their subordinates with dignity, respect, and care (qtd. in Phoenix). Air Force Chaplain and Lt. Col. Ken J. Stavrevsky names military leadership as a “vocation” and extends the definition of a military leader’s service to include spiritual responsibility (para. 22). The Air Force Core Value of “service before self,” Stavrevsky argues, stands on a foundation of love, not obligation. Stavrevsky explains that military leaders who put the needs of others over their own desires are doing so out of “sacrificial” and “genuine” love. (para. 21).

The U.S. Army identifies empathy as a key attribute of military leadership and service. Its definition of empathy, “the desire to care for and take care of Soldiers and of others,” carries echoes of both Schofield’s definition of leadership and Stavrevsky’s explanation of the spiritual foundation of service (A-10). Empathy, or its related concept, “stewardship,” is a central characteristic of both military leadership and the larger military culture, as cited by Kelly Dalton in her study on student veterans in the writing classroom (42). A military leader exercises empathy by considering the needs and feelings of their subordinates, yet empathy is more than an internal decision-making heuristic (United States, Department of the Army 3-3). Empathy, according to military leadership policy, should drive a military leader’s actions. In order to care for the people in their units, military leaders are held accountable for a host of caretaker responsibilities: providing proper training and equipment to their subordinates, ensuring that everyone in the unit understands the mission and is motivated to accomplish it, keeping everyone safe, attending to and improving morale within the unit, taking care of service members’ families, dealing with trauma experienced by the unit and by individuals within the unit, giving service members adequate rest and support, and providing proper health care, food, and shelter. Military ethics states that commanders have a “duty” to “respect the personhood” of every person within their command: “the successful leader remembers that he or she is dealing with whole beings, people who are infinitely more than mechanics, clears, typists, technicians, artillerymen, or pilots” (Maloney 55). The Army uses the term “selfless service” to describe a leader who provides this kind of holistic care for the men and women in her unit, a phrase that emphasizes that a good leader is able to “subordinate his self-interest and focus on serving the needs of his soldiers” (Riley 290). Military leadership theory warns against “losing sight of the soldier,” and argues that commanders who are “unwilling to sacrifice individual goals for the good of the unit cannot convince other unit members to do so” (Riley 292; Widnall and Fogleman 81). What is important to point out here is that in the military, service is tied up individuality, choice, and morality: leadership is a calling, and rejecting the ego is both noble and obligatory in order for the organization to be able to do its work. A military leader chooses to serve by putting aside her own desires and self-interest (for career, for advancement, for glory, for safety) in order to attend to the needs of subordinates and the requirements of the military mission.

Serving as the Commander of the First-Year Writing Classroom

In all my interviews with the officers who I worked with at USAFA, the officers compared the role of a first-year teacher to the role of a military leader, a role central to an officer’s identity. Instead of a squadron of airmen, a teacher at USAFA leads a classroom of cadets, and the prevailing institutional logic at USAFA is that preparation for the former will be adequate for the latter. At my new faculty orientation, a colonel reminded us, an auditorium filled with new civilian and military faculty, to never forget “you are the commander of your classroom.” Sandra, a junior officer, believed in this syllogism and identified a number of officer leadership skills that she saw as essential to teaching, including knowing how to “think quickly and respond” and “relate to people who are not your peers in a positive way.” Although the activities Sandra did in her work as a writing teacher at USAFA were very different from the work she did as an Air Force maintenance officer, the central though enigmatic concept of leadership connected the two identities in her mind.

The deeper warrant that supported the officers’ conception of “teacher as leader,” uneasy and incomplete as that equivalence is, was the overarching concept that good teachers and good leaders possess a certain service ethos that entails caring about the people they lead and teach. The officers referred to their two to three years at USAFA as “a teaching tour of duty,” and the term “duty” was not a pejorative. Brian, a senior officer, explained how his officer experiences help him know “how to be kind of the leader in the classroom that cadets want to respond to and interact with.” Being a leader in the classroom, according to Brian, is not so much about the content that is being taught but the nature of the interactions between him and cadets. As Erica, a junior officer, explained, Air Force officers shuttle between many different assignments and work with diverse populations, giving them “a good sense of people.” This leadership experience outside the classroom affects how they view the cadets in their classroom. Julie, a senior officer, explained how her officer duties attuned her to issues of diversity and made her “conscious of the differences in the group I’m in front of. I’m very conscious that every cadet is not the same.” Good officers, as Erica explained, are able to affectively identify with the people they lead and build relationships based on “empathy.” Erica defined empathy by describing those officers who have it as “people who keep in mind that they are in charge of human beings who have real-world problems.” Monica, a senior officer, also named empathy as key to her identity as a personnel officer, a career field that led her to work with a wide range of people, including newly enlisted airmen. Monica was one of the few officers I spoke with who had some prior classroom teaching experience, and she argued that her personnel officer duties fundamentally altered her pedagogy. As a personnel officer, Monica worked with people “at their best and at their worst,” including in times of personal crisis. Monica explained that her experience as an Air Force officer led her to develop patience, versatility, and tenacity. She said, “I think in the classroom now, I have a little more empathy, a little more understanding”—characteristics that she attributes to her experiences as an Air Force officer. The officers’ military experiences powerfully influenced how they imagined the work of teaching writing as part of their military duty. According to these officers, leaders are caretakers who are called to serve and nurture those in their command, and so, too, are teachers. How empathy functions in the composition classroom has been recently explored by writing studies scholars such as Eric Leake, who draws on Rogerian rhetoric and the concepts of rhetorical listening and critical engagement to argue for a pedagogy in which students use critical empathy as a rhetorical practice to both analyze texts and do invention work. What this study with these active-duty military officers demonstrates is that empathy can function as a rhetorical heuristic that teachers can use to approach and enact the work of teaching first-year writing.

The officers I worked with were well versed in military service and its ethic of care, and they understood it as central to the identity of a military officer. The officers directly translated this ethic to their work in the first-year writing classroom. They saw their students as extensions of their units of command and acted responsible for their success as writers, as cadets, and as future officers. Brian, for example, explained that an officer has a responsibility to serve as a mentor to lower-ranking officers and to enlist personnel. According to U.S. Army policy, military leaders have a responsibility to “develop others” by “providing knowledge and feedback” through “counseling, coaching, and mentoring.” (United States, Department of the Army 7-10). I saw the officers I worked with directly apply the principles of mentorship they learned in officer trainings and officer development school to the cadets in their first-year writing classroom. Mentorship is a voluntary relationship, is based on “trust and respect” between the mentor and mentee, and typically has a power differential, as the more experienced person gives “advice and counsel” to the less experienced person over time (United States, Department of the Army 7-11). For example, unlike at many civilian universities, where faculty may only come in on the days they teach, the officers kept “duty hours” at USAFA from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm every day. I remember cadets lining the hallways, waiting for their turn for extra instruction (EI) with their instructor. The military instructors saw teaching and working with individual writers as their duty, but this work was more than labor or a choice based on a particular first-year writing pedagogical philosophy. Rather, the officers regarded the actions they did—the work of teaching and responding to student writing—as directly related to their work of mentoring and as demonstrations of a leader’s service obligation and an officer’s ethic of care.

It was clear, though, that many of the female officers constructed their identity as “commander” of their classroom differently than their male colleagues. The women I interviewed explained that they sometimes struggle with how they present themselves in the classroom and how they relate to their cadets. Valerie, a senior officer, explained that she sees her identity as an officer and her identity as teacher as “intimately intertwined.” She argued that unlike junior officers, who can go in the classroom and “be themselves,” she, as high-ranking officer, is seen by her cadets as a senior officer first, not a teacher. Valerie pointed out how being a female officer complicates this position even further:

I have to be very careful about the persona aspect of it. As a female in the military, you’re up against lots of different influences. But we tend to need to have this hard exterior. In the classroom you don’t necessarily want that or want to have that all the time, but you still need them to know that it exists. They need to take you seriously. This is very gendered. I need them to take me seriously. I’m always navigating having to kind of hold myself up to an expectation.

Valerie highlighted two ways she feels like her authority as a commander is challenged in the classroom, even though she is a senior military officer. First, she explained how many women officers in the military feel compelled to put on a “hard exterior” because they need to be taken “seriously.” Valerie was aware that this need is “very gendered”: in her and others’ experiences, male officers have more freedom than female officers to have a more relaxed and familiar rapport towards cadets or subordinates. This discrepancy in classroom comportment can be connected to the U.S. military’s history as an all-male institution and the fact that currently women are a significant minority among the Air Force officer corps and the cadet population at USAFA. As of 2017, 21% of Air Force officers and 26.2% of USAFA’s cadets are women (2018 USAF Almanac”). USAFA first admitted women into the cadet corps in 1976, yet the experiences of Valerie and other female officers in USAFA’s first-year writing classrooms and in the operational Air Force reveal that women still face subtle, unyielding obstacles that preclude them from full participation in the norms and conventions of military leadership, hurdles that do not seem to hinder male officers.

Monica also described how authority is gendered in the Air Force at large, not just in the classroom. She explained, “In the military, you tend to get a lot of female officers who survive by becoming essentially what they think they should be as a male officer.” Monica gave an example of a female officer and pilot she knows who was “hard” on her subordinates because, in Monica’s analysis, “she feels she can’t show weakness.” Monica’s characterization of how to assert masculinity in a military culture, her description of how officers who identify as women “survive” by acting “as a male officer” who “can’t show weakness,” and Valerie’s portrayal of her own “hard exterior” in the classroom, are significant when placed in context with the larger history of composition teaching in U.S. colleges and universities. As Eileen E. Schell, Susan Miller, Cynthia Tuell, and others have argued, the reliance in American civilian universities on underpaid female instructors for staffing required writing courses have led to a perception of female writing teachers as illegitimate, marginal, and lacking in authority. The metaphors they and others use to describe female writing instructors—gypsies, mothers, wives, whores, and so on—stand in stark contrast to Valerie’s description of the military identity she assumes in her writing classroom, one in which she takes her authority “seriously” by emphasizing concepts of military duty, decorum, and standards. Far from a “sad woman in the basement,” to use Susan Miller’s term, Valerie and her female colleagues are visibly invested with military authority, their ranks embroidered on their shoulders and pinned on their collars. One reason for this contrast between the discipline’s portrait of female writing teachers and the female officers teaching at USAFA are the materialist conditions of the labor structure at USAFA. As opposed to most U.S. colleges and universities, who rely on low-wage contingent labor to teach first-year writing courses, USAFA staffs their required writing and literature courses with junior and senior military officers who are paid based on their rank and grade, not based on their department or the courses they teach. In fact, the Air Force spends twice as much on a military faculty member than a civilian faculty member, taking into consideration the faculty member’s pay, benefits, relocation, and graduate degree training (Keller et al 89).

The male officers I interviewed did not speak about the need to assert their authority in the classroom as Valerie did. Instead, the male officers described how they worked to forge connections with the cadets in their classroom that more closely align with a caring, personal, student-centered mentor/mentee relationship rather than a top-down, hierarchal relationship based on obedience, standards, and authority. The officers described how this particular “ethic of care,” which Schell describes as one of the contributing factors to the feminization of composition and the perpetuation of composition’s labor problems, is both an essential component of leadership and one of the most important characteristics of a good teacher. What is critical here is that Valerie, Monica and other female officers I spoke with felt that embracing that ethic of care—an ethic celebrated by their male colleagues and military leadership theories—could undermine their authority in the classroom. As Valerie explained, as a female senior officer, she must put on a different “persona” in the classroom; in contrast to her male colleagues and junior female officers, she cannot “be herself.” Erica, a junior officer, felt more freedom than Valerie to be “mother-like” towards her cadets in her first-year writing classroom. Monica elaborated further, using the term “mom” as a short hand for how good military leaders care for the physical and emotional needs of service members. However, these terms are precarious: the idea of “mothering” can be used pejoratively against female officers. For example, Monica told me about how one of her commanding officers once criticized her, telling her she was “too ‘mom-like’ to be an officer,” a criticism that she rejected. “To this day, I will maintain that he was wrong, because to be a leader, especially in a small Air Force and especially with what we’re asking our people to do now, you have to have some, I won’t say ‘mom instincts,’ but you have to be personable. You have to be willing to understand what’s going on in their personal lives.” Both Valerie’s and Monica’s experiences are troubling, as they point to the deep problem of sexism in the military, the uncertain space female military leaders occupy, and the incompatibility of alternative leadership models in the military. No matter how many individual women are promoted to “full bird” colonel or pin on general stars, the U.S. military still cannot fully divorce itself from its history as an institution defined by masculinist leadership norms.

Nonetheless, these ideas of “officer as caregiver” and “leader as mother” disrupt popular civilian conceptions of the military chain of command as a top-down, rigid hierarchy. Instead of what is considered a stereotypical masculine model of leadership—a leader who is dominant, assertive, and task-driven—the officers spoke of how good leaders (and good teachers) serve others, practice empathy, and cultivate relationships. To do this work, the officers I interviewed argued that military leaders must have “soft” people skills or even “mom instincts.” Yet the association of teaching, especially the teaching of writing, with caregiving and mothering is dangerous. Eileen E. Schell in particular warns against associating the teaching of writing with the nurturing work of a mother or caregiver. Still, the officers I interviewed at USAFA contend that service and the ethic of care that accompanies their definition of service is central to their teaching. As the officers argued, their knowledge of military leadership theory and their experiences as military officers deeply influenced their writing pedagogy: they explain that they are more empathetic, patient, willing to adapt to the diverse perspectives and backgrounds of the cadets of their classroom, cognizant of how their cadets’ personal lives might impact their performance in the classroom, and dedicated to their cadets’ development as writers, thinkers, and future officers.

Service in the First-Year Writing Classroom

The military’s concept of leadership as intertwined with service is a particular “version of reality,” to use James Berlin’s term, and its worldview, values, and principles inform the officers’ pedagogy (766). Interestingly, the pedagogy described by the officers bears similarities to Laura R. Micciche’s description of how her feminist pedagogy has influenced her as a writing teacher: “As a teacher, those classrooms taught me how to be patient, to risk a variety of standpoints, to approach learning holistically as a body/mind pursuit, and to model interrogatory, sometimes combative modes of delivery” (140). Micciche’s references to patience, risk, and modeling echo how the officers I interviewed described what good military leaders do. Good military leaders show patience, act with empathy, mentor their subordinates, and care about their holistic wellbeing. This kind of “service before self” was at the center of the military officers’ first-year writing classrooms, not because there is “an inherent connection” between service and the teaching of first-year writing, but because it was the officers’ duty to serve their cadets (Siebler 4). As I argued was the case with composition and rhetoric, service also binds the identity of the officers and military culture at large.

I want to make clear I am not suggesting that the military’s notion of service and duty, as represented in the phrase “service before self,” military leadership theories, and U.S. military policy, exactly aligns to what rhetoric and composition scholars define as feminist writing pedagogy. Kay Siebler, Kate Navickas, and other feminist composition scholars have challenged simplified definitions of what “counts” as feminist pedagogy and the equivalency of feminist pedagogy with a generic care for others. Siebler’s taxonomy of feminist composition pedagogies present a more critical understanding of the many theories, philosophies, traditions, and practices within the realm of what we deem “feminist pedagogy” within rhetoric and composition and in the first-year writing classroom in particular. Some of Siebler’s themes, such as the work feminist pedagogy does to dismantle power and hierarchy in the classroom, are notably at odds with the larger mission underlying the first-year writing classroom outcomes at USAFA, which is to prepare and train the next generation of leaders for the U.S. military, one of the most hierarchal structures in U.S. society. However, there are other themes within Siebler’s categorization—such as teacher self-reflection, concern for individual students, and “reconstructing power so that it is empowering, not oppressive”—that, given the interviews with the officers and my own experience at USAFA, are feminist pedagogical principles at work in the first-year writing classroom at this military service academy (Siebler 38). In a parallel way to the familiar military adage that warns against losing sight of the soldier, not losing sight of the student was the operative sense among the faculty and administration at USAFA. As a civilian at USAFA, I hesitated and stumbled over the military norms and practices that enveloped all parts of my teaching, research, and administrative life. Yet there was still something familiar in that strange space, and I attribute much of that to the ethic of care practiced by my military colleagues in their writing classrooms and USAFA’s commitment to developing cadets’ critical consciousness in the military academy classroom.

Taken together, the arguments presented by Micciche, Siebler, and the officers I interviewed lead to new ways to think about the relationship between gender and service in the first-year writing classroom. This study also expands what theories, practices, and traditions could belong inside the boundaries of feminist composition pedagogy and where the work of feminist composition pedagogy might be found. The experience of the military officers teaching at USAFA, taken together with theories of military leadership and service, offers the discipline an additional perspective on what service looks like in the first-year writing classroom. The Air Force officers teaching writing at USAFA promoted a pedagogy of service: they performed as the military leaders of their classrooms, and in doing so, considered taking care of their students, mentoring them, and acting as their military and intellectual role model as their central duty. How the officers were able to enact that service was dependent on gender, and so this study does not unstick that restrictive correlation between gender and service that scholars in composition and rhetoric have critiqued.

As commanders of their classrooms, the officers’ primary responsibility was to take care of their cadets’ needs so that the larger organization—the United States Air Force Academy—could fulfill its mission. I realized during my time at USAFA that I would always be a spectator to that larger mission, which was to develop future officers who embody the military leadership ethos the officers I interviewed described to me. Jenny, a junior officer, explained, “I think the reason we have junior officers here is not just to teach. There’s certainly better qualified people for the subject matter. I think it’s also an officership thing.” I might have been a subject matter expert, but I was not an officer, and as the former Dean of Faculty Gen Dana Born famously responded to the 2004 Larson report and the 1992 Congressional mandate to integrate more “pure civilians” into USAFA’s faculty, “Warriors best teach warriors” (qtd. in Laski 19). At USAFA, the modeling of proper military leadership in the classroom seems to outweigh the importance of disciplinary training in the teaching of writing. Teaching writing is just one of an officer’s many tours of duty. Although the service ethos framing the officers used to describe their pedagogy overlaps with familiar tenets of feminist writing pedagogy, this intersection is largely accidental. As I explained earlier in this essay, the officers had little to no knowledge of the field of composition and rhetoric or experience teaching writing before arriving at USAFA. What they were doing was what research in writing teacher pedagogy has shown that many beginning teachers do, which is recall the pedagogies that they had experienced themselves as students, cadets, and subordinate officers, and then perform that ethos in their classroom (Reid, Estrem, and Belchier). Just as first-year students “invent the university” in their writing, novice teachers invent pedagogy in their classrooms (Bartholomae). The officers were enacting a version of military command and military service in their first-year writing classroom.

This study offers an alternate way to conceptualize service in the first-year writing classroom. The term service operates as a positive value in the military, differently than within our field and in the academy writ large, and this discrepancy leads me to question what seems to be a fundamental feminization of service and teaching in the field. However, as the experiences of the officers demonstrate, service is still problematically gendered. The insights I gleaned from my interviews, as well as the military doctrine I analyzed, portray a particularly male version of service based on a warrior ethos (Stavrevsky para. 3). Male and female officers perform service differently in their first-year writing classroom, and their ability to enact an ethic of care towards their students is gendered. Perhaps service is regarded as a positive value at USAFA because service has been historically aligned with masculinity, command, and a warrior ethos in the military. Before women were fully integrated in the military, military leadership was a role reserved for men alone. When military leaders served, they were recognized and valued for it. Here is the underlying issue that this study cannot resolve: it seems as if when men serve, that work is valued. On the flip side, when women serve or act with care and compassion, the work appears to lose value. This conundrum was discussed at length by the officers—Monica maintained that female officers couldn’t “show weakness,” while Valerie stressed the importance of her cadets taking her “seriously” in the classroom. The senior female officers were more cognizant of this enigma than the junior female officers, perhaps due to the intense competition for promotion and because the ratio of female to male officers decreases with each higher rank (United States, Department of Defense 19). The military’s tradition of male mentorship and masculine leadership is deeply rooted in its institutional values, norms, and practices. How telling that at USAFA, the phrase “Service before Self” is hung on the same concrete ramp that once displayed the words “Bring Me Men.” The words on the ramp’s fa├žade were replaced, but the underlying masculine identity of the institution and the military remain.

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