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Got your 6: A whole new battlefield

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Singleton

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Singleton

Imagine spending every minute of every day surrounded by your co-workers for a year, maybe more. You sleep together, eat together, spend off time together, work together. It’s easy to see how they would become like family to you. In fact, most of us probably don’t even spend this much time with our families.

But what happens when you no longer spend your days with that family? What happens when you no longer share that connection with your peers? When your days are now spent with people who don’t know what you’ve been through? When the significance of your differences far outweighs any similarities? What happens when you’re now the older person no one seems to understand? These are the questions that many military veteran students wrestle with every day as they transition into academic life.

My student Kenny said, “Everyone in my classes are young. I don’t understand it. They come to class. They sleep. They talk. Listen to their iPods. How are you studying? You’re not even taking notes.” Most of the time when he says something in class, he says his classmates aren’t able to relate. “Usually it’s this old guy who says, ‘Yeah I hear ya man. I’m with ya’. He’s like 40 or 50 though.” Suddenly my student, feeling twice his age, is no longer surrounded by the ones who have his back. He now has to try to identify with a room full of people who are much younger than he is in age and experience.

I had my son when I was 20 years old, the spring of my sophomore year in college. I remember the intense feeling of isolation (probably somewhat self-induced) when I went back to classes the following fall. I sat in class worrying about my baby in daycare while I listened to my friends worrying about which parties they would go to. I didn’t blame them. But, I suddenly felt like a woman twice my age. And, honestly, even now in grad school with two children, one divorce, and a remarriage under my belt, that feeling hasn’t really gone away.

What does all this have to do with writing classes?

I would challenge anyone to find a writing class that doesn’t require some element of peer review. Now imagine yourself sitting in a peer circle as one of these military veteran students, facing the same social barriers many adult students face but with the added stigma of being a “veteran”. Whether openly self-identified or unintentionally revealed in conversation, the others in the class are already forming ideas of what that means both to themselves and you. They’re imagining war scenes, wondering if you’re hurt somewhere, wondering if you’ve got pent up issues from PTSD. And what if they’re right? What if you have experienced that stuff and some of those experiences scarred you?

Or, what if none of that applies to you? What if you happened to stay stateside, stationed on American soil? What if you just don’t want to be asked one more time if you’re okay, or how are you, or what was it like? What if you just want to be a student, just like everyone else?

The problem is that as instructors, we don’t always know if we have military veteran students unless they let us know. Many struggle through this silently, And, even if they do let us know, many don’t open their hearts right away. Whether from us or their classmates, sometimes they just want some distance. Sometimes, even if they want to connect, that connection is difficult to make when their background is much different than everyone else’s around them.

So, what are we to do?

It’s tough as an instructor to give every student the individualized attention they might need or want, let alone worry about the ones that maybe don’t want any at all or trying to find the balance. There are some ideas floating around out there. Some colleges and universities have tried creating sections of courses specifically for veteran students, but enrollments are difficult to sustain. There’s also the learning community approach, creating small groups of students with similar interests and backgrounds who take classes together and become their own support network.

Maybe it’s just as simple as helping them connect by making your classroom as welcoming an environment as possible to students from all backgrounds. Creating a space that invites interaction, including with you. One of my professors, who is now very dear to me, used to walk around the room at the beginning of each class just to ask how we were. In larger classes, this can be challenging, but maybe you ask half the class one meeting and half the next. The key idea here is to just try to connect, not necessarily as a teacher, but as a person. Some days as a student, I just needed two minutes to share my thoughts. That’s all. Two minutes to say, “Hey, getting here was ridiculous.” Or, “I’m okay…not great…just okay. Life is getting in the way, and today I’m just taking a back seat” Sometimes that small moment is enough.

While I have some empathy for the feeling that there’s a huge divide between you and your “peers”, I know that my experience was nothing like that of the student’s we’re talking about. That’s why I admire the military veteran student’s initiative to throw themselves into a completely new environment, not knowing what to expect from their teachers, but knowing that they’ll probably not immediately connect with many of their classmates in their entry level classes. I know it can be tough, and some days, it’s just downright miserable. While I was talking with my son about this post, he said this must be like a new battlefield for them, and I tend to think he’s right.

It seems like the least I can do is try to make them feel comfortable–to either be open or closed about their experiences–in this new place.

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