This blog post is a companion to a Council Chronicle interview with NCTE members Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson about their new book Writing Programs, Veterans Studies, and the Post-9/11 University: A Field Guide. Here they share some additional reflections along with thoughts they solicited from colleagues.
Among the challenges student veterans face during the pandemic, we know that many student veterans are parents, and the absence of childcare has been challenging to balance alongside learning, researching, and writing.
Similarly, because many student veterans have dependents, they are not only full-time students but also have jobs in order to support their families. As one of our colleagues noted, ” I think that instructors need to be cognizant of how employment may have been impacted and that [Abraham] Maslow would argue that having bills paid and food being put on the table is going to take precedence over college coursework.”
One colleague commented that a lot of student veterans “rely on a structure and a routine of going to class, which has been disrupted and may lead to a lack of engagement.”
Colleague Micah Wright wrote, “The loss of structure will depend on how well the individual instructor and department respond to this change. As Writing programs build a learning environment, veterans students (and really, all students) familiarize themselves with the process. This familiarity is a part of their social structure and a part of their new transition. They have been moved from one ‘familiar structure’ to a new structure that has been made familiar; now they have to move to yet another unfamiliar structure, and this can be traumatic.”
Micah also commented on the loss of community. “Some (not all) veterans have already struggled to find a place in the college environment. Writing programs have worked hard to integrate the veteran culture into the curriculum and structure of both the classroom and writing support systems on campus. This process has helped build communities of military-affiliated writers on campuses across the nation. The pandemic caused an automatic break in these critical systems. The veterans who relied on this community support were forced back into isolation, a systemic pattern of the previous transition they had already experienced.”
He added, “This isolation can be categorized as a sense of loneliness or being distant (emotionally and physically) from others, [and these effects] increase as social connections are separated by distance learning requirements. Although some veterans will exceed expectations and rise above the adversity, others might falter based on preexisting health and social indicators, such as:
1) PTSD (or other trauma related issues)
2) Financial issues
3) Family issues (Think childcare)
4) Preexisting academic issues
These issues compound with other issues associated with isolation and can create a “quicksand situation” for the veteran, in which they must ask, Do I handle this problem or do I handle that problem? What do I have time for?”
Another colleague, Tony Albright, put it this way, “College for veterans is a language course. Veterans have to learn which signifiers in their existing repertoire are useful and which need to be replaced with new signifiers in order to communicate with their new academic colleagues. Isolation from their colleagues means arresting their integration progress in a crucial time.”
As for what writing instructors can do, we suggest that the advice that is helpful in working with student veterans is likely good advice for working with many students: be transparent, maintain as much of a semblance of structure as possible, be flexible with deadlines and assignments, try to maintain community and personal connections to students, and ensure that students know how to access other resources such as writing center support, mental health support, financial support, technology support, and so on.
Alexis Hart is a Navy veteran and writing professor at Allegheny College.
Roger Thompson is a writing professor and director of the writing program at Stony Brook University.
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