A New Thought About First Week Introductions

On the first day, my classes typically start with some big question or other–we jump right in, doing a little philosophical exploring as a segue way  into talking (briefly) about what it means to do philosophy. Then, in the middle portion of the class  do an icebreaker of sorts to make sure that everyone learns at least five names and so that they get the idea that the primary activity will involve them thinking and talking with each other about questions that get lobbed to them by me, initially, and then taken where they may, by them. The last 25 minutes or so are attendance, where they tell me something about themselves.

Inevitably, I have one or two people per class who identify themselves as military veterans. In the past, I have always, and for a variety of reasons, responded by making eye contact and saying, “Welcome to the class, and I thank you for your service.” Until this year, that is.

Why? Because of THIS.

The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor. As the West Point professor Elizabeth D. Samet recently noted, service members feel uneasy when strangers approach them to — as the well-meaning but oddly impersonal ritual goes — thank them for their service, thereby turning them into paradoxically anonymous celebrities. It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings.

I’m not sure that my response was a good one; I’m still thinking about what a good response would be (and still hold open the possibility that what I used to say is still good, but I have a lot of respect for William Deresiewicz (ever read this? or this?), and I’m still looking for the piece he mentions by Elizabeth Samet (but I found this and this, though I haven’t finished either yet). Regardless, though, it got me thinking, which is a good thing.

Any ideas on the topic would be welcome.

Friday Spotlight–Vets in Class

There’ve been a number of articles over the last few years talking about the challenges (both for students and institutions) created by the return of men and women who have served in the military.

Articles like this, and this,  and this one (which,  if you’re only going to read one–make it that last one). Not to mention all of those recovering from wounds incurred, who may lag their fellow vets by a few years because of rehabilitation requirements and the rest, but will enroll eventually with many, many more challenges (Check this out from the Wall Street Journal last week–it’s full of wow moments, including the stat that 95% of injured service people who live long enough to get medical assistance survive. That is, I think, an incredible statistic.)

Last semester I taught a class that had a handful of veterans in it. A couple of them were open about it, a couple of them were pretty obviously uninterested in mentioning/discussing it (at least publicly) and it was clear that none of them were going to immediately bond over it, at least not publicly. One of them, in particular, was having some trouble adjusting. He hated working with others, to the point where he would just get up and leave rather than talk to a classmate. One day he came up to me and said, “I’ve got to go; my mom just called. My brother was killed in Afghanistan.” He came back a week later, and threw himself back into the class. Three weeks after that, he left in the middle of a lesson, saying, “I should have re-enlisted.”  And so it went. In the end he passed the class, and he has since transferred to continue toward his bachelor’s.

I guess, in the end, the truth remains that every student is a unique case, and there are no rules that apply to all of them, but I think there are some things that might be knowable that I do not know about teaching returning veterans who have served in combat zones (or elsewhere). I’m sure there are things that y’all know that you might be able to share, or, alternatively, ideas that y’all might have for ways we (the HWC faculty) might get informed on the subject and/or ways we might adapt to serve these students better.

Got any ideas?

UPDATED: With a new link on battlefield injuries and medical innovations.