How Do Military Veteran Students Write? Exploring the Effectiveness of Current Writing Pedagogy
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Through Post-911 GI Bill benefits, military veterans are flooding college admissions offices and writing classes at rates not seen since the World War II era. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, over 1 million veterans attended colleges and universities between 2009 and 2013; and 53.6 percent of veteran students using benefits applied them toward completing undergraduate work at a college or vocational/technical school (“Annual Benefits Report,” 2011). Clearly, many writing instructors will likely encounter a military veteran in their classes in the near future. Unlike the majority of first-year and undergraduate writing students, these students bring with them deeply engrained professional training that starkly contrasts with current writing pedagogy. Contemporary writing curricula teach and engage traditional students in communal writing practices focused on self-exploration and personal meaning-making. However, for the returning military veteran, these strategies may prove problematic. Through training in highly structured environments, they learn to do as instructed, not ask questions, and successfully complete the tasks assigned, with little room for error or personal adaptation. In an incredible culture shock, and in direct contrast with their previous superiors, writing instructors encourage these students to determine strategies that work based on personal preferences, actively avoiding prescriptive writing instruction and shunning the idea of presenting writing as a successive, inflexible process. College writing instructors, therefore, need to ask whether or not current writing pedagogy meets the needs of military veteran students and employs their professional training. Furthermore, what can instructors do to better assist these students as they transition from military to academic training? Thus, this substantial shift in the writing student profile presents an opportunity to re-evaluate current teaching strategies to determine approaches that will more directly tap in to these students’ highly developed skills. This paper responds to Hart and Thompson’s call to action (2013) to writing programs and instructors to begin exploring their veteran populations. Seeking a better understanding of the military veteran student’s unique training, this paper contrasts current military training materials with practices and approaches in the writing classroom. This paper addresses the assumption that entry-level writing students succeed in an environment where they are free to explore flexible writing strategies and methods, an assumption that may leave veteran students at a distinct disadvantage. The results of this analysis call into question the effectiveness of current writing pedagogy for this particular audience, suggesting rather a composition pedagogy that returns to cognitivist theories of composing (Flower, 1989; Flower & Hayes, 1981) and recognizes that these students have learned to succeed in very prescriptive, rigid environments. This paper suggests that it may benefit these students to learn the academic writing process through their prior frame of reference, rather than through the less structured one of current pedagogy. Expanding on an initial case study of one military veteran college writer, the ultimate goal of this research is to explore alternative, effective pedagogies that better intersect with the military training these students possess.