February 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 2

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Responding to the Students in our Classrooms:
On Teaching Military Veterans and Engineering Majors

Lisa Brush, University of Pittsburgh


In the years since September 11, 2001, I more frequently have military veterans in my undergraduate sociology classes. Conversations with colleagues have prompted me to think about why I do a little happy dance when I learn that someone in my classroom is a veteran. I have a similar reaction when I have students from the School of Engineering in my writing-intensive classes (usually classical theory or feminist political economy). Why? What do these students bring and what do they help me do, pedagogically speaking? And what, if anything unusual, do they need to thrive in my classroom? The answers to these questions are closely connected, although they are also different for veterans and for engineers.

I generally learn that students are engineering majors from the roster. I learn that students are veterans from a first-day exercise I frequently have students do, especially in my theory class, which has a reputation as a “hard” course. On the first day, I have students fill out an index card with the usual information plus three things: their pronoun preference (this encourages cisgender students to problematize the natural status of sex categories and welcomes transgender and gender queer students without stigmatizing them), something hard that they have successfully accomplished, and a strength from that accomplishment that they bring to the class. Invariably, veterans “come out” by referring to their service—or to having surmounted some specific challenge related to their service—as a successful accomplishment, and they generally refer to some of what I agree are among the many strengths they tend to bring to the college classroom.

Active (Duty) in the Collective Learning

The material basis of veterans’ sense of accomplishment includes several strengths that seem to come from or develop during their service, including their incorporation into a hierarchical bureaucracy. For example, once I convince them that I am sincere about wanting them to ask as well as answer questions, veterans do both, often exceptionally well. Their training equips them with the understanding that they are contributing to our collective learning by asking questions and contributing points that clarify what is often shared confusion. They help other students take seriously the process of using questions and discussion (rather than keeping up appearances or a cool pose) to advance everyone’s learning. They understand that a certain realistic humility is more conducive to learning than disdain for the proceedings Veterans (and often students in ROTC) bring their substantial experience with military discipline, hierarchy, and bureaucracy to our readings of the classical sociological theorists.

Veterans therefore often get a charge from applying theoretical concepts to the task of interpreting and conveying important aspects of their experience to their peers in ways that illustrate central concerns of the course. Besides, it makes learning more fun for them, too, to be critical of military bureaucracy in the service of theory rather than griping. In addition, veterans have excellent time-management skills. They work well in pairs and teams, in part because they have first-hand knowledge of the importance of peer support to shared success. Perhaps most important to my teaching practice, veterans understand that although they may have an adversarial relationship with difficult course material, they do not have to have an adversarial relationship with me; we are “in it together” in a way, which makes my job much, much easier.

Applying Concepts to Problems

Engineering majors bring several important strengths, too. They are accustomed to classes that structure skills and information cumulatively. That means that they are both patient about developing ideas and skills over time and also that they can effectively model the process of applying concepts and insights from early in the course to problems and discussions later. Many of them are accustomed to thinking about problems in “system” terms, and they grasp the importance of both breaking problems into their analytical elements and figuring out how to get their minds around the big picture.

Engineering students “get” functionalism on a level that gives them confidence writing about and discussing the notion where the ends and means are often connected in important ways. They are quick to grasp and even to come up with their own analogies for transferring familiar concepts, from thinking about parts, wholes, systems, baseline assumptions, and design specifications in the context of engineering, to thinking about the social world. Moreover, because they understand important aspects of theory as metaphor and model, they can be creative and critical about explaining the strengths and weaknesses of particular metaphors and models and how theorists and researchers develop and deploy them.

Engineers are often able to work through causal explanations and deconstruct the logic of interconnected set of ideas in ways that benefit their peers. But, perhaps my favorite strength is that engineering majors have learned the invaluable skill of turning a problem they do not understand or know how to solve into one they do. This means they can encourage their peers to build on what they already know and apply it to novel intellectual challenges, one of the key learning goals in my classes.

Outlining Expectations

All this helps to explain my happy dance. To help these students thrive in a social science course—especially a theory course—I have learned to make several things explicit. First, I establish right away that I am interested in the strengths everyone brings, that I respect the different learning styles and skills students already have, and that I expect everyone to model how to apply intelligently what they already know to the new and challenging material of the course. Second, I reassure the engineering students that although there are not what they might think of as “objective” exams, I value their skills and ability to learn and will evaluate them fairly. Third, I thank veterans for their service in front of the class. This is a baseline courtesy that models the fundamental notion that although members of the class may have different experiences, politics, and learning styles, and although I encourage everyone to adopt a critical stance toward the material and their experience, I expect and extend basic respect to every student. I also check with veterans privately about experiences with trauma and any reasonable accommodations they might need to learn at the highest level at which they are capable. That, after all, is the point of what I am doing in my classroom, where I want all students, no matter their background, to be welcome and succeed.


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