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The Instructor’s Challenge

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Via Tom Ricks, Joyce Goldberg has an interesting article at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the teaching of military history in the War on Terror:

What these students needed was personal catharsis, but I am not a trained psychologist. What these students craved was the opportunity to express their anger or pain, but my class was not the place to do it.

Student veterans are not a homogeneous lot, and I would never use a broad brush to paint them all as unstable or troubled, but any reasonably observant person could see that beneath their quiet demeanor, politeness, and deference, some were visibly scarred. Students find me accessible, and I listened sympathetically to each one. I feel for these young people and what they have endured. Many shared photos and stories with me, and some showed me their physical scars. My heart goes out to them, but a course in military history is not an appropriate place for a therapy session. Since I foresee no diminution of this problem, and indeed believe it will intensify significantly over the next decade, I have decided that I can no longer teach the course.

Anyone who has taught a security or military oriented course knows that veterans can bring a lot to the classroom, but that they also present special challenges. These challenges are especially apparent at the undergraduate level, where students haven’t acclimated to the academic project sufficient to distinguish between personal and academic knowledge. This also comes through in area studies courses, more than a few of which have risked ruin at the hands of students more interested in discussing their experiences in China than in learning about Chinese state economic policy.

To be sure, the responsibility for maintaining discipline in the classroom lies with the instructor. However, with a group of students who know a lot about their subject, and more importantly feel very intensely about their personal experiences with the subject matter, classroom management can become exceedingly difficult. It is very hard to shut down a student talking about his experience in a convoy hit by an IED, even when the comment isn’t pertinent to the discussion, or class time is needed for something else. This has nothing whatsoever to do with an unwillingness to debate or a personal fear of the students, but rather about the difficulties of maintaining an environment for the facilitation of learning.

I’ll never give up teaching security courses (at least voluntarily) because I love the subject matter too much, and because it’s easier with graduate students. For someone who isn’t a specialist, however, the willingness to teach a class often depends on how difficult that class is going to be. It’s no one’s fault (except perhaps for the authorities in Washington) that undergraduate military history and policy courses are going to become harder to teach. Veterans have good reasons for being interested in such courses, and the courses themselves are quite necessary. Nevertheless, I suspect that more instructors will demonstrate a reluctance to accept the difficulties associated with teaching military history.

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