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CDD Dissertation Fellow Spotlight: Shannon Stimpson

Shannon Stimpson is one of two dissertation fellows in the Center for Democratic Deliberation this year. In this post, she shares more about her research on the way that writing was taught at colleges and universities during wartime.

Shannon Stimpson is one of two dissertation fellows in the Center for Democratic Deliberation this year. In this post, she shares more about her research on the way that writing was taught at colleges and universities during wartime.

What is your driving research question?

The overarching question driving my research is how war has impacted the way we teach composition courses in U.S. institutions of higher education. Specifically, I examine how literacy and writing instruction at four land-grant universities were impacted during WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. 

How did you first become interested in your research project? 

I took a course from Dr. Cheryl Glenn on rhetorical historiography and knew, within the first two weeks of the semester, that I wanted to do an archival research project for my dissertation. While I was researching an unrelated topic for Dr. Glenn’s course, I encountered some peculiar memos from the college dean to writing instructors between 1917 and 1918. The memos detailed how writing courses could be redesigned to better support national war efforts. I didn’t think too much of these documents at the time, but I found their contents curious in light of the educational mission of land-grant schools, which originally included military training and instruction. Later, I enrolled in a course taught by Dr. Roger Geiger on the history of higher education in the United States. The impact of WWII on the formation and structure of the modern research university is well-documented by historians of higher education. But, it was something I certainly wasn’t aware of, or at least didn’t appreciate, until I had taken this course. I wondered why the histories of composition I had read--or at least what I took from these histories — did not include a more comprehensive analysis of war. Because the United States has been in a state of nearly constant military action for over a century (and arguably since our founding as an independent nation), I see this as a really exciting area of research in our field.

Have you had to learn anything new or challenging over the course of your work?

I’ve learned how challenging it is to read historically from both a macro and a micro perspective. What I mean by that is that it’s really difficult to write history in way that accounts for both localized details and broad contexts. A couple of years ago I attended a conference roundtable on rhetorical historiography, and one of the panelists (I believe it was David Gold) commented on the danger of writing “granular” histories by relying solely on archival findings. Dr. Debra Hawhee and Dr. Christa Olson observed that the current “disciplinary trend” in composition studies favors “restrictive specialized histories” above “broad-based ones.”[1] I reflect on these observations often because I am using archival materials to support my argument and because I have to account for so much complexity within my topic. I constantly have to stave off the urge to paint an overarching narrative using broad strokes, but I have to also resist getting mired in details as I write because both of these approaches often lead to reductive or erroneous conclusions. 

Researching this topic has also challenged my perspective about the relationship between the military and the university. As someone who has always held pacifist leanings, when I started researching this topic, I was very skeptical about public and administrative efforts to influence educators’ professional practices and pedagogical responses to war. I was disturbed by the way that literacy has been historically dragged into public and educational debates about national security. And it’s not like these issues aren’t part of contemporary discourse. Scott Wible’s 2013 book, Shaping Language Policy in the U.S.: The Role of Composition Studies, documents recent examples of national security language policies (such as the National Security Language Initiative introduced under the Bush administration in 2006) affecting writing instruction in the United States. However, after reading Donald Alexander Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili’s book, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-military Students, I had to take a hard look at how well I actually understood war and by extension student veterans in my classroom. By engaging in the research process and by listening carefully to the lived experiences of educators, students, and veterans, I’ve tempered a lot of the biases I brought into the project. 

How does your work apply to issues of democratic deliberation? What problems related to the substance or quality of civic discourse do you think it could address? 

I remember a conversation that I had with one of my committee members in the early stages of this project. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to this effect: “War is the last thing on my mind as I’m walking to teach my writing class. Why should I care about this particular history, when I’m just trying to get by? How can your research help me? What does your research do for me as a writing teacher?” It’s a series of fantastic questions, but perhaps a broader version of those questions would ask, what does war and writing instruction have to do with civic discourse or democratic deliberation? What does a history that explores this relationship “do” for the American public? 

One of the questions I’ve asked myself over and over is why the history of writing instruction and war hasn’t already been researched exhaustively. I don’t claim to have a complete answer to this question, but I think this particular research gap is actually indicative of a much deeper social issue that is vital to civic discourse and the formation of public policy in the United States: Americans are largely disconnected from the military dimension of American society.

A 2017 article published by the Pew Research Center found that the U.S. population with military experience is on the decline: in 2016 less than 1% of all U.S. adults served in active-duty roles, only 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, and the number of Congressional members who have military experience has dropped roughly 55 percentage points (more than 70%) since 1967.[2] In 1997, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen predicted that the decline in military experience among Americans could diminish public understanding of military and national security interests and deepen existing rifts in the military-civilian gap. To address this predicament, Cohen urged educators in higher education to recognize intellectual engagement with military-related inquiry, particularly concerning cooperative exchanges between civilian and military leadership in policy-making, as a civic responsibility worthy of immediate pedagogical attention.[3]

Cohen’s argument suggests that a democratic society must learn how to coexist with undemocratic institutions (such as the military and the university) and often rely on these institutions for self-preservation. If true, then understanding the relationship between the military and academic institutions is of real importance to civic education and democratic deliberation. Downs and Murtazashvili (referenced in a previous question) argue that because “the decision to go to war is perhaps the most momentous decision that a political community can make” educators have a civic responsibility to teach students about the nature of the military and war. This education requires a critical respect for the military as an institution and the individuals who serve within it.[4]

Recent research suggests that writing instructors do not feel equipped to offer this kind of civic education in their classrooms or to relate to the specific needs of student veterans. According to a study conducted by Alexis D. Hart and Roger Thompson, 92% of composition faculty reported that they had experienced no professional development related to the military or veterans’ learning needs.[5]

Downs and Murtazashvili argue that civic education requires both “knowledge relevant to citizenship” and “experience and direct exposure to civic engagement.”[6] My hope, in writing about how composition studies has been shaped by U.S. military conflicts, is that I will be providing both content that will help writing instructors contextualize our relationship with the military and foster increased sensitivity to members in our community who have served in the military. I want to help reconnect writing to the experience of war.

What are your post-dissertation plans? What do you hope to do next with your research? 

My primary focus right now is finishing the dissertation and graduating. I plan to apply for faculty positions in rhetoric and composition in the fall, but I’m also scouting out academic jobs in faculty development and instructional design.  

As far as my research is concerned, if my dissertation committee members are convinced that this project has teeth, I have several ideas of how I’d like to expand my current work. I definitely want to research the impact of war on writing instruction at different types of institutions, including private universities and community colleges. I chose to focus on land-grant schools for my dissertation because of their importance to the formation of the modern research university and because of their unique relationship to the military. I recognize that the institutional constraint in my current study will severely limit my conclusions, but I had to start somewhere. I’m also very interested in researching war and literacy in the U.S. post-Vietnam. Because of the Vietnam War’s profound cultural impact on American public opinion about war and the military, I have an inkling that this may be an even more important historical period than all the wars leading up to Vietnam. I’ve been very influenced by Mary Favret’s monograph War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Favret’s book is a really fascinating study of how people living within nations of aggression experience war not as an immediate reality, but as a distant and highly mediated abstraction. I’m still intellectually working out this connection, but I’d like to draw upon Favret’s work to study how contemporary American universities mediate and abstract the experience of war and shape public discourse about the appropriate use of force to secure democratic ideals. It will be interesting to see where my research takes me and how my projected interests will change over time.

[1]“Pan-historiography: The Challenges of Writing History Across Time and Space.” in Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. in Michelle Ballif ed., Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP. 2013. 90. 

[2]Bialik, Kristen. “The Changing Face of America’s Veteran Population.” Pew Research Center. November 10, 2017. Accessed Feb 10. 2019.

[3]Secretary of Defense William Cohen, speech at Yale, quoted in Peter D. Feaver, Richard H. Koln, and Lindsay P. Cohn, “Introduction: The Gap Between Military and Civilian in the United States in Perspective,” in Peter D. Feaver and Richard H. Kohn, eds., Soldiers and Civilians: The Civil-Military Gap and American National Security. MIT P. 2001. 1.

[4]Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-military Students. Cambridge UP, 2012. 48.

[5]Hart, D. Alexis, and Roger Thompson. “An Ethical Obligation”:Promising Practices for Student Veterans in College Writing Classrooms. Results of a 2011 CCCC Research Grant, Conference on College Composition and Communication, June 2013, p. 19.

[6]Arms and the University. p. 44.