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2016 NEH Summer Institute for College and University Teachers

Veterans in Society:

Ambiguities & Representations

10-29 July 2016


Blacksburg, VA,   and   Washington, DC

Thinking about ...

Institute directors and faculty will raise reflection questions from time to time.  Some of them could be adapted to your classroom or even as framing questions for your scholarship.  


If you want to add some questions for institute particpants to ponder, email them to Bruce Pencek.

Pre-institute reflection: Veterans studies?

"Veterans" and "society" are both very abstract terms, even before one tries to think about the how they relate to one another, in either direction.  Considering (for now) only the pre-institute texts and media, what strike you as reasonable categories for unpacking the study of veterans in society?  In other words, what do you imagine as possible subfields of an academic field of veterans studies?

Pre-institute reflection:  How do humanities/humanists fit?

The humanities are often defined as “the study of how people process and document the human experience.” NEH is more specific: “"The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life."
--National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended


One of our obligations at this institute is to imagine and document the value of the humanities to a very specific human experience: the impact of military service on veterans and their family members.  Since the implementation of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973, fewer and fewer of our citizens experience this impact directly, yet the service of the small percentage involved impacts and affects virtually every aspect of our society.  Therefore, a relevant question to consider is how can we, as humanists, document the experiences and issues of those who served (and their family members) in such a way that is informative and accessible to the roughly 93% of American citizens who haven’t served in the military? How did the pre-institute texts address this question?

Pre-institute reflection:  Enduring questions

We are focusing on a wide range of texts, the earliest of which are the two epic poems attributed to Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The first describes the long years of war; the second describes the long journey home from war. The first is a story of warriors; the second, of veterans. Odysseus’s journey home was fraught with peril, but those perils and challenges did not end when he finally arrived home in Ithaca. His experiences are not unlike many of those faced by veterans of service in our country, now and in the past. One question society has struggled with since the time of Odysseus is its obligations to those who served (and to their families). In the 20th century, after World War I, President Franklin Roosevelt argued “Able-bodied veterans should be accorded no treatment different from that accorded to other citizens who did not wear a uniform during the World War.” His Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, went even further, saying, “The veterans had no special claim on the government.” Andrew Mellon said, “War service should be performed as the highest duty of citizenship.”

Using the texts we asked you to read, how would you respond to these arguments? In short, what do the texts argue about what society’s obligations are to veterans (and, by extension, to their families)? How do these texts square with your beliefs?  A second, equally important question concerns how and what distinctions have been and continue to be made regarding the conditions and/or qualifications for the designation and distinction of veteran status.  Roosevelt made a distinction between able-bodied and those who had been injured.  Others have made distinctions based upon gender, race, sexuality, type(s) of service.  What do the texts imply about what ways in which veteran status has been granted? How do these texts square with current practice and / your beliefs?

Bruce Pencek and Marc Brodsky (July 12 session, with nods toward July 28-29)

In our era of superabundant information mediated largely by search-engine algorithms, how can scholars of veterans in society describe what they do in order to make their work discoverable across disciplines and beyond campuses?

  • In your own scholarship and teaching, what and where are the salient literatures for the study of veterans in society?

  • In what respects have traditional tools of libraries and archives (eg, cataloging practices, finding aids) succeeeded — and failed — to describe and facilitate access to research resources needed for humanistically informed research in veterans studies?  How well have they represented earlier works?  How useful are they as we look forward at new research topics, new modes of scholarship and communications?

  • As authors and teachers in veterans studies should we aspire to standarizing our terminologies in order to promote discovery of our work?

James Marten (July 15 sessions):


1. What does a country owe its veterans?

2. How did these expectations develop?

3. How do civilian attitudes shape the ways that veterans are perceived and treated?

4. In your reading for this workshop, what sounded familiar — in other words, what continuities do you see in the experiences and treatment of veterans over the course of the last 150 years?


CIVIL WAR VETERANS: Morning session

5. What is the traditional narrative of veterans’ lives after the Civil War?

6. What were differences and similarities in the experiences of Union and Confederate veterans?

7. What are the particular experiences of African American veterans?

8. There were many kinds of disability after the war — how did the nature of veterans’ disabilities affect their experiences and non-veterans perceptions of them?

9. How did Civil War veterans consciously separate themselves from non-veterans?


CIVIL WAR VETERANS: Afternoon session

10. How did going home shape the way men started their lives as veterans?

11. The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was the direct predecessor of the VA; what are their similarities and differences?

12. How did James Tanner’s experiences resemble those of other veterans?  How were they different?



13. What made being a veteran in Gilded Age America so complicated?  And what makes our study of those veterans so complicated?

Eric Hodges (July 20 session)

  • How would you explain a link between military and civic service?

  • Why is it the case that community engagement has decreased among the general population while seemingly remaining high among veterans?

  • What role could combat have on civic engagement among veterans. Conversely what role could civic engagement have on combat vets?

Peter Molin (July 22 session)

The veteran as veteran-author:

  1. What is the relationship between literary portraits of troubled veterans and a civ-mil communication divide and "real world" instances of these phenomena?

  2. When a veteran hopes to become a published veteran-author, what happens?

The veteran-author as public intellectual:

  1. In what ways does Phil Klay's "The Citizen Solider: Moral Risk and the Modern Army"  "speak back"  to Roy Scranton's "The Trauma Hero" and "Star Wars" essays?

  2. What are the stakes?  What do the two authors hope to accomplish?

Jim Dubinsky (July 22 session)

  1. How do the pieces assigned for today work to help us understand reintegration?  Returning home?

  2. Using several pieces that focus on the trauma of the daughter of the caregiver of the closeness fo the war reporter, discuss what you believe might be suffience conditions for "veteran-ness."  

  3. How does reading about the experience impact or implicate those who have not served?

  4. What is the connection between citizenship and veteran status?

  5. Scranton argues, "The Latin tag ending the poem, from Horace's Carmina III.2, translates roughly as 'It is dear and honorable to die for one's nation.'  This tag stands for what Owen is aiming to attack, to dispel, to silence: the "old Lie" taught in English schoolbooks and put forth by civilian poets.  I know the truth, Owen claims, not because I read about it in Horace, but because I've seen it, I've heard it, and felt it.  Owen means to mailgn war, but according to his logic, it is his very experience of war that gives him privileged access to moral truth beyond anything civilians like Jessie Pope can ever hope to achieve.  Owen asserts that war's truth is the truth of the soldier's experience, which puts the issue of war beyond debate."

    • Based on his argument and the arguments of those he uses as illustrations, who is authorized to speak about war and for veterans?  Consider Scranton's piece and the other readings for today, particularly those by non-combat experienced writers. What role(s) can thos other writers, who may/may not be considered veterans, have in uncovering/exposing other "lies"?

    • How do different subject positions affect what is said and how it is received?

The Veterans in Society: Ambiguities and Representations 2016 summer institute for college faculty is a project of
Virginia Tech's Center for the Study of Rhetoric in Society and the University Libraries.  

The 2016 Veterans in Society summer institute has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.  Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this the institute or this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities nor Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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