English Matters. College of Arts and Sciences, Washington State University.

Faculty Highlights

English Department trains WSU faculty on student veteran awareness

Mike Edwards in military arttire in Afghanistan.

Veterans make up a significant portion of Washington State University’s student population, with 3.1% of students either previously or currently serving in the military, according to fall 2020 census data. On WSU’s Pullman campus, two English department faculty members, who happen to be veterans themselves, are building awareness and understanding of this unique student population by delivering Student Veterans Awareness training for new faculty members. “Veterans, military members, and their families are a vital and vibrant portion of the WSU Cougar community,” said associate professor Mike Edwards. “We want these students to know that they are welcome and that their service and life experiences are valued.” Edwards, a U.S. Army veteran who has also taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Elijah Coleman, another English faculty member and Marine Corps veteran, have been co-leading the Student Veterans Awareness Course for fellow English faculty members since 2013.

The training is part of ongoing professional development required for new faculty members teaching English 101 for the first time. “The idea is to cast as wide a net as possible in creating awareness of student veterans,” Edwards said. “Joint Base Lewis–McChord, the largest military base west of the Mississippi, is in Washington state, and since virtually everyone takes English 101 when they first start college, we know there will be a large population of student veterans those courses.” Edwards has worked on veteran’s issues with national organizations as well. “New instructors also start with English 101, so we want to start them out early with an understanding of this unique student community.” The course is designed to inform instructors on how to recognize veteran students in their classrooms and how to better understand various cultural attributes that can distinguish those in the military and veteran community. “Many faculty members don’t have any experience working with veterans, and it’s our goal to help them recognize these students and understand the military experiences they’ve had,” said Edwards.

Elijah Coleman.

According to Coleman, one prominent topic of discussion during the course is the positive impact those who have military experience can bring to the classroom. “Student veterans and their families bring a wealth of experience and perspective to our classrooms. Learning about student veterans and their families helps instructors learn how to better tap the drive and energy and commitment that they bring from service,” Coleman said. “For example, veterans are problem solvers by training and necessity. Learning how to revise assignments to provide more clarity in instructions enables a student veteran to channel their critical thinking and problem-solving experience, allowing instructors more effectively work with other students who may need more specific instructions.”

“Many have also traveled the world and interacted with diverse populations,” added Edwards, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. “Those experiences offer them unique and valuable perspectives.” The training also explores the particular challenges and special needs experienced by veterans and how to promote more inclusive practices to make the classroom a welcoming space for all students. “We want faculty members to be able to spot a student in crisis, so they can intervene and get them help if they need it,” said Edwards. “More broadly speaking, we want faculty members to understand some of the challenges that veterans can face, including PTSD, access to health care, and other important issues.”

Both Edwards and Coleman say they have seen a positive outcomes of the training, reflected in feedback from fellow faculty members. “The most immediate impact we’ve seen has been greater understanding of and respect for veterans and their families, not just in awareness of the challenges and issues they face but also in awareness of the incredible skills and experiences they bring to their communities and their workplaces,” said Coleman. “After the sessions we’ve hosted, I’ve heard feedback that our work has led many instructors to revise and clarify assignments and goals in ways that helped all students, especially students from non-traditional backgrounds.”

Edwards and Coleman are currently working with WSU Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI) and Student Affairs to bring their Veteran’s Awareness Training to a wider audience across the WSU system. “With the winding-down of overseas deployments, many more veterans are making use of their education benefits, and the veteran population in higher education is growing fast,” said Edwards. “Veterans are trained leaders with a strong connection to the civic goals of the public land-grant university, and they’re also our students, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors.”

Labor-Based Contracts Piloted in WSU First-Year Composition Classrooms

Melissa Nicolas

The end of the 2019–2020 academic year found a number of first-year students in English composition completing their courses online with both seasoned and new instructors pivoting to emergency online education. Associate Professor Melissa Nicolas, director of the Composition Program, had been piloting evaluation strategies designed to increase chances of success for first-year writing students. The efforts were under way in fall 2019, and the first pilot course ran in spring 2020. Nicolas’s efforts were funded by a 2020 Smith Teaching and Learning Grant. The project investigates the impact of labor-based contracts on first-year writing students and instructors. Labor-based contracts, or LBCs, are agreements between teachers and students for a specific amount of work to earn a specific grade, wherein students are graded on effort. The underlying belief is that the more students practice writing, the more effective writers they will become. LBCs take the focus off final products and put the focus on the process of writing, an approach particularly well-suited for the first-year writing classroom—an environment that invites new undergraduates to participate in university discourse communities. 

During fall 2020, Nicolas both taught and applied labor-based grading strategies in English 501, the department’s graduate seminar on teaching writing. Graduate students enrolled in this course in turn taught first-year writing courses in spring 2021, and alongside experienced writing instructors, implemented LBCs in sections of English 101. Nicolas has been collecting data on student outcomes and instructor experiences while simultaneously implementing LBCs in her spring 2021 English 361: Rhetorics of Epidemics course.

Aside from their functionality across courses, especially given the recent challenges due to COVID-19, Nicolas noted that labor-based grading practices correspond with the composition program’s anti-racist work, led by PhD student Jessie Padilla and recent English master’s graduate Mitzi Ceballos. Using LBCs as a strategy to promote equity and inclusion is also a focus for WSU English PhD alumnus Asao Inoue, now professor and associate dean of Academic Affairs, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Integrated Sciences and Arts (CISA) at Arizona State University. His book Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom was published with WAC Clearinghouse in 2019. 

Nicolas looks forward to exploring the data collected during the 2020–2021 academic year to determine the impact of LBCs on student learning and teacher experience. Mike Edwards, a faculty member who piloted labor-based contracts last year, can already speak to the impact on both educators and students. He noted that “teaching this way really honors and makes visible just how much value and work students contribute to their own learning. I think that’s an approach worth considering in all courses.”

English faculty involved with WSU’s 3rd annual Disability Awareness Symposium

Tomie Gowdy-Burke

Two English department faculty members presented this spring at WSU’s 3rd Annual Disability Awareness Symposium sponsored by the WSU Access Center. Tomie Gowdy-Burke and Buddy Levy offered opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to learn about managing mental health challenges and the story of how one man overcame his physical limitations to take on the challenges of white-water rafting. 

During her presentation, “Using Mindfulness to Manage the Frustrations of Academic Life,” Gowdy-Burke introduced more than 130 participants to the mental and physical challenges humans are now confronting as we attempt to bridge two ontological views of the world: objective reality based on the scientific truths of Newtonian time and space; and the newer, subjective and organic quantum reality focused on probability and energy flow. The result is a population that often feels overwhelmed, lost, and alone in the world, and these feelings often lead to episodes of anxiety, stress, and depression. Humans are seeking a way to live within the Newtonian laws while looking for a way to free ourselves from those laws. By guiding participants through Daniel Siegel’s “Wheel of Awareness,” Gowdy-Burke demonstrated how taking a few minutes to mindfully become conscious of our bodily senses, the inner sensations of the body, mental activities, and relationships with others, we can become more aware and reach a place of clarity and calm. 

Later that evening, Levy hosted a showing of the 2018 documentary The Weight of Water, to which he was a contributing writer, based upon his book No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, co-authored with adventurer Erik Weihenmayer. The Weight of Water is the story of Weihenmayer, who is blind, balancing fear in the chaos of kayaking whitewater rapids against his powerful desire to be free from a prison of darkness. Despite his visual challenges, he embarks alone in his own boat into the home of the most iconic whitewater in the world, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The film won the Grand Prize and Best Mountain Film award at the 2018 Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival; the People’s Choice award for Best Documentary at the 2018 Denver Film Festival; the Best Sport and Adventure Film award at the 2018 Mendi Bilbao Film Festival; and the Audience Choice award at the 2019 Waimea Ocean Film Festival. As the author of the bestselling Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition; GERONIMO: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior; and River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, Levy is well-acquainted with the film’s subject and themes and led a lively discussion following the screening.