Reading Communities and Re-Entry

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Thetis gives her son Achilles his weapons, detail of an Attic black figure hydria, mid 6th c. BCE.

Roberta Stewart. This piece was originally read as a paper at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Toronto.

We have been reading Homer in small groups (strictly combat veteran, co-ed) as a way to explore modern veteran experience and return from war. The groups provide a venue for a form of teaching as community outreach that facilitates individual engagement with a text as a basis for self-authored narratives about personal experience. The work is premised on the dialogical relationship of reader and text, validating equally male and female, academic and non-academic readers as authoritative interpreters of Homer. While war can silence language, literature can break the silence and give words to those coming to terms with their experience. War stories are cultural artifacts by which societies have processed the experience of war in order to create a usable past. Communal discourses aid personal narrative construction and identity formation. We are all narratives in process. The Homeric text provides a salutary distancing and deflection that allows homecomings to emerge as historical problems of the human condition. That has been the work of the past nine years (see Amphora 2015).

This past year Dartmouth collaborated with NH Humanities on an NEH grant proposal that represented two crucial advances in the Homer book group program: to scale up the programs and to develop veterans’ roles in programming. First, we proposed to train teams of facilitators for book groups throughout NH. I made the case for the program, Kathy Mathis (NH Humanities) made the case for the needs of NH veterans (8.6% of the population). The training sessions paired academics, mental health clinicians, and veterans, to create teams of facilitators. We practiced not teaching Homer: to make the text not us the subject, to ask volunteers to read passages aloud (and so build community), to use open-ended questions (“what’s going on…”) that lead to implications (“how does this relate to you…does Homer get it right?”), not questions that have right answers that require expertise or special knowledge. We developed strategies to encourage engagement, to allow their reading to take priority, to remain ourselves teachable. Three participants of these new groups, two vets and one academic, were interviewed on NHPR in November 2016 and the program became one of the top ten of the year. We brought civilians and military together into dialogue around a book and helped to bridge the military/civilian divide.

The Hanover groups regularly combine veterans ranging from the Korean war to the current conflicts, include all service branches and both officer and enlisted. The 14-week program of 1.5 hour sessions allows for a diverse group of veterans to create a community of respectful engagement and interaction. The Portsmouth facilitator reported similar dynamics among a similarly diverse group:

The common denominator of all having deployed to combat zones as part of their military service trumps all other differences.  Veterans are telling their stories and listening to the stories of others with genuine interest and respect. 

A former collaborator now runs book groups in Maine and has reported similar experiences of community formation. He emphasized the importance of time spent on task: veterans have complained that a six-week program reading Aeschylus Oresteia was insufficient time together, both to develop familiarity with the language and to feel comfortable enough with each other to discuss frankly the text and their reactions to it.  The book groups provide a mechanism for community building around the shared experience of a book, and the text provides a mechanism for self reflection and narrative construction about personal experience.

More important, the second innovation: Veterans, particularly members of Dartmouth Undergraduate Veterans Associations, served as collaborators and consultants for the development of the training program. We made veterans authoritative voices in an academic discussion about the development of curriculum designed for veterans. Veterans were thus not consumers of programming but authors of it. To prepare for the workshops five DUVA veterans, one local veteran, and I read and reviewed a substantial list. Three of the veterans had seen multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan; two had seen service in the 90’s, and one in Vietnam.  The criteria for selecting readings, as defined by the group: literature “that really touched on the struggles of reentry … of reviving one’s previous self and place in society.” Truthfulness mattered, and the absence of cliché. Homer won out, because he represented the salient issues of re-entry and offered a salutary distancing to avoid triggering. The distancing enabled communication. Remarque’s The Road Back took second place. One DUVA vet remarked, “This is exactly how I felt when I came home.” Veterans wrote the reading questions for the training workshops and we partnered in leading the discussions. Each selected a passage, read it aloud, explained why it resonated with his experience, and opened up the discussion for comment. Most of the modern war literature was rejected as exaggerated or inadequately reflecting the reality of combat/homecoming or triggering or focusing on problems (“feeding the public perception of veterans as “triggered” to commit violence“). Nevertheless the vets taught the literature that they objected to and explained why it offended. Each was challenged to identify a piece of modern literature that did reflect their experience respectfully and truthfully. The final list: “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle, 1971), Tim O’Brien, The Things That They Carried; “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed (a poem about the care of a military rifle, framed as a garden in springtime).

The result: a multi level and directional discourse among military and non-military about war experience. Veterans collaborated in identifying modern literary war stories to complement the Homeric narratives and gained control of the discourse about war and veteran’s experience.

The results have been what we would all wish for, mutual understanding, or, as one veteran remarked, “I felt respected.”

Anyone interested in advice on starting a group should contact Roberta.Stewart@Dartmouth.edu.

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