Cura Personalis: Veteran Stories and the Coming Home Dialogues

CNDLS Fellow David Ebenbach (Center for Jewish Civilization) shares reflections on the importance and impact of knowing who your students are and where they come from. 

In my five-plus years here at Georgetown, I’ve been struck repeatedly by the significant and important presence military veterans have on our campus. My own writing classes have certainly benefited a great deal from various student veterans’ writing and experiences, so I jumped at the chance when Jesse Kirkpatrick, a colleague from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University, invited me to be part of the Coming Home Dialogues this summer. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to learn more about returning soliders’ experiences and to grow as a teacher of veterans, all in the quieter academic off-season.

The idea of the Coming Home Dialogues, funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, is to create and facilitate group discussions to “offer military veterans the opportunity to explore the moral, psychological, and spiritual impacts of war on the warrior as she or he returns home,” and the success of those discussion groups depends on facilitators being well-trained. That’s where I and six other educators and thinkers came in. In late August, with the summer coming to an end and another semester about to begin, the seven of us spent two days on the campus of George Mason University leading sessions to equip others to carry this work forward.

The participants attending the sessions came from a variety of institutions—the Naval Academy, the US Merchant Marine Academy, the US Marine Corps University, and others—and all of these participants will go on, in turn, to train other groups of people to lead these important conversations. We discussed a range of relevant issues, including post-traumatic stress and moral injury, the history of society’s views of war-induced trauma, sexual assault and harassment in the military, war literature from Sophocles to contemporary writer Helen Benedict, and pedagogical practices, and I got to conduct sessions on the best ways to lead productive discussions, a topic we often talk about here at CNDLS. Later, as a co-facilitator with the Naval Academy’s Temple Cone, I also conducted sessions on using writing and other methods to invite participants’ stories. The whole time I was keenly aware that I was about to resume teaching on a campus where some of my students will themselves be returning from war.

Creating a space that includes and invites those students to the conversation is an important part of what it means to create an inclusive classroom more generally. That’s an increasingly active and vital part of our work at CNDLS; this semester we’ve embarked on an Inclusive Pedagogy workshop series and we continue to develop relevant teaching resources. It’s also part of our mission more generally here at Georgetown, part of our commitments to cura personalis and care of the whole student, which means knowing who our students are and where they’re coming from. In the wake of some very powerful conversations, I’m glad to be bringing new thoughtfulness to these commitments this year.