Reading group for veterans hosts workshop

by Sunny Drescher | 7/13/18 2:40am

Dartmouth classical studies professor Roberta Stewart shared her new model for helping veterans cope with struggles with potential new faciliators from across the country at a workshop last month. The model that Stewart developed incorporates book discussions focusing on Homer’s “Odyssey.” Last month’s workshop will help facilitators and future facilitators learn more about the discussions so that Stewart can spread her mission to groups across the country.

The five day workshop brought in 22 potential facilitators from Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont and included clinicians, academics, veterans, military personnel and others interested in engaging with veterans in their communities. While other groups, such as one at the University of Vermont, have previously faciliated the program, the workshop marks the first time that participants throughout the country came to Dartmouth to share ideas about hosting groups.The workshop participants discussed best practices for group faciliation and reviewed critical components of the “Odyssey.” College president emeritus Jim Wright also gave a guest lecture at the workshop and discussed parallels between the “Odyssey” and the lives of contemporary veterans.

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Wrightcommended Stewart for working with veterans and helping them engage with each other.

“Being worn down emotionally by combat experiences is nothing new, and [these discussions] allow people to realize that what they’re experiencing is not so unusual,” Wright said.

Wright said that veterans are often most comfortable talking to each other about their experiences and echoed Stewart’s sentiments that the “Odyssey” provides veterans with a framework for their discussion “that’s not just focusing on them and their recent experiences but also helping them to understand that their experiences are more universal.”

Wright emphasized the importance of having a diverse group of team members, including veterans, because a variety of team members can “help guide how we think and approach these discussions.” He also noted that other professionals can offer support and engagement.

Army suicide prevention program manager and veteran David Perkins — who participated in the workshop — praised Stewart for the way in which she structured the program with different facilitators and groups to best help veterans connect with facilitators and each other. Perkins added that the variety of scholars contributed to the “palpable” energy and enthusiasm in discussions and helped participants connect with each other.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of building group cohesion, especially for older veterans,” Perkins wrote in an email statement.

Perkins credited Stewart’s passion for and expertise in the “Odyssey” for “[emboldening]” him to take action and plan a book group discussion program for later this year in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Stewart said she’s been impressed by the number of people who want to work with and help veterans, and she hopes that these discussion groups can form a network across the country.

Stewart noted that there are two main features of the book discussion groups that make them “unusual and distinct,” so that other people want to get involved and engage with veterans in their communities.

First, the groups are facilitated by three people — including veterans, academics, clinicians and others — to encourage dialogue instead of a more lecture-based approach. Second, these groups operate pro bono, which Stewart said can make people more appreciative of the work that’s being done.

As The Dartmouth previously reported in April, Stewart first came up with the idea to connect veterans with Homer after reading military blogs while on sabbatical nearly eleven years ago. The book groups have evolved into 14-week sessions during which 10 to 12 veterans and three facilitators convene to talk about the “Odyssey” and its connections to the present.

“Homer gets it,” Stewart said. “The resonance of classical literature and the applicability of it for modern day problems and modern day circumstances is amazing.”

Stewart said that the themes of the “Odyssey” are conducive to challenges veterans face today, such as transitioning between going to war and coming home. She added that using the text to frame discussions helps veterans connect with each other and reflect.

“If you don’t want to talk about yourself, you can talk about Homer,” Stewart said. “[The Odyssey] is a really nice deflection.”

According to Stewart, these book discussions differ from an academic or classroom discussion of Homer. In classroom settings, Stewart said she tries to teach students how to teach themselves to master the material, whereas in these book groups she does not teach but “facilitates the encounter with Homer.” She said the discussions with veterans aim to help participants “recognize humanity.”

Stewart said that it is gratifying to see academics and others valuing the humanities and placing emphasis on engaging with and helping veterans.

“Most of the time in America everything has a price tag on it,” Stewart said. “But what if you make it free? What if it’s a gift?”