Alumna Creates Course to Offer Better Understanding of War Experience

MSU English alumna Rosemary Erickson Johnsen has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create a course that utilizes literature, films, and outside speakers to help veterans and active military members better understand their experiences and to teach all students more about the experience of war.

A Professor of English at Governors State University (GSU) in University Park, Illinois, Johnsen and Andrae Marak, Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at GSU, received a $100,000 grant from the NEH to establish the course, “War, Trauma, and the Humanities,” at Governors State University.

The project is one of 15 selected nationally by the NEH for funding through its Dialogues on the Experience of War grant Program, which is part of the NEH’s Standing Together initiative focusing on humanities projects that engage military veterans and communities and provide opportunities to think more deeply about issues raised by war and military service.

“The humanities – literature, art, theatre – have always offered vital insight on the human experience, and engaging difficult subjects like the trauma that comes with war is where the humanities really shine,” Johnsen said. “Learning about war experience through the humanities emphasizes its personal connections, and as we learn more about the authors and their writing, we are also learning history and developing a greater empathy for the experiences of those who have served.”

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MSU English alumna Rosemary Erickson Johnsen


Johnsen and Marak are team-teaching the eight-week course, which is being offered this fall. Two outside experts will meet with the class and offer an event to the public. In addition, five GSU students, all veterans, are embedded in the class, facilitating discussion and working with small groups of students.

“The student-veteran discussion facilitators are the voices of experience, helping all of us make broad connections,” Johnsen said. “They are discovering the means of better articulating their own experience to others and gaining confidence in their ability to facilitate the engagement of non-veterans with challenging material.”

The course will culminate in a public "town hall" meeting featuring the student-veteran discussion facilitators.

“Having been on the faculty at GSU for more than 10 years, it was clear that a program like this would have a real impact on campus and in the community,” Johnsen said. “I've had veterans in my classes, and many students with family members who have served. GSU's mostly non-traditional students bring a lot to their studies, and their life experience enriches understanding of the literature's themes while contributing to a classroom of shared enterprise.”

Learning about war experience through the humanities emphasizes its personal connections.

Johnsen and Marak are applying for funding for 2018-19, hoping to establish the course more firmly on campus and to implement new plans to broaden its impact in the community.

“Funds allow us to bring in experts, to promote the course and related campus/community activities, and to pay the student-veteran discussion facilitators. Should we be successful in our efforts for 2018-19, we intend to put the course through the campus curricular process to convert it from a special topics offering into a regular course,” Johnsen said. “We already see the impact the project is having, and a second year should give it momentum to be sustained on campus and with some of the community partners we're working with.”

Johnsen was born on an American military base in Germany. Her father was a career soldier who served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

She is a third-generation Michigan State University graduate, having earned her B.A. and M.A. in English from MSU, and her Ph.D. in English Literature with a specialization in Great Britain’s post World War I period also from MSU.

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Dr. Rosemary Erickson Johnsen with the student-veteran discussion facilitators


“My education at MSU prepared me in many ways, and its people and land-grant ethos are a sustaining foundation to my teaching, research, and service,” Johnsen said. “MSU's English program gave me a broad education that prepared me to be a generalist…That disciplinary foundation, combined with the research skills I sharpened during the comprehensive exam and dissertation stages of my doctoral program, have allowed me to take my teaching and research in new directions.”

Before joining Governors State University in 2006, Johnsen was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of English and the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures.