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Samet finds a unique path to a Soldier’s Heart

A smart black suit and stylish Prada glasses are not quite what you’d expect from a West Point faculty member. But Elizabeth Samet is probably the first to recognize that she’s not the military academy norm.

Educated at elite institutions Harvard and Yale, Samet is one of the academy’s civilian professors of English. And nearly a decade after adjusting to military time and speaking in acronyms, it’s obvious her contributions appear to have as much influence on the battlefield as it does in the classroom.

In a lecture at Linderman Library on Feb. 7, Samet reflected on her experiences at West Point, which is also the basis for her recent book Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point. The book provides sketches and portraits of students and military colleagues and reports on their communications with her as they move on in their careers, to and from war zones such as Iraq and, for some, to civilian life.

English courses at West Point—including composition and literature classes, genre and film courses—reflect both tales of war and otherwise. Great Expectations, War and Peace and poetry such as Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” are just a few of the many works she touched upon during her lecture, but her book is filled with compact readings of classic texts.

“Literary analysis demands slow, patient and careful exploration; it fosters an awareness of ambiguities and uncertainties that can’t be easily resolved; and it often encourages empathy for those very unlike yourself,” says associate professor of English Scott Paul Gordon, who also served as Samet’s teaching fellow at Harvard University.

“These skills, Elizabeth found, were very different from those that her students had to develop in most of the rest of their military training—which required certainty, clarity, simplicity, lightening-quick decisions—and her students who went over to Iraq frequently reported back on the value of the ‘literary’ part of their West Point training,” he added.

Samet arrived at West Point before Sept. 11, 2001 when the country was at peace. “The brutal realities of their profession were far off for me and for them,” she says of that time. “Now we know the stakes are much higher.”

In the post-9/11 environment at West Point, she carried on as usual, but the literature she introduced in the classroom began to have a different context. “This intellectual commitment turned into an emotional one as well,” she said.

Even the study of Macbeth prompted cadets to question how they thought of their world and how others saw them. During a discussion one cadet responded, “I don’t consider myself as a ‘nonthinking slasher’. And I don’t think Iraq is going to turn me into one.”

These interactions with the cadets began to “humanize them,” she said, while at the same time they humanized her. “This is indicative of a society where fewer people know who does the fighting for them,” said Samet.

Today, Samet’s relationship with her students transcends the classroom, as her e-mail inbox fills with messages from former cadets, with subject lines such as “Greetings from Mosul.” She shared stories of students connecting with her from Iraq and Afghanistan, who draw upon passages from poems and characters from novels to better understand their own place in life or their role in combat.

For many, they wrestle with ambiguity, and realize there are no easy solutions to the obstacles they face. “I’ve come to think of literature in different ways and serving a different purpose,” Samet said. “People bring with them whatever they take away from class to war.”

“I like to think that I’m arming you with something you need. Something you’ll find valuable,” she tells her students—both current and former. “I like this idea of books as weapons.”

Samet’s lecture was sponsored by Friends of the Lehigh Libraries and co-sponsored by Faculty Development, the Humanities Center and the English department.

--Tricia Long

Posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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