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Naval Academy Teacher Offers His Students Fleet Advice

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2006 – You can't predict where your military career will take you, a former U.S. Naval Academy midshipman, turned instructor, tells his students. What you can do is learn to take the unexpected in stride.

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Navy Lt. Roland Backhaus sits in his office in the English department at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., May 18. A graduate of the academy, Backhaus returned to teach English after completing nuclear power school and serving aboard a nuclear ballistic-missile submarine. Photo by Paul X. Rutz

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"Nobody will end up being where they think they will end up being," Navy Lt. Roland Backhaus, a submarine officer, said. "I thought I was going to be a SEAL until my fiancee said, 'You will not be a SEAL.' ... Those are the kinds of things that my students can't plan on right now."

Backhaus graduated from the academy in 2001 with a major in English. He earned a master's degree in literature, then went on to nuclear power school and the submarine fleet, an unconventional move for a non-engineering major. He returned in January for a shore tour to teach alongside his former professors in the English department.

Backhaus said that while attending the academy he thought the midshipmen who wanted to be submariners were all "big geeks."

"That's a stereotype that's out there," he said. He told himself as a plebe -- freshman in academy jargon -- "I'm never going to be a submariner; that just sounds terrible."

Going from Navy SEAL aspirations to nuclear engineering meant a lot of shifting in his perspective throughout his academic career. That's one of the lessons he tries to teach his students. "Nothing is concrete, and if one thing doesn't work out, any number of opportunities or options will work out, and they'll work out just fine," he said.

Teaching literature helps him convey that message, Backhaus said. For example, at the beginning of the poetry section of his course, he asks his students if they like poetry. Only about 5 percent say they do.

"If there are 5 percent of people out there who like poetry, by the end of the class, I want to get 100 percent of people to either like it or recognize it, and often that happens through the four or five weeks I spend teaching poetry," he said.

While reading poems taught by a military instructor, most plebes start to acknowledge poetry's value in their world. "There's a shift that occurs there," he said. "Hopefully they recognize that, and they recognize that that's a part of a larger understanding as a human that there are these big shifts that go on in people's minds."

Basic academic notions undoubtedly serve individuals, especially while in combat zones, Backhaus said.

Onboard the submarine, he found a difficult situation with other officers at times. "A lot of those guys did not relate very well to their men or other officers in the wardroom, and that became problematic," he said. Learning to appreciate other people's perspectives and finding ways to efficiently communicate complicated ideas are key to being a good officer, he said. Those are traits he first learned in the Naval Academy's English department from military instructors.

"It's nice for (midshipmen) to see in a very concrete way that there's something beyond the academy," he said. "The mids get to benefit from some of the perspectives ... that a civilian instructor won't be able to give them."

Although he was excited to come back and teach, Backhaus said he found it intimidating at first to work alongside civilian professors who not only have doctorate degrees and years of experience, but also once taught him.

Professor Allyson Booth, the English department chair, said a few of her former students have come back to teach in the department, and working with them is great. "When we get lieutenants back here, they're always terrific," she said. "We view them as colleagues, and that's basically the way they behave."

She said officers who come back to teach are a great asset to the program, and it helps that they already know what to expect in this military environment.

"Everything is bizarre and fascinating to a civilian," she said, recalling her first impressions when she started teaching here 16 years ago. "The fact that (students are) going to stand up when you walk into the room, request permission to come aboard, stuff like that -- it just feels totally bizarre."

As new instructors, officers usually meld quickly with the department and its philosophies, she said. "The officers tend to do a great job in the classroom. They know how to walk in and speak to a group, and the rest of the stuff you prep for," she said. "They tend to be great teachers."

The officers play a big part in the department as resources for information on what's going on in the military lately and how a midshipman's career may be affected by a particular decision, Booth said. "We care about our students not just while they're here," she said. Having them pursue an academic direction that will hurt their careers is a concern sometimes.

The liberal arts education the academy gives its midshipmen is important, she said. "This is a school. It's not just a training base. It has to be a college, because this is the only college the mids are going to get. It's not like if they don't get it here, they're going to get it somewhere else."

When midshipmen graduate, they go directly into duty as Navy or Marine Corps officers, and they take their college experience with them overseas. "Literature is a way of tapping into your culture and your imaginative heritage, and it's a way of thinking about who you are, a way of putting yourself in another person's position, and a way of learning to analyze things from a lot of different points of view," Booth said.

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