What must it take to become a Brother Rat? Erh 101-Section 1

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What must it take to become a Brother Rat?

ERH 101-Section 1

Date Due: 18 July, 2014

Date Submitted: 18 July, 2014

Paper No. 3

Help Received: Help received from teacher and students to give me new ideas to find documents regarding my paper and reviewing paper in class.

Christopher Lieberman


Christopher Lieberman

LTC Pennie Ticen

English Comp. 1

14 July, 2014

What must it take to become a Brother Rat?

A discourse community can either help or hurt society. Some discourse communities are special; for example, there is a school in the small town of Lexington, Virginia named Virginia Military Institute. It is nicknamed the “West Point of the South” and commonly known as being “tough,” or unorthodox. People don’t understand why a college would do this to their students, but it is to create a discourse community that will last to the grave and beyond. It begins with the rat line, and it creates brother rats, friends and brothers and sisters forever.

A discourse community can mold a child to be good or evil, and sometimes you have to change your discourse community. In their essays, scholars Ann M. Johns and James Paul Gee discuss how people are either in a discourse community or they are not. Johns debates that she believes people can become invested in a social discourse community but they don't have to be fully involved in the group through political and social views. She gives the example of her husband, who is an amateur bicyclist and part of that discourse community, yet she explains that her husband knows the common language and knowledge to be a part of the community, but he does not share the same ideological beliefs for the country. She is right to a degree, but Gee disagrees, his belief is that one either must belong in the group or they are not part of the group. Gee states, “There is, thus, no workable “affirmative action” for Discourses: you can’t be let into the game after missing the apprenticeship and be expected to have a fair shot at playing it. Social groups will not, usually, give their social goods- whether these are status or solidarity or both- to those who are not “natives” or “fluent users,” (Gee 487). This radical view from Gee has created a lot of controversy about his claims. Virginia Military Institute proves Gee to be true. The apprenticeship that Gee discusses, in this quote, is simply the Rat Line.

When I visited the campus in November of 2013, I had many questions regarding VMI, including campus life, and especially questions about the rat line. I shadowed a fellow rat, asking him a lot of questions, trying to determine if VMI was the school for me. When we were not in the Rats' Barrack, he had me walk close to him everywhere we went, so he did not have to strain, an extremely exaggerated form of the military’s “attention” command. After walking around the campus in that strained position all day, I asked the Rat why he would put himself through hell to come to VMI, just for a college degree. It was his response that stuck with me, it made a major impact on my life, and it was probably the one comment that made me decide that VMI was the school for me, he told me, “It is what comes at the end of this journey, it's what I really want for my life... a brotherhood.” He informed me that being a rat would suck, and at times I would get sick of getting screamed at every day, because a rat is described as being less in value than dirt. A rat is not a cadet; they are not a member of VMI. They are basically, in the eyes of cadets, still just a prospect coming to the school. But the niche of the rat is attempting to be accepted to the greatest club of VMI, the “brother rat.”

There are many challenges to becoming a brother rat, the toughest one is converting from civilian life to becoming a disciplined military force. In his essay, Gee talks about primary discourses and how they affect the life of a person and their future discourses. He states, “All of us through our primary socialization early in our life in the home and peer group, acquire (at least) one initial discourse. This initial discourse which I call our primary discourse is the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others. Our primary discourse constitutes our original and home-based sense of identity, and, I believe it can be seen whenever we are interacting with “intimates” in totally casual (unmonitored) social interaction,” (Gee 485). My personal primary discourse was playing soccer and doing well in school. At an early age, I learned from my parents that I needed to stay healthy and to be educated. Since making the decision to attend VMI, I was affected by another discourse, termed a secondary discourse. It is defined as “after our initial socialization in our home community, each of us interacts with various non-home based social institutions- institutions in the public sphere, beyond the family, and immediate kin and peer group,” (Gee 485). VMI is a secondary discourse, because a cadet is still a member of his primary discourse, achieved during childhood and adolescent years. Although VMI is a secondary discourse, it could be considered primary, because a cadet is "reborn" or transformed into a new and different individual at VMI.

The method I used to research the topic of the brother rat was to interview former rats, including a current student and an alumnus. The research was helpful in writing the paper and it was also useful in preparing me for my future as a cadet at VMI. When a rat breaks out and becomes a brother rat, they join into a brotherhood, holding a special niche to never let a brother rat fail. This is a very unique and rare community. Numerous times I have been in conversation with fellow students when terms are used that are unique to VMI, words such as “stoopie” (Maintenance Worker) or “RDC” (Rat Discipline Committee), “OC” (Officer in Command) and “BSR” (Barracks Study Room). These terms may be unfamiliar to a student in the Summer Transition Program. These are all acronyms and slang terms describing people or locations at VMI. Once the matriculation process begins, the acronyms and terms will be common place for rats as they enter the discourse community at VMI.

I interviewed Major John Casper, VMI Chaplin, who completed the “rat line” in 2001 and graduated from VMI in 2004. He discussed keeping in contact with his brother rats, even ten years after graduation. He maintains contact with his former roommates and other classmates, which is unusual for others who attended non-military, liberal arts institutions. It is this bond, friendship and camaraderie that sets this school apart from so many others. Chaplain Casper told great stories of life as a rat and what he went through in the rat line. He showed videos about the Matriculation process, when the Cadres charged the rats. He was reminiscing with a friend about his past experiences at VMI as a Rat. The video showed the Corp commander giving a short speech, and then the re-indoctrination began. The screaming and yelling, the chaos and the destruction seemed to have a terrible affect on him. Chaplin Casper showed another video of cadets receiving the “rat bible” from the Rat Disciplinary Committee (RDC). The RDC is in charge of molding and shaping the rat class together, ensuring the cadet understands the rat bible, is respectful, and physically fit. The process of being “whipped into shape” by the RDC and the corporals/cadres relates to a quote taken from Gee about becoming fluent with your discourse, “in fact, the lack of fluency may very well mark you as a pre-tender to the social role instantiated in the discourse (an outsider with pretensions to being an insider),” (Gee 487).

What is the ratline? It is neither an escape route for Nazis nor the rigging on masts of tall ships to tend the sails. To some cadets, it is a great challenge. At VMI, they rebuild you into a better person who will be “prepared for the varied work of civil life, imbued with a love of learning, confident in the functions and attitudes of leadership, possessing a high sense of public service, advocates of the American Democracy and free enterprise system, and ready as citizen-soldiers to defend their country in time of national peril,” (VMI Rat Bible). The admissions office describes the ratline as, “Throughout most of the first year, new cadets walk at rigid attention along a prescribed route inside barracks known as the “Rat Line.” Cadets must be meticulous in keeping shoes shined, uniforms spotless, and in daily personal grooming. Additionally, new cadets must memorize school songs, yells, and other information, and be prepared to recite any of these memorized items at any given moment. The Rat Line is a time of demanding training, both physically and mentally, which prepares the Rat for the next three years in the Corp. "The rat experience begins with Matriculation Day, continues through winter and generally ends in January or February when rats ‘break out,’” (VMI Website). The rat line can be very stressful and some of the cadets do not pass the rat line for various reasons. As Gee also points out, “I argue that when such conflict or tensions exist, it can deter acquisition of one or the other or both of the conflicting discourse, or, at least, affect the fluency of the mastered discourse on a certain occasions of use,” (Gee 485-486). This quote from Gee describes that when someone tries to enter a discourse community, sometimes the process of joining is so difficult people cannot make the connection to join and fail in their attempts to join their discourse community.

Rat lines from previous years at VMI would last until February or March, some even lasting into April or May depending on whether the first classmen believed the rats were unified enough to become cadets. “Rat line is designed to make you feel terrible and once you break out of it is a general sense of relief. You feel freedom, and disbelief you don’t have to tuck your chin into your neck. People began to come outside and stand on the stoops talking normally for the first time” (Casper). Striving to become a brother rat is part of what makes VMI what it is today. After completing the rat line, the cadet has gained a sense of friendship, a personal bond, loyalty and devotion with his or her classmates. VMI creates one cohesive unit. Together with academics and the rat line, VMI creates a new type of man in a discourse community weighted with respect and pride in oneself. The rat becomes a cadet, but most importantly the rat becomes a brother rat.

Major Casper tells the story of how he dislocated his arm while doing rat challenge in October. “I lived in room 416, late October in the middle of rat challenge and I am doing the obstacle course, I dislocated my shoulder so I was not able to enjoy the rat line. They made me do orbits running around my platoon. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I started to get the symptoms of depression, and I was talking to my dyke and was venting. He told me to go talk to my company corporals who seemed to pick on me for my sling. So I did it. And it felt good, they did not pick on me anymore, ever,” (Casper). This relates to the tension and conflict Gee discusses during his essay, when a neophyte must learn what is takes to become a VMI cadet. Through his conflicts that he overcame, Chaplin Casper was able to succeed, and join his discourse community.

Rat line is a difficult and demanding process that must be completed before the brother rat or cadet moves on to the next phase of his journey through VMI. As Gee and Johns describes in their essays, the VMI cadet journeys from the comfortable primary discourse community of a family setting to the secondary discourse community of a military setting at VMI. Following four years of intense academic study, rigorous physical fitness standards, and military training, the cadet has become a changed person with different beliefs, ideologies, and core beliefs. He or she is no longer the high school adolescent living at home. The common values learned at VMI are shared by most in the Corp of Cadets and will be retained for a lifetime. The Corp of Cadets and particularly the Rat Line are members of an elite group of scholars and leaders within the community. For 175 years, graduates have joined the discourse community at VMI.

Works Cited

Casper, John. Personal interview. 15 July 2014.

"Community." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 14 July 2014. .

"Discourse Community Definition." Discourse Community Definition. Web. 16 July 2014. .

"Discourse." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 16 July 2014. .

"First year. Rat year. - Virginia Military Institute Admissions." Virginia Military Institute Admissions RSS2. Web. 16 July 2014. .

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Bedford/ St. Martin’s: Boston, 2011. 481-497. Print.

Johns, Ann M. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity,” Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Bedford/ St. Martin’s: Boston, 2011. 498-519. Print.

"Rat Bible Knowledge." flashcards. Web. 18 July 2014. .
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