Monthly Archives: January 2011

Interlingualism’s Terms

There’s an apocryphal story supposedly told and repeated in the past year or so by a high-ranking general here, one I’ve only heard secondhand, and so I don’t really have access to verifying its details or its telling, but it’s a grim story, and goes something like this: there’s a mixed unit operating in the field in one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan, US soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and they come under fire from insurgents and call for reinforcements and a medevac for the injured, only conditions are such that the Americans can’t figure out where they are from the landmarks and the Afghans can’t read the map well enough or communicate on the radio sufficiently clearly to give the inbound helicopters an accurate fix on where they are. By the time the helicopters locate them, there’s no one left. The medevac becomes a casevac.

It’s told to highlight the perils of miscommunication or lack of communication across languages and cultures, and told in service of a commitment to English-language education for ANA soldiers. Afghanistan has two official languages and a number of others besides, and rather than build L1 literacy and then L2 proficiency, the notion is to move directly to L2 proficiency and literacy for all Afghans, using English as the acknowledged foreign alternate language or interlanguage for purposes that most Americans here would consider to be pragmatic, or what James Britton and others have called “transactional”: language that gets things done; that performs the work of the world.

To that end, the English as a foreign language classes here are designed and taught to promote and assess pragmatic linguistic competency in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. As one would expect, at the Afghan institution that I’m working at until mid-June, English instruction is understood as purely and deeply pragmatic, much as English seems to be used to accomplish the quotidiana between and among the diverse soldiers of the international force at the base where I’m housed, Israelis and Mongolians and Greeks and Romanians and British and Dutch and French and Belgians and Americans and Germans and Portuguese and Australians and Italians and others.

I’m writing this at a picnic table outside. It’s warm for a January day; an afternoon in the 40s, a cool breeze doing nothing to cut through the heavy haze, and three Czech smokers come outside for their before-dinner fixes as the sun starts to go down. Behind me, there are the main doors to the barracks with laser-printed semi-official reminders and dicta and policies; to my left, the comings and goings from the flight line that I’m strictly forbidden from photographing, Bulgarian Hinds and white-painted UN cargo helicopters, the Air Force’s C-130s, the 727s and 737s flown by Ariana and Pamir bound for Kuwait or Dubai or Kandahar or other polyglot locales where English can similarly serve as a second language or — in its function as a “bridge” language — sometimes as something approaching a lingua franca. All around, there are the technological implements of communication: cell phone aerials, satellite dishes craning their concave faces skywards, coax and Cat 6 cable strung through the hallways of the barracks, radio towers topped by their blinking caution lights, and to my front, the vehicles studded with their electronic countermeasures antennae that serve to protect against IEDs activated via various electronic devices when powered up, generating around them a traveling null zone empty of any indigenous electronic signals, an electromagnetically-produced decommunicationalized bubble that leaves pedestrians glaring at their cell phones and then at us — the high-tech multinationals who travel swiftly through their streets; who use English as our own sort of interlanguage — in frustration. Yes, there’s some imperialism here, arguably even something of a colonialist project, and I’m ambivalent about some aspects of it, even — as I’ve noted before — while I believe in the need for and usefulness of literacy in service of the rule of law and self-determination for Afghanistan.

That imperialism is one analogue of the “English-only instruction” that Min-Zhan Lu compellingly argues “parades the (seldom delivered) promise of enduring access to wider communication and better educational and job opportunities” (608), and English (though not English-only) instruction is often posed as offering precisely those promises here.

cricket with guard

While I think Lu’s characterization of “English-only instruction” sometimes problematically extends into caricature the practices Bruce Horner and John Trimbur thoughtfully dissected in their 2002 article “English Only and U.S. College Composition,” I like the way she poses English-only advocates against what she terms “living-English users,” who are users of an English “kept alive by many and by many different ways of using it, each of which is itself a living process in-the-forming: informing and informed by the specific, different dynamic, historical and social contexts of individual acts” (608). So, too, do I buy the contention she makes with Horner, Trimbur, and Jacqueline Jones Royster that “notions of the ‘standard English speaker’ and ‘Standard Written English’ are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages” (305).

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Negotiating the Administratosphere

I had a productive first meeting with the person I’m working with on the Afghan side here, the acting head of the Languages department, and have started to develop a sense about the specifics of the areas — curriculum development, teacher mentoring — on which he’d like me to focus. The project our American mentor team has taken on feels enormous and a little bit diffuse, with undefined boundaries or limits beyond that of the departure of the American mentor presence from this extraordinarily young institution of higher education in less than three years, and a philosophy that can mostly be summed up as an orientation toward helping the Afghans draw together and perform all these administrative and curricular and pedagogical tasks, literally inventing the university in its entirety as their own, on their own. I still struggle to get my head around how big a project this is and how many moving parts it has and how swiftly and carefully we have to move. Today, on the peeling-paint wall over my corner desk in the office, I scotch-taped up a quotation from T.E. Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles“: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.”

barracks

One thing I know I need to do in order to be helpful here is to step back and get perspectival distance on the assumptions about teaching and writing I’ve built up over the past twelve years or so. So in my meeting, I listened a lot, asked questions, and took notes. After I went back to the office and typed up the notes, I opened two of the books I brought to help reset my assumptions to zero: Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj’s The Elements of Teaching Writing and Cheryl Glenn and Melissa Goldthwaite’s The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. (I’ve re-read Erika Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers too recently to be able to come to it with fresh eyes.) There’s much to commend both books, beginning with Glenn and Goldthwaite’s observation that “The first thing any new teacher must do is gather information” (3), perhaps glaring in its obviousness save that I’ve been working hard to do precisely that in an environment where I’m off-balance and uninformed, where I don’t know any of the ropes or routines. Certainly, I’ve been “mak[ing] inquiries about the academic level of the students [that the Afghan instructors here] will be teaching” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 4) and “[t]ry[ing] at this point to find out all [I] can about the backgrounds of the students [they] are likely to encounter. Until fairly recently, teachers of writing have treated all students as if they were very much alike, but that convenient fiction is no longer feasible to maintain” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 5). The second quotation is perhaps even more true in an institution drawing from a population incredibly diverse in terms of economic status, literacy and previous education, and language and tribal background — Uzbeks, Nuristanis, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and others.

sandbags

And I like the way Gottschalk and Hjortshoj begin, as well, by posing some fundamental questions: “What is wrong with student writing? … Who is responsible for improving student writing?” (4). Who ought to be able to teach writing (5), and “[w]hat is good writing” (7)? Gottschalk and Hjortshoj then move to big-picture concerns about writing and learning, about philosophies of teaching, and about course design (12-13): this seems smart to me, to orient oneself to the biggest and most important concepts, the overarching frame, before one starts to work on the details. I know which courses and which aspects of curriculum my Afghan counterpart wants the most help with, and I have a loose sense of what pedagogical areas he’d like me to help his faculty work on, but my sense is vague and limited, and it’ll take more time and talk — weeks, I think, at least — to refine and broaden and specify that sense.

cars_ready

Glenn and Goldthwaite take a different approach, focused much less on the big-picture questions: while they devote pages early on to constructing a syllabus, it’s not so much about course design as it is about administrative requirements, which strikes me as odd, or at least as not an approach I would choose. They assert that “The first details you should find out about are the number of credit hours the course carries and the number of times the class meets each week” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 3) and ask, “Must students write and submit a certain number of essays? Must they keep journals or reading logs? Is there an official policy with regard to revisions? peer evaluation? teacher conferences? evaluation and grading? Is an exit exam required?” (4), which are all relevant and important questions, but not the things at the front of my mind as I first beging thinking through the design of a course. Similarly, they focus on the administrivia of teaching writing in their account of the first two days, enumerating “bureaucratic tasks,” syllabus review, introductions, dismissal, more “bureaucratic tasks,” and the clinically characterized “diagnostic” writing assignment.

As I try to stand back from my assumptions and think about the Afghan students and instructors here, I still can’t help but say: this isn’t how I would want to start thinking about a course, and it isn’t how I would want to start teaching a course. Certainly, the administrivia are necessary, elements of a sort of logistical scaffolding that makes other things possible, forms of enabling the work-behind-the-work that does deserve to be at times foregrounded upon, reflected upon (“How do you write? Where are you when you write? For how long at a stretch? What do you need to know or do in order to be able to write? What are the non-writing tasks that make you able to write?”), but it’s not an end in itself, and not something that one should lead with.

Contrarily, I would want the first day of a course to give some idea of the overarching picture, the plan, a glimpse at the big idea or big picture, and a sense of how the work of the class will go, an engaged task as a taste or warm-up for the semester’s work. I imagine myself starting class today, this 26th of January, and I imagine:

“Welcome,” I say. “This is a writing class.

I believe you can write, and that you can write well. I know that you learn by doing, and this class will be in doing writing, in engaging the process, and in learning and practicing how to internalize the habits that will make you a better writer. So we’re going to start by doing today: I’m going to ask you to write.

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From There to Here

I’m on a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, mostly set up in the small (9 feet wide by 23 feet long) barracks room where I’ll live until June. It took some doing getting here. I left our home in Highland Falls, New York, early in the morning on 8 January 2011, and showed up at the CONUS Replacement Center at Fort Benning, Georgia later that day. I’ll be necessarily vague on some of the details that took me from there to here, but after a number of days I traveled from Fort Benning and spent some hours in the air before setting down in Europe to refuel, and then a few more hours to an airbase in the Middle East that serves as sort of a gateway to various destinations in that part of the world, broadly considered. That was where I last posted from; that dusty place with the enormous wide-open sky, assembled semi-permanently in the desert out of concrete pads and hundreds of tents and various tan-colored trailers and shipping containers and generators and half-shells and diesel-powered floodlights and highway barriers, populated by transient soldiers and civilians and contractors and maintained mostly by people from other poorer parts of the world. Lots of waiting and checking monitors and standing in lines.

I expected to be there longer than I was, but there was a flight unexpectedly added, a military plane, and we sat facing center on either side of the cargo bay, hoping that the chains that held down the large armored vehicles between us would hold tightly enough on takeoff and landing. From there, another few hours in the air to land in the cold dark early hours of the morning at another airbase, one far less well-equipped to deal with travelers in significant number than the previous installation, where no one seemed to know anything about the various forms of transportation that might be able to take us from there to here. The flights were full, with nothing projected for days, and with the weight we were carrying, rotary-wing wasn’t an option, and so it took a number of phone calls and emails — a remarkably difficult proposition, with inoperative cell phones and mostly unavailable internet — to get us linked up with an officer who was eventually able to find a place for us in an overland armored convoy. (Part of the solution came from me calling home on the free phones at the USO coffee shop and asking the Orientalist to send an email from Highland Falls describing my situation to a member of the unit waiting for us in Kabul.) For that leg of the trip, I got up first at 4 o’clock in the morning to see if I could get on one flight, but couldn’t, and then there were two more toward mid-day, and then finally the surprise flight was announced mid-afternoon, which meant by the time that I found out I was getting on the convoy, I’d had about four hours of sleep and been awake for thirty hours.

The convoy was the first event that opened my eyes to what I’ve signed up for, at least in terms of the day-to-day exigencies of life for Americans in Afghanistan.

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Days Between Stations

I won’t miss Fort Benning. The soldiers of Alpha Company, CONUS Replacement Center made the best of a challenging job, and in doing so were professional and extraordinarily helpful. The civilians and contractors working the various clearance points were sometimes less so, interested more in what they were having for lunch than in rendering assistance; clerks rather than professionals whose definition of service was limited to getting your name off their lists.

CRC interior

My initial impulse would have been to characterize the accomodations at the CRC as spartan.

CRC exterior

That would have been inadequate, and that impulse reminds me how much I’ve forgotten of my time in the Army.

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Toward Afghanistan, Part 2

In a bit of curious synchronicity, I picked up a copy of Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools from the free book table. I’ll fit it into the bag somehow. In my last post, I started to talk about how the topic of religion seems curiously diminished in many of the conversations going on today about the interrelated challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender relations in Afghanistan. Mortenson’s project plays direcly into those conversations, given that his organization’s mission is “[t]o promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” One view that seems to predominate in Western conversations about Afghanistan is that education can serve as at least part of a solution to the persistent problems of misogyny, violence, and corruption, but I haven’t registered many westerners as talking about how Afghanistan’s religious culture might contribute toward that solution, as well: in fact, I more frequently hear Islam rhetorically positioned as a significant component of those problems rather than as an inextricable part of Afghan culture that those who would seek to help Afghanistan move towards some form of self-sustaining democratic modernity might embrace.

Nicholas Kristof’s argument strikes me as usefully representative here:

The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.

An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

I haven’t read Mortenson’s book yet, but the stricture against foreigners is both expected — most development literature points toward the need for self-determination, and that’s the end the Army is working toward in Afghanistan, as well — and interesting, because of the problem of what constitutes development, and where it comes from.

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Toward Afghanistan, Part 1

In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:

Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”

Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.

Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.

Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.

“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.

It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.

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