Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Labor of Being Social

After a series of back-and-forth emails among the academic advisors, the training branch, the contracting officers, and the contractors themselves, we arrange a face-to-face meeting at one of the bases. The Afghans who stand to benefit from the projects discussed in the meeting are not included in the meeting or in the email exchange. Afghans don’t do business by email, for the most part. They talk face-to-face in the most senior person’s office. They have tea.

The meeting is held on the second floor of a building constructed out of transmodal shipping containers. The military calls them conexes or milvans. The shipping containers are bolted together; holes are cut with torches for windows; thin sheets of laminate are riveted or scabbed onto the corrugated steel walls, and electrical junction boxes and conduit and plumbing screwed onto the interior face of the laminate. The only available room large enough to accommodate all of us belongs to one of the Christian chaplains. There are three amplifiers, a drum kit, an electronic keyboard, an upright piano, stained glass appliqué paper on the steel casement window, stacks of bottled water, a rough-hewn plywood lectern, particle-board shelves lined with ecclesiastical and religious-themed books and DVDs: Francis Chan’s Forgotten God, Chris Fabry’s Dogwood, study bibles, hymnals, Robert Wilson’s The Story of God, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. We sit in a semicircle in plastic chairs. Above us, we hear the sound of pigeons nesting in the gaps of the corrugated steel.

There are discussions of the relative merits of the various graduate programs the Afghan instructors might attend: local universities, regional universities, online programs, United States universities. Funding is the primary concern, and the funding roadblocks to raising the English-language expertise of the faculty. We talk about TOEFL prep programs. One of the contracting officers observes that the multimillion-dollar contract for literacy instruction is the biggest contract in Afghanistan.

Later, one of the senior academic mentors on our team notes that his email inbox has recently filled up extraordinarily quickly, to more than 2,600 messages. “And all of it for nothing,” he says. “These don’t get anything done.” I remark again that the Afghans don’t use email: their communication is almost entirely face-to-face.

C. Paul Olson points out in his essay “Who Computes?” that computers replace labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes. We sometimes forget, I think, that sociality itself can be labor-intensive. Composition classes operate at least in part based upon a labor theory of value: one learns by doing, and the more work one puts into doing, the more skilled one typically becomes.

My conversation with the senior academic mentor shifts topics to the goals of literacy instruction, and what training in computer use might do for the Afghans. “If we come back and they’re doing all their communication by email and planning with Powerpoint,” he says, “we’ve failed.”

On Receiving a Shipment of Computers

Several days ago, I accompanied the advisor team’s supply officer and the Afghans’ supply NCO on an overcast beige-sky afternoon with rainclouds threatening as they went to a warehouse to receive several dozen pallets of laptops. The forklift driver offloaded them from the trucks — one pallet teetered and toppled to its side, but fortunately no damage — and into the central aisle of the warehouse, where another soldier with a skid jack maneuvered them into secure chain-link cages that were then locked and taped, and the doors to the warehouse themselves locked and bolted. A feral cat had made its home in the corner of one cage among the sacks of grain and beans and stacks of boxes and crates, suspicious of people, but clearly healthy and able to find its own way in and out of the warehouse. I took pictures of the unloading. The supply officer was reluctant to have his picture taken signing for the computers with the Afghans and the contract representative.

Raymond Williams, in his (neglected?) essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” argues that there are some obstacles to actually understanding the means of communication as the means of production:

First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of social production, are seen only as ‘media': devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ or ‘receivers’. (51)

I’ve seen a rhetorical habit in some scholarship today that attempts to avoid or defuse or otherwise subvert this (what I see as valid) criticism of enthusiasms over “new media” by offering a caveat along the lines of but of course all media are material. We think that if we just say we’re doing Actor Network Theory enough, or what-have-you, we’ll be let off the hook for performing those generalizing and abstracting moves.

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Inside, Outside

Two meetings, less than a week apart. One is in a large room with black leather couches around the perimeter, the most senior person’s desk — this is his office — in the corner furthest from the door. More important people sit closer to the position of power; less important closer to the door. The floor is covered by two matching large 10 x 15′ Afghan rugs in black and red and green and white. In front of the couches there are faux-wood coffee tables with chrome feet and floral-design clear glass tops. A bookcase with sagging shelves sits in one corner. Gilt-framed maroon velvet bulletin boards hang on the walls with organizational charts and calendars and quotations in Dari, and framed plastic-covered maps bracket a gold-framed photo portrait of President Karzai in the place of honor between the windows.

The couches are filled: there are a total of nineteen people in the room. There is an initial speech of 25 minutes or so, noting academic issues that have come up, offering guidance. There is some discussion of the fact that a Web presence and a Facebook page for the Academy have been authorized, and that “These will solve most of our problems.”

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Your Afghan Playlist?

A question for you, reader: what American or English-language songs would you play for Afghan students in order to both (1) introduce them to the broad range of English-language musical culture and (2) help them build their English listening and interpretation skills and familiarity?

There are some rules. My question is educationally motivated, so any music shared should support Afghan and Islamic values, and should promote the values that the Afghan educational system is trying to promote.

  1. No references to alcohol or drugs.
  2. No references to extramarital love, lust, or dating, and no references to sex. (That includes innuendo.)
  3. No misogyny. (Women-positive lyrics much encouraged, as long as they don’t violate #2.)
  4. Nothing that would be perceived as non-Islamic proselytizing. This includes no mentions of Jesus, the Bible, or biblical figures.
  5. Consider carefully the place of cursing and anti-establishment rhetoric in the context of a fledgling Islamic republic attempting to promote the rule of law.

Here’s an inital stab pedagogy: every week, make a playlist available to students. For homework, have each student choose a song he or she likes best and try to write down and learn the lyrics. In class, do some karaoke-style recitation, and then have discussion about vocabulary, cultural referents, and interpretation.

I’m seeking as diverse a sampling as possible, and hoping for music that might in some way be both representatively American or Western and that might be stuff they haven’t encountered before. I’d be grateful for any and all suggestions in the comments.

(One last thing: the class in question will also include a film portion. Any ideas for great American movies that fulfill the above criteria are welcome, as well.)

Hope When the Roads Turn Black

Things here seem to stay where people set them. Our mentor team rotates, here for 45 days or three months or six months or a year, and some of the Afghan instructors rotate in and out as well. In Lab 15, there are four dead computers gathering dust under desks and in corners — two Dells, two off-brand — in addition to the 20 sheet-shrouded operational computers running down either side of the long room with a single row of battered metal chairs facing front in the middle. There are computer parts in tattered cardboard boxes, a boombox for playing English-language listening and conversation practice cassettes and CDs, a DVD player, a VCR, a marker- and dirt-smudged Smart Board hanging on the wall. In the back corner of the room, there is a metal wheeled cart with a TV set and a dirty mug and three boxed sets of children’s games. Each of the operational computers has a small uninterruptible power supply next to it because of how unreliable the electricity is. Under the teacher’s desk, there are two more power supplies on their sides, unused, a white thermal carafe, styrofoam forms for packing electronics, woven reed baskets, a CRT and a 13-inch flat-panel monitor, remote controls hidden under stacks of years-old student papers, an empty rosewater bottle. The rooms we work in accumulate the detritus of instruction, including the superannuated technological capital associated with computer-based teaching.

afgh_mud_huts

When I first arrived here, I moved freely from my office overlooking the airfield to Lab 15 or to other classrooms to observe the Afghan teachers, though that freedom of movement was and is circumscribed by the boundaries of the small campus. It’s fenced on all sides, accessible only through checkpoints with gates, crew-served weapons, and armed guards. We drive past the airfield to get here: on one side the civilian Kabul International Airport that the Ariana and Kam and Safi jets fly out of with the few here wealthy enough to travel on them, and on the other the Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters and C-27 cargo planes of the Afghan Air Force. It was easy enough to take a break from working on the computer — before I learned to I needed to get out of the office and move in order to do my job — and watch the planes taking off and landing, just as I used to watch the cargo ships go up and down the Hudson from my office at West Point.

I see similarities to the large-scale mobility of the multinational military presence here — the helicopters and cargo planes, flying missions and materiel and personnel beyond, within, and across Afghanistan — in the critique Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu offer in “Composing in a Local-Global Context” (2009) of the formulation by which “success… is imagined in terms of the extra-territorial mobility achieved: the ability of the few across the world to constantly move, untied by emotion or responsibility to any one territory, identity, or career” (122). Transnational and transterritorial mobility is a marker of privilege, much as we see in “Globalism and Multimodality in a Digitized World,” where Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Gorjana Kisa, and Shafinaz Ahmed (2009) use “the term transnational… to signify a growing group of students who are at home in more than one culture… These students typically speak multiple languages, often including varieties of English from outside the United States, and maintain networks of friends, family members, and other contacts around the globe” (56). In some instances, mobility itself possesses agency, rather than the things that possess that mobility, as in Horner and Lu’s assertion that “the extra-territorial mobility of capital robs individual locales, lives, and lines of work of any vestige of stability” (123). The tribally and socially connected nature of Afghan culture feels deeply local, with little of the assumed privilege we associate with the American fetish for cars and planes and so-called footloose capital.

afgh_market_street

Since the recent incident, it’s become harder for Americans to move around the campus. We don’t go anywhere alone, and there’s a check-in and check-out system, and increased security measures all around. Body armor any time we go outside the gate, even if we’re still inside the wire. Within the gate, there’s little freedom of movement, and few places to go. We draw the shades in our offices, and I no longer watch the comings and goings of the planes.

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