Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?

Read more

Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1

A little less than a month ago, two very small things happened. Both were mediated to me by the internet in the same place where I’m sitting and typing on my laptop now, in front of my window in the KAIA North barracks in Afghanistan, and I’m still thinking about their intersection.

The first thing: I was listening to an intermittent stream of NPR’s Morning Edition that featured Steve Inskeep interviewing Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr about the Muslim middle class and its role in the revolution in Egypt, and Nasr identified the Muslim middle class as “people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media.” A little later in the interview, Nasr made a firm distinction between “the free flow of information” and “free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy.” Nasr’s first point struck me as an important one, in a way that was underreported in much of the press: the revolution in Egypt had a strong class-based economic component. His second point struck me as curious: aren’t “the free flow of information” and economic freedom fundamentally related, especially today? Why draw a line between them?

The second thing: a friend asked me, via Facebook, “What do the Afghans over there think about what’s going on in Egypt?” It’s a good question, and one I still don’t really have an answer for. The Afghans I talk to are circumspect about their opinions, and understandably so, I think, given their history. And it’s an important question. There are clear intersections — sometimes oppositional, sometimes parallel — between the democracy-building impulses in the two countries, and clear intersections as well between the interrelations among information, democracy, and economics in the two countries.

Both countries’ struggles with and toward democratic freedoms are simultaneously spurred and inhibited by huge and complex economic problems that go far beyond their enormous and systemic corruption and graft. Part of what I’m going to do here is try to use Egypt as a way to think about Afghanistan (as well as a way to think about the concerns with economics, technology, and literacy that occupy my scholarly practice), so I’ll for the moment take Afghanistan’s economic problems — more than a third of the population unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, about three-quarters of the population illiterate, a per capita GDP that ranks 212th out of the world’s 229 nations — as a given, to be returned to and examined later in considerably more detail, using Egypt’s example as an analytical tool.

So first to Egypt, and the Facebook hype.

Read more

A Day

Six days of the week, I’m up at 0445 or 0545, depending upon whether I’m ambitious enough to make it to the gym or lazy enough to roll over in my bottom bunk for another hour’s sleep. I’m in one of seven tiny shower stalls in the men’s washroom by 0550 and dressed in my desert camouflage uniform and cap and sand-colored boots and walking down the road past the airfield and the International Joint Command headquarters to KBR Dining Facility #2 by 0620, where I’ll wash my hands at the automatic faucets over the stainless steel trough before scanning my meal card and taking a plastic tray and paper plate to the line, where I’ll get a bowl of oatmeal with some milk and a bowl of fruit cocktail mixed with fresh watermelon and plain yogurt, and sometimes half a danish. After breakfast, it’s back to the barracks to brush my teeth with bottled water — the wash water isn’t potable — and pick up my kevlar helmet and body armor and head downstairs to the vehicles. I usually ride in one of the two up-armored SUVs that always travel together, but our group has two mini-vans to travel in as well, though only the SUVs go outside the wire.


Most days we don’t go outside the wire. Instead, we follow the perimeter road around the airfield through and past multiple separate gated checkpoints with armed guards, stone walls and Hesco barriers and concertina wire and machine guns on one side and concertina wire and Kabul traffic on the other. The drive takes less than half an hour, long enough to see the Afghan day workers waiting to get through the biometric identification at the gates, to see how thick the haze is over Kabul, to pass the truckers huddled around cookfires beside their blankets and brightly colored and decorated rigs on the side of the road and the half-built apartment buildings and the pack of wild dogs and the mine-clearing operation with its earth-mover and lone ambulance and woefully under-armored Afghans. The perimeter road is part paved and part potholed dust and gravel, mud and enormous puddles now in the rainy season. I’ve gotten used to the smell of Kabul, which is mostly the tang of diesel mixed with other scents of burning — plastic, sometimes cooking, woodsmoke — and kerosene, with a usually faint but omnipresent sour note of sewage.


Much of the time, the building we work in has the same smells, though less intense. The bathrooms have straddle-style squat toilets with faucets and pitchers of water beside them for flushing. We work out of a few shared offices on one hallway that we share with the Turks and our translators; my own desk is next to the window in a long, narrow room that has six other desks and paint-peeling walls and books and maps and office supplies scattered everywhere, a reflection of its its transient nature, I suppose. The building is wired partly on the inside, with steel sleds suspended two feet from the ceiling carrying electrical and communication cables, and partly on the outside, with other wires going in and out windows and up the side of the building to a hodgepodge of dishes and antennae on the roof. Our internet is via satellite from France, and goes down as frequently as the power. Stray cats roam in and out of the building, begging loudly, but too cautious by experience to get close to humans. When some aspect of my job calls for me to communicate with students or faculty who don’t speak much English — my Dari is still limited to a few words and phrases, though I’m trying to learn in my off-time — I’ll go across the hall and ask for help from the translator assigned to me, S., who I was somewhat surprised to find is female.

Read more

Everywhere It Looks

I’ve made mistakes in my early interactions with Afghans, and I’m certain I will continue to do so. I’ve failed to sit down and have tea and chat for an hour, or two, when introducing myself, too eager in the Western way to hurry up and get things done. I’ve failed to ask about someone’s health and his family before asking about work. In Sarah Chayes’ account of her experiences in Afghanistan, The Punishment of Virtue, I find my own reflected, especially in her description of Westerners who

thought in institutional terms. Their mission, as some of them understood it, was to cultivate, encourage, and foster the fledgling Afghan government. And for most of them, that meant shoring up its ‘institutions’: its ministries, its courts, its provincial administrations.

Western political culture prompts us to think this way. Over the past three or four centuries, we in the West have designed and laboriously erected instituions as our bulwark against tyranny. And we have come to revere them, for they have indeed protected us. . . But Afghanistan is not there yet. In Afghanistan, loyalties and allegiances are to individuals. (169)

Individuals, not institutions. Not abstractions. As Chayes notes, “in Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men” (163). I’ve presumed that work and the institutions I’ve associated with my work here — building democracy, infrastructure, an educational system — are more important than other things in the lives of the people I’ve met here, a foolish and myopic assumption easily belied by even my own experience.

Some of the dissonance I’ve been encountering — some of the ways in which I’ve felt challenged, stymied, held out, unable to do what seems or feels like my mission — has been a result of my expecting to do things in familiar Western ways, in my expectation that the merits of whatever I might try to do would be as self-evident here as they are (not that they always are, but even on the many times they aren’t, they’re at least arguable in accessible terms and ideologies) back in the U.S. Which is of course a simple enough expression of cultural difference, but still a reminder to me that I ought not try to pin down or make falsely familiar cultures to which I do not have access and of which I do not have membership. And the thing is, I see a lot of that in the scholarship on composition and world Englishes under globalization to which I’ve been turning for assistance.

That’s a problem for me. There are assumptions about the self-evidentiary nature of other cultures in that scholarship, as well, that make me want to point out that Afghan culture is no more homogenous than American culture; no more authentic in its inwardly lived experience or meretricious in its gregarious and manifest outward appearance; no more situated at the teleological end of a familiar historical tradition than American culture; no more possible to subjugate via knowing or explaining than American culture. Rather, and it took Bhabha to get me to start to see this, it’s constructed, narrated into being by its contacts internal and external, always already forming itself in relation to that which is reciprocally always already there, simultaneously that which is itself and that which is not itself and in which it defines itself against. That’s the theoretical way to put it, at least. In lived experience, it’s the translator who asks to go home to his house in Kabul because it’s snowing and his mud roof will cave in if he doesn’t shovel it; it’s the instructors who shrug and profess that they can do nothing about students being late to class since the Americans have objected to beating the students; it’s all these ruptures and fissures and limit cases that are instances of cultural difference always as a function of relation.

Bhabha explains it better than I do, noting that

the epistemological ‘limits’ of those ethnocentric ideas [“of the ‘grand narratives’ of post-enlightenment rationalism”] are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices — women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities. For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: ‘Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks…. The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses. (Introduction to The Location of Culture)

In my attempts to think about the ends of education as performed here in Afghanistan, what I’m running into is an experience of Afghanistan as the local and immediate space of difference between democracy and tribalism, village-building and nation-building, individual gain and communal advance. That’s fine: I can adjust, am adjusting, to that; doing my best, somewhat embarrassed at my initial arrogant assumptions about how little I might have to adjust myself, my perspective, who I am as a scholar and teacher and what I think I can be and know and do.

What’s not fine is that the more I read composition scholarship on multilingual pedagogies under the effects of economic globalization, the more I reject its remarkable eagerness to perceive its own privilege in others; the more I reject its unreflective emphasis on the privileges of “capital,” “networks,” “exchange,” “textuality,” “citizenship,” and especially the assumed privilege of traveling between. In these articles, there’s a narcissistic privilege that sees itself everywhere it looks, in the students who use computers just like we use them in the U.S., in the ways the homogenous capitalism just like we’ve produced in the U.S. is producing its homogenous effects in other countries just like we do at home.

I think of Pico Iyer’s description of the tourist and how we’ve replaced the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that nothing abroad is the way it is at home with the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that everything abroad is just like it is at home.

Textbooks Turned at the Border

In my last post, I used a tiny snip from Hardt and Negri’s Empire to try to get a handle on what sort of work teaching English as a foreign language in Afghanistan might be doing. I’ve lately gone back to a 2001 Rethinking Marxism article (“Empire, Immaterial Labor, the New Combinations, and the Global Worker“) where Nick Dyer-Witheford uses the scholarship of Deleuze and Guattari to offer the criticism of Hardt and Negry that their vacillation (centered, interestingly, around digital technologies of communication) over the struggles associated with global capitalism is a bit slick, following Deleuze and Guattari’s representation

of planetary capitalism creating a space that is both smooth (presenting an unimpeded global field of accumulation) and striated (in the sense of being savagely segmented by differences on which capital can play)… Repeating what is both a weakness endemic to Marxism, and perhaps a particular vulnerability in Negri’s work, Empire emphasizes the smoothness — the homogenizing effects of global capital — at the expense of the striating divisions. By declaring the centrality of immaterial labor, it proposes a consistent underlying class composition running throughout the multitude. Because this class composition is posited as already existing, the successes — or failures — of communication linkages between insurgencies, which might be thought of as playing a critical role in constructing alliances, is devalued. With the very real disjunctions and frictions between different strata of labor occluded, Empire can celebrate the spontaneous solidarity of the multitude without descending to the awkward business of sorting out just how much commonality there really is between participants in, say, the Tiananmen Square revolt, the Intifada, and the French general strike or the Seattle Showdown, or how they might actually be tied together.

It’s an accurate critique, I think, and takes on Hardt and Negri in useful ways. (I enjoyed Empire and found it a provocative and productive spur to my thinking; Multitude, somewhat less so, in the way that it was mostly a muddled rehash of the previous book without anything terribly new; and reviews of Commonwealth were so mixed that I never got around to it. I suppose I should.) The bit about the stratifying combination of smoothness and striation as it operates in global capitalism (though, as usual, I find that representation of all-powerful agentless capitalism less than useful) hit home for me, though, in that I’ve been trying to figure out how textbook ordering will work for the Afghans when the U.S. presence withdraws, especially in the area of ESL/EFL/Basic Writing instruction. I’ve asked for some examination copies of ESL/EFL/Basic Writing textbooks that looked like they’d be particularly useful for the Afghan instructors and students in the writing curriculum I’m helping the instructors develop, from a well-known and well-regarded publisher that I know (and many of us know) from experience is highly familiar with the shape of our field. Interestingly enough, I discovered that there were export restrictions on the textbooks, for intellectual property reasons.

Because of the ongoing American presence for the next few years, we’re still going to be able to get the books, but the situation raises questions for me about the shape of our field: does the play of intellectual property concerns in the global textbook economy mean that even ESL/EFL instruction, as a subfield of the almost entirely American field of rhetoric and composition, is in its delivery effectively an English-Only discipline rather than what Lu or Canagarajah might call a World Englishes discipline? Does even a subfield that seems like it ought to export amazingly well find itself turned back inward at the U.S. border because of intellectual property concerns; because of IP restrictions on market transactions? And as a result of those concerns and restrictions, should we then consider a possibility that — rather than serving the ends of promoting World Englishes, as many of us might hope — ESL/EFL instruction is ultimately consigned to serving a naturalizing, homogenizing function?

I suspect that’s a large conclusion to draw from a small hiccup in textbook ordering.

But still.

The Value of Stability Operations

One component of my primary long-term scholarly project is to examine the ways in which the work of writing carries economic value. As I’ve noted previously, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). I think that’s a fairly useful definition and taxonomization, and it helps that it goes further than Reich’s use of the problematically limiting term “symbolic-analytic work” in the allowance it provides for “the production and manipulation of affect,” a form of work that rhetoricians are not unacquainted with. Here, immaterial labor is opposed to material labor — the production of consumable things — in a way that recalls the reductive oversimplification Richard Lanham draws between an economics of “fluff” (managing information) and an economics of “stuff” (manufacturing objects). I believe the immaterial labor students perform in the composition classroom certainly qualifies as economically valuable scholarly work, and I believe the same holds true for literacy education in general.

Which is what makes it interesting to me when Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander of the Nato Training Mission — Afghanistan (NTM-A) (the unit under which I’m working during my deployment here), writes that literacy “is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan,” and that it additionally serves as “the essential enabler that addresses not only life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.” To the best of my knowledge, most analyses of military economics have been focused on the market-oriented positive and negative externalities of military spending itself, and not on considering aspects of military actions as being inherently economic on their own. What happens, though, if we think about literacy education as immaterial labor in relation to LTG Caldwell’s note that in September 2010, “the NATO training mission ha[d] about 27,000 recruits from the Afghan army and police in mandatory literacy programs at any given time,” and that “[t]hat number [would] grow to 50,000 by [that] December and to about 100,000 by June of [2011]”? Can we consider stability operations in general to be a form of immaterial labor, and if so, what do we consider to be the product — the economic output — of stability operations?

Maybe it’s a silly question: it depends on how far in the future one looks for the positive economic effects of having a stable government, one might well reply. (Although it does certainly call attention to the fact that government itself is partly an economic effect and not just an inhibitor, regulator, or controller, as much of popular neoclassical economic discourse would have us believe; but also not just an effect — the so-called mere superstructure — that vulgar Marxist orthodoxy would posit.) That reply, however, should call our attention to the problems with looking far beyond economic activities for their hypothetical economic effects, as we too often do with higher education, considering it only in terms of its long-term economic outcomes. Economic activity does not exist as economic activity solely because it has an outcome that can at some future point be exchanged on the market for cash value — in other words, because it can be commodified into a product. Understandings of economic value must be in terms of labor value as well as in terms of commodity value.

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).

Read more

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.”


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.


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.


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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more