Digital Literacy Instruction in Afghanistan

Digital Literacy Instruction in Afghanistan

Mike Edwards
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4916-3.ch011
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This chapter uses the American military's purchase of a $5.6 million contract to supply the National Military Academy of Afghanistan with laptop computers as the occasion to investigate the complex and overdetermined intersections of digital, administrative, and literacy technologies. These intersections and the challenges they produced for the author as a Western mentor working with Afghan postsecondary instructors in ESL and digital literacies reveal the problematic homogenizing Western economic and cultural assumptions and the intense naturalization of administrative technologies that accompany the denaturalized use of digital and textual technologies in global contexts. The connections of those challenges to recent scholarship in rhetoric and composition highlight the limitations of that scholarship's conception of political economy in a global digital context and also offers new possibilities for imagining hybrid multilingual digital literacies on a global scale.
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When I was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, one of my West Point English Department officer colleagues trained me up on the required protective gear and body armor. Another officer, a Lieutenant Colonel from Physics and Nuclear Engineering, briefed me on the benefits I would receive, to include what the Army calls danger pay. “It’s good money,” he said. “But it’s not worth your life.” He was right: there is an incommensurability there. For the Afghan instructors I worked with, their jobs were in some way worth their lives: it took considerable bravery for them to allow other Afghans to know they worked with Americans. It took considerable bravery for a female medical student to go to school at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan (NMAA) when she knew she risked being sprayed in the face with acid, or for a female interpreter to work with the NMAA mentor team after being called a “whore for Americans” by students from the far provinces. What, then, is an income or an education worth?

A second way to ask that question: in Kabul, after a series of back-and-forth emails, the academic advisors, the training branch, the contracting officers, and the education contractors arranged a face-to-face meeting at Camp Eggers. The Afghans who stood to benefit from the projects discussed in the meeting were not included. For the most part, Afghans seldom do business by email. The Western mentor team held the meeting on the second floor of a building constructed out of transmodal shipping containers. We sat in a semicircle in plastic chairs and discussed the relative merits of the various graduate programs the Afghan instructors might attend, as well as the English-language literacy programs, and how much it might cost, and we talked about funding TOEFL prep programs. TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language, is one of the primary assessment tools for Afghan literacy instructors. We discussed the debate over using literacy in English as an L2 or second language bridge language rather than performing L1 native language literacy education in Dari or Pashto and then moving to L2 literacy. We performed the immaterial labor of putting together literacy education contracts without involving any of the Afghans in the administrative apparatus that we were planning for them.

This chapter examines how that administrative apparatus formed and forms a significant but often invisible component of digital literacy instruction, and how its constituent technologies when taken in conjunction with the inextricable technologies of language literacy and digital literacy are deeply imbricated in the cultural, religious, and economic systems of local cultures even as those cultures are linked to or alienated from global cultures by those very technologies. Computers as technological objects, through their links to administrative technologies and technologies of literacy, can serve to reveal those often previously invisible links as points of disruption.

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