Taking Humanities Beyond the Classroom
Posted: November 14, 2011
Students and soldiers role-play during the culmination of three days of training at Camp Mabry.
Not all language training involves rules of grammar and memorizing new vocabulary--in fact, the most crucial language skills can involve no communication at all. That was one of many take-away lessons from a weekend workshop for twenty U.S. officers from the Texas Army National Guard preparing to deploy to Afghanistan a team of faculty and staff from UT's Middle Eastern Studies program and the Middle East Studies Center at Ohio State University.
The three-day training focused on situational exercises and non-verbal communication skills, coordinated by Adi Raz, Clinical Assistant Professor in MES and the Texas Language Center. The program also included background presentations in topics ranging from Islamic belief (conducted by MES Outreach Director Christopher Rose) and a primer on Islamic law (from Assistant Professor Hina Azam) to the history of Afghanistan and short introduction to its two main languages, Dari and Pashto (conducted by Ohio State's MESC Director Alam Payind, a native of Afghanistan).
The trainings are intended to help the officers, who will be deployed largely in non-combat roles supporting Afghan police and the new national army, gain the cultural knowledge and sensitivity they need to navigate tricky situations. As Raz explained during her sessions, which dealt with "the pragmatics of staying alive," gestures and body language are even more important than verbal exchanges, especially in a part of the world where personal space is defined differently and social interactions depend on age, gender, and social status. Raz's lecture was reinforced by screening film clips in which the officers were asked to identify factors that could lead to trouble or misunderstandings.
The culmination of the training was a simulation on the final afternoon in which UT students took on the role of civilians and gave the soldiers a chance to use their new skills. An empty building at Camp Mabry was transformed into a typical Afghan living room, with the costumed volunteers speaking only in Arabic, forcing the soldiers to communicate either non-verbally or through a translator who couldn't always be trusted.
This workshop served as the pilot version for what is hoped will become a semi-regular offering, allowing UT's language and humanities departments the opportunity to put their skills to use training the troops for real world application.