The Teacher Becomes A Student

Two little girls, one holding a book instructing the other one who's seated on a wooden platform holding a teddy bear.

25MAR2011. Did I mention that I was teaching courses while going through training? I’d made a commitment to the university to teach another year (Sep 2010 – Jun 2011), and since I’d moved across the country, the Chair of the department let me teach online. While it was something that I never wanted to do when I was a short distance from the university (I really enjoyed the face-to-face interactions with students), the online thing was inevitable once I moved.

I had enjoyed my seven years of in-person interactions in the classroom, but this would be different; a challenge of sorts. (And you know I’m always up for a challenge.) This was going to be kicked up a notch: teaching three classes and training full-time. FYI: Before you attribute superhuman powers to me (and think you’re an underachiever), let me clarify that I was used to this pace: I started teaching a full-load (3 or more courses) in the second year of my Ph.D. studies. I’m not really sure how I did it all, but it got done without my professors or students thinking that I was half-assing it. Maybe the fact that I enjoyed both so much (teaching and studying), made it possible.

Prior to arriving in Kansas for training, I was wrapping up the Winter quarter – grading exams, papers, and submitting final grades (my least favorite part of teaching). And since California State University East Bay (CSUEB) operates on a quarter system (~10 weeks) instead of a semester system (~15 weeks), there wasn’t much of a break between quarters (Winter ended in mid-March and Spring began in late-March. Oh joy!).

What made it less challenging was that I’d taught the classes before, but now I had to format them for online delivery. I didn’t like to recycle class material – the textbook maybe, but not the handouts and exams. This was based on my experience as a student, and I vowed not to emulate some of my professors who didn’t bother injecting fresh content into their courses. I wanted to be like the ones I admired, those whose love for teaching was evident in their lectures and up-to-date handouts.

The three classes I was teaching in the Spring quarter (as I was starting training) were Child Welfare, Social Psychology, and Social Deviance. The Child Welfare course focused on historical, contemporary, and future directions of federal and state child welfare laws, as well as major initiatives governing child welfare practice. CSUEB had a lot of first-generation college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And my students (mostly sociology majors) wanted to pursue careers in the helping professions, so this class was among the popular ones.

I enjoyed teaching this class because I’d worked as a Child Counselor for the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter for a few years (during my undergrad years), and thereafter, as the Children’s Program Coordinator for a domestic violence agency. I was quite sensitized to the experiences of abused children since I too experienced it at the hands of my nanny. Working at the shelter and teaching this course was, in a lot of ways, cathartic.

The Social Psychology course was fun and focused on the extent to which groups (family, church, community, society) influenced individual behavior. This course came in handy during training because it helped me remain as emotionally detached as possible when shit hit the fan; and analyze the intricacies of group dynamics among my fellow grunts (some of those dynamics were more interesting than soap opera dramas).

The Social Deviance course was another interesting one to teach and was very popular. Most people think deviance equates to criminality, but it’s so much more than that. The concept of deviance exists in societies based on their implicit and explicit norms, rules, and laws: these constitute the standards by which behavior is judged so that anything that falls outside of what is considered NORMAL is classified as deviance.

And had I known all that I learned about the Army during training, I would’ve definitely used it as a case study for my class; one of a hierarchically-structured organization with limited tolerance for the abnormal, with its own mechanisms of social order and control (but I still heart the Army…warts and all).

A wooden stick figure lying down, reading a book.

Some of the books that we were assigned to read prior to reporting for training were Ghost Wars, Afghanistan, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) (to name a few). The last one I read cover-to-cover (not that the others weren’t interesting…they were historical accounts of my birth land…and I kind of know a bit about that). SOP was the story of Abu Ghraib prison that made international headlines in 2004 and became a PR nightmare for the U.S. after leaked photos exposed the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

In the SOP book, the Special Agent assigned to create a timeline of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib had to pour over 12 compact discs (CD) of pictures (like 1000s), and determine which ones were criminal acts and met the criteria for dereliction of duty, and which ones depicted standard operating procedures (if there’s one thing to know about the Army, it’s that there are a lot of SOPs…they have SOPs for their SOPs. Ha!).

In the social deviance literature, crime and deviance are considered overlapping categories with independent dimensions. Most deviance, or what’s socially-constructed as abnormal (obesity, unwed pregnancies) is non-criminal; whereas most crimes are considered deviant (murder, torture, tax evasion, theft).

From a social psychology perspective, we construct our own realities collectively, with shared meanings leading to coordinated actions. We also seek approval and acceptance from others, which often leads us to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t. This is especially true in hierarchical relationships and organizations, where the price of nonconformity far outweighs its benefits.

As such, it’s easy to see how the high-intensity, stress-induced environment in the prison – and the need to fit in on the part of the soldiers – resulted in the systematic torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners. Above all, the SOP book recounts the story of being a fallible human; soldiers who were at “once the instruments of a great injustice and the victims of a great injustice.”

Black and white image showing total destruction of a city with a hand holding a "Peace??" sign.

The prison debacle, the Duelfer Report [which concluded that Iraq didn’t have a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program that posed a significant military threat], and the killing of Blackwater security contractors, among other disasters, provided ample fodder for those who were opposed to the invasion. And aside from the exorbitant financial costs and political ramifications, the human toll was just as significantly grim: an estimated 184,000 – 206,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and a total of 4,898 U.S. and Coalition Forces deaths, with 32,337 wounded U.S. military personnel (through 2019).

The U.S. announced the end to combat operations in Iraq in August 2010 and declared an end to the Iraq War in December 2011. By 2010, they were no longer sending research teams to Iraq, as all the focus was now on Afghanistan. So with the exception of the SOP book, the rest of the required reading for training was focused on Afghanistan. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that The Kite Runner didn’t make the cut (if I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned that they read or knew about this book when they learned of my Afghan roots, I could retire).

In December 2009, President Obama renewed the “U.S. commitment to the Afghan war” with 30,000 more U.S. troops, in addition to the 68,000 that were already deployed in the country. As such, there was a need to fill the pipeline with trained researchers to embed with the U.S. military and Coalition Forces. In July 2011, a few months after I started my training (March 2011), the President spoke of a drawdown without specific details. At that time, there were a total of 31 research teams embedded with the military in Afghanistan.

As the first week of training came to an end, we’d covered the nuts and bolts of government personnel-related topics (logging hours, expense reports, security clearance paperwork, etc.), and had our initial medical and dental check-ups (my teeth were solid, but I had about 10 shots since I couldn’t produce my shot records). We were also delving into more meaty topics like the organizational structure of the research teams and our responsibilities based on our specific duty positions.

In the March Cycle, there was five Social Scientist I hires. We weren’t competing against each other, but as someone who often questions my competence in relation to others (especially those with social science Ph.D. degrees), I felt like I was the least experienced. I was the youngest (by at least 10 years) and although I had ample teaching experience, I didn’t have field experience. But in addition to a Ph.D. and ample research know-how (pounded into my brain by my Berkeley professors), I had something that the others didn’t: the language skills and cultural background.

Each team had a Team Leader (usually a retired or active-duty Colonel or O-6 or Lieutenant Colonel or O-5); a Social Scientist I (senior researcher with a Ph.D. or a graduate degree with extensive research experience); a Research Manager (gatherer of information and tracker of the team’s research products); 1-2 Social Scientist IIs (junior researchers who worked with the senior Social Scientist); and 1-2 Human Terrain Analysts (similar to a Social Scientist II with a different title). I was brought in as a Social Scientist I.

I was a rarity – something that I didn’t give much thought to until years later. This didn’t make me special in the eyes of the U.S. Army, but as an Afghan-American, it was special to me because here I was, a participant in an important moment in U.S. and Afghan history.

In his book, the Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills discusses the importance of timing in affording us unique life chances…the intersection of our micro existence and macro events. According to Mills, the “vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society” IS the sociological imagination that gives meaning to our lives.

Viewing the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan to help my adopted country understand my birth country – from Mills’ perspective – made me realize how fortuitous an experience this was shaping up to be. And as long as I made it through Army training and survived living and working in a war zone, it might just turn out to be a very cool story to tell… 🙂