Nearly 20 years ago, I presented at my first national academic conference in New York City. The first day of the 2003 Conference on College Composition and Communication coincided with the first day of the United States government’s bombing of Iraq. I’d finished my 4-year active-duty Army hitch a few years before. On the first day of the conference and on throughout, attendees and presenters and leadership talked about the war and made plans as individuals and as a professional organization to protest. The monitors on the elevators cycled explosions.
A little over 10 years ago, I was in Afghanistan. I’d taken my first full-time Assistant Professor position at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and volunteered to deploy as a faculty mentor for the NATO-led National Training Mission in Afghanistan, working on the academic side of helping rebuild Afghan institutions of higher education after 30 years of war. I felt like it was the least I could do after how badly the US, uh, fouled up their country. I blogged some about it, but there was a lot I couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t talk much about.
For one, I made the decision to deploy without a sidearm, which annoyed some of my military and civilian colleagues, all of whom did carry guns.1 I didn’t think I would be a very helpful mentor to the Afghan writing professors carrying a gun: trust; rhetorical ethos. (Weird brag. Sorry.)
For another, it was scary to get shot at and shelled and rocketed. That went without saying (weird brag again; sorry), and I didn’t want to alarm folks back home, and I was grateful that the Taliban’s reputation for terrible aim was well-earned. (OK, let’s try one more time to get away from the rhetorical swagger, Mike.🙄) I had been elected incoming junior chair of the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus and was required to participate in the conference in some way, and I gave a very windy videorecorded talk in my desert camo ACUs. The ad hoc online component of the conference (such as it was, improvised by the organization’s bloggers: checking out links to presentation materials, following Twitter feeds, reading blogged accounts) was enjoyable and, yes, exciting.
The biggest thing I had a hard time acknowledging even elliptically was the March 1, 2011 killing of nine Afghan boys gathering firewood in Mano Gai by United States
attack helicopters soldiers. I felt heartsick, helpless, furious, disgusted. I didn’t know what to say to H—–, or F—–, or Muhammad, or Freshta, or Shams, or any of my other Afghan colleagues at the time, some of whom would become my friends.2 I wish I’d had the courage and humanity to say more than “I’m so sorry.”
This year, the 2022 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) began on March 9, thirteen days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Conference was online, and the organizers made the decision that all presentation materials had to be uploaded by February 28—still four days after the invasion. I videorecorded my presentation wearing blue and yellow, which felt like—literally—the least I could do. I wondered, hopefully, how much CCCC conferees and leadership would have to say about the war.
It turns out I needn’t have.
CCCC leadership has been silent on the war. I went to a lot of the on-demand panels and a few live ones, and I was pretty frustrated to hear no mention—not a fudgy peep—in any of the presentations or materials or discussion I saw, with the sole exception of an advertisement from Norton in the program, which I happily reproduce here without permission from NCTE or CCCC. (Yes, Mike, grump grump.)
Thank you for that, Norton, seriously—no sarcasm. I’ll be buying and assigning more of your books.
And, well, CCCC leadership—I guess I’m not sure what I hope you’ll do. I saw the phrase “life-and-death issue” used freely in public statements by the conference leadership. I saw Asao Inoue’s phrase “so that people stop killing each other” quoted more than any other line at the conference. I saw the conference CFP pose the question: “How do we remain relevant?”
So what’s the protocol for relevance when a missile intentionally aimed at a train station for fleeing refugees kills more than 50 civilians? Does one argue over the nuances of the dative case in the phrase “за детей” after seeing the flop of that dead boy’s little body?
I feel like organizations that find themselves operating on ethical principles demonstrably distinct from the ones they have privileged might ought watch that video again.
1 I discovered in the violent aftermath of the Terry Jones Q’uran-burning incident that my organization had an emergency safe with long guns, as I’d somewhat expected. The most sphincter-clenching phrase I’ve ever heard is still “insurgents in ANA uniforms inside the perimeter.”
2 The folks named successfully emigrated to the US. I no longer hear from H—–, and F—–‘s P-2 visa application has remained in State Department limbo since August.