25366 Mike Shewfelt finally caught up with M737 Maj Andy Belyea this past week. A professor in the College English Department, Maj Belyea took the time to answer a few questions now that his Fall schedule has slowed down somewhat.
e-Veritas: What were your expectations were upon coming to the College?
Maj Andy Belyea: I did my BA here between 1993-97 as a UTPNCM, so coming back in 2004 to start teaching as MILFAC was both strange and exciting. It was strange in that I found myself part of a faculty who had taught me just a few years earlier, and here I was poised to experience RMCC from the “other side of the fence,” so to speak. It was exciting because I would now be able to contribute to an institution within the broader CF family that I believe offers one of the most significant learning opportunities for young people in Canada, as well as teaching opportunities for faculty.
I know that sounds like propaganda, and in a sense I confess it is. But it’s well-informed: the small class sizes don’t just benefit students, for instance, but they benefit faculty too. We get to know our students and, whether or not we even stop to consciously think about it, by default that means we’re providing a more personalized, tailored learning experience. To me, that’s perfectly Socratic, as it stimulates more critical thinking. Moreover, “learning” here cross-pollenates: the self-discipline that students learn in the military training domain invariably spills over into their academic studies; ditto for the mental flexibility that is demanded, and developed, in learning a second language. For me, the whole learning atmosphere of RMCC is so much more comprehensive, organic, and complete than many other universities. This, of course, is in large part due to commitment on all sides: focused students who pull endless rabbits out of hats in terms of their ability to balance demands; faculty who go the extra mile; staff who contribute to creating the conditions for success in all aspects of College life. I felt this here as a student, and I most certainly knew I could expect it in returning in 2004.
e-Veritas: What have the highlights been during your time at the College (both the good and the bad)?
Maj Andy Belyea: The highs of RMCC for me always involve the students, first and foremost. Every year, I feel privileged to watch Fourth Year Cadets very well-educated enter their new careers as leaders in the profession of arms. I also get to watch wide-eyed First Years navigate the shock and awe that this place imposes on them, and not only survive but thrive. Additionally, wherever I’ve worked in my 28 years in the CF—Cold Lake, Greenwood, or Afghanistan, to name a few–people have always made the difference, and so my civilian and military colleagues here are also the source of endless highs. I can’t imagine professing anywhere else, because the commitment to excellence here is simply unparalleled.
The lows I’ve seen are probably pretty familiar to students, faculty, and staff alike. For instance, a new change in military leadership every two years comes with at least a short-term sense of instability. Constant budgetary constraint means we’re never quite confident that the programs–and the people who provide them–offered today will be available tomorrow. And hey: the wind off the Point in winter, the lack of a Timmy’s on campus, and marking that first batch of essays of the year are also pretty painful at times.
Maj Andy Belyea: In short: that they’re calculated risk-takers with a commitment not only to Canada or the CF but to themselves. Students don’t come here “just” to learn, “just” to become officers, “just” to leave the nest, or “just” to try something new. Those may all be valid reasons for joining, and I’m sure there are several more, but underneath all that is that is that they have rolled the dice a bit, because they suspect that embarking on the journey that is RMC and the CF has the potential to lead them to grow in inconceivable ways. I get to watch that growth—with its peaks and valleys–unfold over the course of four years, and I always, always hope that I’m contributing to it positively every time I engage with them. It goes without saying—but I will anyway—that as an academic and a leader, I continue to learn as much as I teach, and that’s something I cherish about working with Cadets.
e-Veritas: Do you have any advice for Cadets?
Maj Andy Belyea: I’ll answer this with a pitch for my program, because I feel many people in the CF, RMCC alumni or not, actually have little clue what we do in English (or French) literature. So my advice is don’t ever underestimate the value of what you learn in studying literature, consider taking a few courses beyond the mandatory ones while you’re here, and spread the word about their value after you leave this place. There persists in Western society at large, and certainly within the CF—trust me, I’ve answered the question endlessly for 20 years now since having started my B.A.—that studying literature involves sitting around emoting over Wordsworthian poetry, debating the merits of long-dead authors, and lamenting comma splices. It’s just not that simple.
In studying literature, we’re studying culture and people, and doing it in ways that matter to the CF. The study of literature today is richly theoretical and most certainly not just aesthetic but functional: it provides a lens through which we learn about, and can thus anticipate, common human motivations, desires, disappointments, and expectations. Studying literature is studying culture, and as such it creates a critical perspective that informs every overseas CF mission we have. Nowhere did this become more evident for me than during two tours in Afghanistan, where my academic background proved pivotal in outside-the-box thinking, thinking that enabled us to accomplish some pretty unique non-kinetic (non-violent) influence and persuasion objectives. So, again, my advice would be: keep an open mind and don’t assume.
e-Veritas: I understand you recently returned from Afghanistan. Talk about that, and how it has affected you as a teacher.
Maj Andy Belyea: I’ve done two tours—a ten-month tour in 09-10 and a second last year that was unfortunately cut short by illness—that both involved dealing directly with multinational forces, a wide array of civilian actors, and Afghans from all walks of life. My job in both tours generally involved what goes by the name of “non-kinetic influence activities,” activities that don’t rely on bullets or bombs (although both are necessary and effective and have a place in counterinsurgency warfare) but on words and ideas to persuade. Even though I had no formal CF training in influence, I, and of course the teams I worked with, were able to accomplish some meaningful work because of my background. I had no expertise in Afghanistan specifically, but I am something of an expert in being able to assess quickly and through numerous lenses the cultural, historical, and ethnographic (systems of meaning in people’s lives) nuances that motivate people to think and behave the way they do. People don’t just tell stories: we are stories.
In Kandahar, this translated into my “reading” the human and cultural terrain better than most of my peers. My background allowed me to identify and articulate fundamental differences in perspective between our literate, fast-paced Western culture, bound to technology as it is, and an Afghan one defined by its powerful oral storytelling, mythological, religious, and largely agrarian traditions, where time and space are perceived in radically different terms. This was useful, for instance, both for enhancing communication with Afghans and for providing more robust cultural awareness training to our own troops. My background in literature likewise enabled me to deconstruct the unique fusion of Islamic religion and Pashtunwali cultural traditions that defines southern Afghanistan; this was useful for conducting more accurate information operations and for better countering insurgent propaganda. It also allowed me to understand the nature of the hold that the Taliban ideology has on the Afghan people, because we constantly study ideology—and what generates, sustains, and challenges it–in studying literature.
In Kabul, the level of my literacy and writing skills alone made me a unique asset. As part of a small multinational team that served as an interface among senior political figures in the Ministry of the Interior, ISAF, and the international diplomatic and development communities, my sheer ability to speak and write well translated into a clearer, more focused effort from all parties. Getting your arguments and ideas across clearly, succinctly and, most of all, with logical and rhetorical persuasion is paramount when working in a high-tempo environment characterized by competing and often divergent interests. It’s the bread and butter of English (and French) Lit, and yet another reason I was able to meaningfully contribute overseas.
My Afghan experiences as a whole transformed me, as surely as they transform every individual soldier or civilian who goes to war, in whatever capacity. As a uniformed professor, I am now able to bridge the worlds of the military and academia in new and important ways: I can add real-life context to thematic literary discussions of leadership, duty, cross-cultural exposure, or even the power of oral vs. written forms of persuasion. I can better foreground the importance of being exposed, even if imaginatively through a play or poem, a novel or short story, to linguistic, cultural, and geographic Others; doing so, after all, develops tangible military skill sets like anticipation, empathy, and strategizing. All are crucial for trying to quickly adapt to conflict in a strange and foreign land and for understanding not only insurgents or “enemies” but, in the case of Afghanistan, those who overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, support them.
These are among the most valuable lessons for me coming out of Afghanistan and back into the classroom. I have always argued that the CF needs more scholars in literature, not less, because of the tangible assets our discipline develops, and Afghanistan was a way for me to put my own argument to the test. I’m pretty happy with the test results, even if the overall score of the mission might sometimes seem doubtful. Here, back in the classroom, blending real-life experience with the plethora of theoretical approaches to literature that we take in my discipline has certainly enriched me as an officer and a scholar; my hope is that it enriches RMCC as an institution a little bit, and the learning experience of my students even more.