The Interdisciplinary Studies Institute will host a symposium titled “The Task of Witnessing: A Symposium in Honor of James W. Foley” in collaboration with the Journalism Department and the MFA Program for Poets and Writers, University of Massachusetts from September 19-20, 2016.
James W. Foley was a student at the University of Massachusetts from 1999 to 2003, in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers in the English Department. Both while he was on our campus, and afterwards when he worked for Teach for America in Arizona and Chicago, he was dedicated to working in and with marginalized communities, helping students to widen their educational range and find their own voices. At UMass he volunteered at a local care center for unwed mothers, helping them earn their GEDs; both as teacher and journalist he was active in mentoring others. He worked on development projects in Iraq, and became an embedded journalist with the Indiana National Guard, and then with the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, before becoming a freelance journalist working on the front lines in both Libya (where he was abducted and released) and in Syria. There he was kidnapped and ultimately executed in the most horrific and public way by the so-called Islamic State in August 2014. This campus, along with many others, mourned his loss deeply.
Our symposium is offered in memory of James Foley, to pay tribute to him by considering a range of issues that not only affected his life but have also impacted the lives of many around the world. Since 2001, if not before, we have been caught up in various forms of undeclared and undefined war. Both in the US and around the world we face a baffling array of developments which are hard to contain in any coherent form of understanding. We live in a context of shifting boundaries, large-scale movements of people, strange mixtures of enmity and belief, the unnerving event and its instant reproduction. What, in these circumstances, are the complex tasks of witnessing, of giving voice, of attempting to tell the truth? How do we see, how do we write, how do we report? How and where do we operate in the borderlands—both lived and conceptual—of encounter? What are the obligations of witnessing—and what are the dangers? How do we give voice to the otherwise unreported, to the unknown, to those whose voices would otherwise go unheard? How do we, as readers and viewers, witness atrocity? What, in short, are the tasks and perils of witnessing in our current world?
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