Archive for May, 2008

Trains, Ottomans and Modernizers

It has been Ottoman week. Tuesday afternoon Murat Özyüksel (who writes on the Hijaz Railway) climbed the 90+ stairs to the students’ flat–they have a DVD player. The first installment of his TRT series on trains is essentially a visual essay on the transformative effect of railroads on world economies and cultures during the 19th century. Yekta did simultaneous translation from Turkish (thanks, Yekta!). The continuous pauses were a bit disconcerting. The students seemed to appreciate more the ensuing conversation on the terrace, where Murat responded to their questions about the effects of the train on the politics and economies of Turkey (and the UK, the US, Germany…) He argued that Great Power competition over the Ottoman Empire before WWI was exacerbated by Germany’s efforts to build a railway to Bagdad.

The students have been fascinated by Atatürk’s role since we arrived, and by the continuing power he has in today’s Turkey, decades after his death. Murat’s discussion of contemporary Turkish politics and his insistence on the importance of the democratic rule of law were quite powerful. I have the sense these students will welcome all discussions about Turkey’s contemporary politics.

I had asked them to read two articles about efforts to “modernize” Istanbul toward the end of the 19th century. Both articles argued that Istanbul could not be remade to look like Paris, despite the desires of late Ottoman sultans, European architects, and Ottoman modernizers. It was great to have an artist in the group, who could explain what the author meant by single and multiple perspective. On the other hand, it showed me again the challenges of teaching through discussion. I have been insulted since childhood when people ask questions to which they already have a desired answer. That means discussion must really be open-ended. The advantage was clear yesterday.  In addition to talking about the implications and inadequacy of Bouvard’s plan (in an article written by Zeynep Celik), the students pointed out that French planner considered the Ottoman capital so unimportant that he didn’t even come to look at Istanbul before drawing his plan.  They connected this with various other ways in which Europeans had slighted the Ottoman empire, and speculated on the continuing unequal power relationship as it was manifested today with the EU (and elsewhere).  It was an argument I hadn’t really seen in the article. The students had gone well beyond where I would have taken them. There does seem to be some consensus that Istanbul shouldn’t be like Paris–though having more walkable streets would be desirable.

We got to hear more of their stories at dinner here last night–William cooked his weekly non-Turkish student meal (Tex-Mex this week). I’m looking forward to traveling with them–this crowd is funny, good-natured–and very smart!

May 31, 2008 at 2:13 pm Leave a comment


Standing in the second courtyard of Topkapi Palace, I realized these students were getting an unparalleled introduction to the Ottoman Empire. Leslie Peirce, professor at NYU and author of The Imperial Harem, was explaining the process by which young men were brought to the Ottoman palace and trained to enter the service of the state–and the courses their careers might follow after that.

In the process, she outlined the religious, civil, and military structures of the Ottoman empire. She is an amazing teacher: enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and a terrific story-teller. But it wasn’t only a lecture: we got to hear the stories as we walked through the kitchen, the throne room, the harem–stores of intrigue and of murder, of the process of justice and the inheritance of power. So the ooh-aah! that always comes with seeing the gorgeous tile walls and the over-decorated audience rooms now had content: this is where real people (well, real royal people) engaged in personal and political behavior that steered the course of this long-lived empire.

William, Leslie and I stopped in at Otag Muzik Merkezi after lunch to buy a Central Asian CD she had heard at a friend’s house. Up two flights in an old building on Divan Yolu we met Yaşar Güvenç, who sells musical instruments and specializes in Central Asian, sufi and music therapy CDs. He told us about a Tatar music festival at Sultan Ahmed Square on Friday and invited us to bring the students on Thursday evening for what sounds like a jam session on the top floor of his building. The students, apparently always eager for new experiences, seem delighted at the prospect.

May 28, 2008 at 8:12 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on Teaching (suite)

These students are quite amazing! Instead of landing at Ataturk airport exhausted and jet-lagged, they arrived eager, excited, and delighted with anything we offered. In the airport shuttle, they wanted to talk about Orhan Pamuk’s take on Istanbul, asked about the aqueduct of Valens, tried their first words of Turkish. They hardly commented on the 90+ stairs to their flats or the very close quarters, instead exclaiming again and again about the truly amazing view from its windows. It’s hard not to be enamoured of such enthusiastic students!

By Sunday morning, with only a third of the students here, I was already facing my second crisis. (My first was what to do about the student who had laundered his passport. We helped find him lodging in London and an appointment with the embassy.) The students who had arrived on Saturday and Sunday had already walked across the Golden Horn and explored some of Istanbul’s incredible monuments. That was on the schedule for Monday…

My friend Mary, a specialist in early childhood education who had cared for my children when they were quite small, had reinforced all of my own antipathy toward passive education. People learn and remember what they discover, she insisted, and I recognized how accurate that was when I began to teach at the university. I became an advocate of “active learning,” and I had taken it up as my cause when I became director of UNC’s freshman seminar program.

So here were my students, thrilled to be in Istanbul, teaching themselves how to get around, exploring the city and talking with whomever they could find, diving into the doner and the kebab being sold by the street vendors, being hustled by the carpet dealers, and trying to communicate with whatever Turkish they could pick up. Active learning!

With such fascinated and eager students, and a text as huge, complex, and varied as Istanbul, then, what role could a professor play? After three days of tentative introductions, I’m now convinced that my job is to provide them opportunities, ask them questions, offer them context, and stay out of their way.

The Course Begins

Monday morning, I arrived at the tea shop at the base of Galata tower with copies of maps, Freely’s Istanbul, and copies of the plan for Yeni Cami’s kulliye (the foundation around the New Mosque at Eminonu). After a short talk about the program, courses and requirements (over Turkish tea), I distributed the maps.  Then we proceeded to the balcony at the top of Galata tower.

As the acrophobes among us walked cautiously (and quickly) around the balcony and ducked back inside away from the railing, the rest pointed out the city’s seven hills, exclaimed over the view, identified the landmarks, and talked into their cameras. Back on the ground (thankfully!), we walked down the steep hill to the Galata bridge and walked over the Golden Horn, admiring the view from the bridge.

When we got to Yeni Cami, I tried to explain the urban-planning, social-service, and religious functions of the institution of the waqf (vakif), and we looked at the plan of the Yeni Cami complex. The Spice Bazaar (Misr carsisi) produced rents which funded the neighboring mosque, hospital, and tombs. We split up to do a bit of shopping (headscarves were necessary), an experience a bit overwhelming for first-timers. By the time we met again after some snacks, it was time to visit our first mosque. We had arrived just in time for prayer, so we got to sit in the visitors section for an unplanned educational experience.

We left the students after prayer. I have, over the years, had the remarkable privilege of walking around this city with some superb teacher/scholars. As a graduate student in Istanbul 25 years ago, my two closest friends were doing research on Ottoman textiles and Byzantine buildings. Later, while doing research and traveling with family, I have had amazing opportunities to walk around the city with an architecture historian. I would love to be able to introduce the students to the same sort of opportunities.

As we left them, I wondered whether I was supposed to stay with them, to make sure they find their way home, to provide tour guide services. What is my role here, anyway?

Introducing Asia

Tuesday was Katie’s day. She had improved the train map to show the students ferry routes and the coastal bus. She was to come to the students’ flat, talk about transportation and living in Istanbul, shepherd them through getting an akbil (transport pass) and across the Bosphorus to Europe, share with them some of her favorite places in Asia, and introduce them to Kadikoy’s weekly market. But she called in sick, high fever, horrible sore throat. Her day was spent with the doctor, so I got to do the orientation to transport and Kadikoy.

I climbed the six flights to the terrace directly above the students’ flat, with a view overlooking the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, and Istanbul’s peerless skyline, carrying Katie’s maps.

I love the ferries across the Bosphorus, and I hope the students do, too. I’ve been trying to convince UNC students for years that there is tremendous diversity in the Middle East. But I hadn’t expected them to meet–right off the bat–a Turkish evangelist who was saved on the road to Texas. He told them this was a wonderful time to spread the good news in Turkey. They were a bit surprised.

We found the goose-fish-market, and the overwhelming Kadikoy Tuesday market. Consensus was that the tables and tables (and tables and tables) of people selling inexpensive clothing, watches, shoes, and kitchenware were too much. By the time they got to the fruit and vegetable sellers, though, they were ready. They took the good-natured joking by various vendors with a sense of humor, posed for photos with the man who sold them artichoke hearts, wended their way among the tables with artfully-arranged produce, and emerged unscathed back into the streets of Kadikoy.

By the time I left them again in the fish market (with the pet goose), they seemed quite comfortable finding food and strolling the streets.

Putting It Together

Wednesday was the big day. I had taken them across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, introduced them to the trains and oriented them to the city. They had their akbils, they knew how the money worked, they had a cell phone and an assignment. They had to find my house for dinner at 6:30 in the evening, after having identified, found, and photographed a long list of sites, objects, and activities from Besiktas to Beyazit, in Europe and Asia.

All three groups of students returned, exhausted, exhilarated and triumphant. Each group had actually found three Sinan structures and two Ottoman palaces, three images of Ataturk, Kaiser Wilhelm’s fountain, and a fish-seller. They brought back train schedules from Haydarpasa, found Babylon, and could state the prices of important local commodities and the names of Istanbul’s most popular football teams. And they had hilarious stories of simit sellers on trains and school children’s questions.

Today, only day four, these students are clearly able to make their way around Istanbul. And as we talked about their observations (and the assigned readings), I realized that they have already begun asking the sorts of questions tourists don’t consider, making the sorts of connections that we hope our graduate students will make.

As we left the “classroom” we are using–in an old medrese built by the great architect Sinan–I found myself wondering yet again about whether I should be acting as a tour guide, whether I was doing enough, lecturing enough, intervening enough. Then I saw a tour bus pass, the kind where the people ride high, high off the streets and engage with the monuments without rubbing shoulders with the population. And I think I’ve finally decided that I had it right the first time. Active learning is the way to go. Provide the opportunities and stand back–these students are quite remarkable.

May 22, 2008 at 7:02 pm 2 comments

Teaching Turkey: A New Adventure

We leave this morning to begin a new adventure. Our ten UNC students should be meeting us in Istanbul over the next few days for a summer field seminar, Turkey: Layers of Identity. I have met these students only briefly, so, in addition to the excited anxiety that comes at the beginning of each new course I greet, I also get to contemplate seven weeks abroad in daily contact with nine strangers (and two friends). My hope is that, by the end of our stay, we will have cohered into a group of learners and teachers–and that we will all have learned an enormous amount about travel, about working together, and about the fascinating and complex society, polity, and culture of today’s Turkey.

This is a Burch field seminar, an innovative combination of study abroad and research sponsored by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Instead of the students attending various courses or going on a guided tour, the program encourages students to work with faculty on a topic central to the professor’s research. My current research is on the creation of collective identities in the Middle East. Although I’m concentrating on the 1920s and 1930s, our summer project both draws on that research and, I hope, will contribute some insights to my work. At the same time, it offers students an opportunity to focus on a particular topic while exploring a new world area. In theory, the Burch seminar program embodies the best of the “research university”–a place where teaching enriches research and research informs teaching.

William and I leave in a few minutes to get to Istanbul a few days before the students arrive, a little time to make sure we can find their apartments and walk through their neighborhood. I’m carrying the books I will need to write lectures, but mostly, I think, Istanbul will be their text. It is a remarkable city, and I can’t wait to share it with these students. My first visit was more than 25 years ago, and it hardly seems foreign. It will be fascinating to watch these students experience it for the first time. Another adventure, and I approach this one with anticipation, anxiety, curiosity– and excitement.

May 22, 2008 at 4:21 pm Leave a comment