Thoughts on Teaching (suite)

May 22, 2008 at 7:02 pm 2 comments

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.

Entry filed under: Kadikoy, Teaching, Uncategorized.

Teaching Turkey: A New Adventure Topkapi

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Teaching “Active Learning”? « Teaching Turkey  |  July 27, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    […] July 27, 2008 The students left ten days ago.  Out the window of the dining car on the Iç Anadolu Mavi Tren, I can see the same Taurus mountains in which we spent time together.  I’m returning to Istanbul from Syria.  Since the students left, I’ve been thinking again and again about the summer course, about the students, about the whole project of “active learning.” […]

  • 2. niuse  |  November 6, 2008 at 7:43 am

    I am designing and was searching for waqf related sites to get the Idea and landed on your blog. Found interesting stuff. Thanks!


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