Posts filed under ‘Music’

Experiential Learning

This was the educational philosophy we advocated when I headed UNC’s first year seminar program–that students learn better when through experience and discovery. This week, from Monday’s walking the Byzantine land walls to Friday’s site visit to a hamam, I learned that “experiential learning” really is effective–and, sometimes, a bit awkward.

And exhausting. I’m quite behind in the blog posting because the end of each day has come very late this week, because there is always tomorrow to prepare, because I’m experiencing so much I haven’t time to write about it. The students’ blogs seem a few days behind, too.

Before the week even began, we were scrambling to make the schedule work. Monday’s weather looked like it would be fine and cool, perfect to walk the land walls from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. David made this map. During the Byzantine period, the entire city was surrounded by walls. Many are crumbling now; some are in the process of being restored.

We began at Yedikule, the seven tower structure the Turkish government turned into a park. The views from the top were spectacular, though, an acrophobe since childhood, I only climbed one tower. The students quickly learned that I was very nervous with their energetic wall-scaling. They delighted in seeing me anxiously cover my eyes, and seemed to become more and more outrageous to get the response. They are all adults, I kept reminding myself.

See them up there?

(See them up there?)

The walls go through fascinating areas of the city, cutting through sections tourists don’t see. We wondered why so few tourists walked the walls, and how people who lived along these millenium-old structures perceived them. Many of the neighborhoods we walked through were quite run-down, the people very poor. Some of the unused archways seemed to house the homeless. At the same time, the government seems to be investing large sums in restoring sections of the walls. What do the walls mean? How do the Turks view them? What is it like living in a place with so much history?

They all made it back!All back down safely!

The week seems a blur now. There is so much to see and to do, that we planned things for mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Tuesday we visited an NGO that focuses on women and Islam, and listened to a wise woman answer many questions. I’ve been struck for years that Cemalnur’s answers only seem to make sense some time later. Instead of simple answers about religion and the state, what the NGO does, how sufis are different from other Muslims, she tells stories and suggests parallels. When we returned to Europe, two of the students did the first site project: Sirkeci (the 19th century train station) and the Orient Express it hosted. They spoke of the way the railroad tied Istanbul with western Europe, of the elites that frequented it and the culture they fostered, of the effects of railroads on the Ottoman (and later Turkish) state.

Then most of us went to Tumata to hear Tatar and Uyghur folk music played on remarkable instruments in a musical museum. Like last week, the music gradually became more devotional and the audience more participatory, various students began to figure out how to play the drums that the regulars handed them, and one of the regulars began to turn–the sema.

As we prepared to leave, they insisted we stay for soup, then for dinner, then for the celebration of the birthday of one of the musicians. When I returned upstairs after helping put away dishes, I found all the UNC students up and dancing with the musicians.

Wednesday was museum day, Dolmabahce in the morning, and the Military Museum in the afternoon. Two students took us through the Military Museum, emphasizing how the choices and content of the exhibits reflected the way the Turkish directors wanted their history to be understood. Thursday we visited Bogazici University, where Sevket Pamuk did a remarkable presentation on changes in the Turkish economy over the past century–and hosted us for lunch! The students returned in time for Turkish class. They can put verbs in their sentences now.

Friday morning we sat in the courtyard of the “Blue Mosque” and heard stories about the man who built it, about his life and the issues surrounding his accession to the Ottoman throne, about his goals for the structure and the reason he placed it where he did. Then Gunhan, an Ottoman historian who doubled as a tour guide, took us inside, talked about the tiles and the structures, the arches and the domes. Over lunch, we talked about history writing and national identity, about the challenges of being a historian. Then he took us to neighboring Aya Sofya and did the same thing! We learned about the Emperor who build it, the reasons he needed such a monumental structure, the design and the redesign, the mathematicians who worked out a way to keep such a massive dome from falling. And I learned that it is just as striking to walk into Aya Sofya regardless of how many times one has seen it before. Gunhan was amazing, wearing his tour guide license along with his historian hat. Again I was struck that the “gee whiz” of tourism is a delightful but limited phenomenon. History matters, even (especially?) in the face of spectacular structures.

Two of the students had decided that they would do their site presentation on hamams. After telling us about the origins, economy, and social functions of public baths, we actually did one. Gedikpaşa built his hamam in 1475, making it one of Istanbul’s oldest. It’s a bit rundown at this point, and hasn’t been restored to tourist/spa quality, which is one of the reasons the students wanted us to go there. Countless groups of women have used it over the centuries to wash–and to recreate community. It was amusing to watch that happen, as the UNC women began to splash water around and sing. Needless to say, I’ve no idea how much splashing went on on the men’s side.

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June 10, 2008 at 6:19 am 1 comment


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