Monday, March 28, 2016

The Shortcomings of Adaptation and The Difficulties of Resolving Them

It’s interesting these days to see how experiences interlock with one another.  I recently published a blog-post on the importance of “love” – based on the importance of everyone trying to cultivate a mindful awareness of one’s surroundings and thereby becoming more adaptive as people.  Through this process we could become more aware of the continuities linking different cultures.  The blog-post can be accessed at

Only a week after I had published this post, I read an assessment by Don Randall of Bilkent University on English Studies in Turkey (  Published in January 2015, the article examines current standards of research and teaching while offering an idiosyncratic solution to these “problems” through the introduction of more foreign-trained local academics into the system.

My initial reaction was an indignant one: the article contains so many errors of fact and misinterpreted ideas that I wondered precisely how it could have passed the peer review process and appeared in the journal.  I do not want to go into too much detail, but perhaps one or two examples might suffice:

a)      Randall claims that English teaching “tends to take shape quite unproductively as the practice of translation.”  The main issue concerning ELT has little or nothing to do with “translation,” but rather focuses on a preoccupation with grammar at the expense of speaking.  Most learners graduate from high schools with a limited knowledge of the way English works, but lacking either the confidence or the competence to communicate in the second language.  Yasemin Kırkgöz’s article, appearing in the RELC Journal (2007) published by Sage, examines this issue in detail.
b)      The author seems to be under the impression that English Studies came to the Republic of Turkey as a quasi-colonialist project akin to that described in 1815 by Thomas Babington Macaulay when referring to a similar project in British India.  In fact English Studies was part of a project introduced in the mid-twentieth century by the Ministry of Education as a means of implementing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s policies of westernization allied to developing local cultures.  Scholars were certainly encouraged to follow western models, but use them as a basis for constructing their own culture-specific theoretical and methodological approaches.  I published an article on this issue as long ago as 1999 (
c)      Randall goes on to claim that English departments in Turkey embrace “an extraordinarily deep and intimate unity of British literature and culture” in their curricula.  This claim surprises me: one of principal methodological aims of most literature departments, especially those with a cultural studies component, has been to problematize the notion of “Britishness” not only by looking at constructions of multiculturalism, but by looking at the whole idea of “culture” and its implications from a cross-cultural perspective.  I explored this issue in a recent presentation based on my own pedagogy
d)     Drawing on the work of Spivak, Randall recommends that English Studies should move away from a purely text-based approach and favor instead the “socially transformative values” produced by an “aesthetic education.”  While embracing the idea of “transformation,” it should come about through collaboration between educators and learners, not through the imposition of critical precepts formulated in the west.  To rely purely on Spivak’s precepts represents a contemporary form of colonialism – in other words, the imposition of western-formulated notions in a nonwestern culture.  The ghost of Macaulay haunts Randall’s arguments.
e)      Lastly Randall quotes the example of his institution hiring a western-trained Turkish academic as a possible solution to the “problem” of English Studies.  This strategy has been pursued, to my knowledge at least, for the past seven decades: many of the best scholars in English Departments past and present have received their education abroad.  Moreover, it is not always the case that the best scholars need this form of education: Professor Talât Halman (1931-2014), one of the best-known translators, teachers and cultural ambassadors in the Republic’s history, never even studied for a PhD.

As I read Randall’s article for the second or the third time, my emotions changed; I was no longer angry but profoundly sad, not just for the fact that such an article could have appeared in print, but because it revealed the shortcomings of “adaptation” as a process.  This has nothing to do with research issues, and everything to do with cultural and psychological adjustment.  Where is the empathy?  Where is the willingness to listen to and embrace other people’s arguments?  Where is the love of one’s fellow human beings?

At a time of political and cultural upheaval, the article leaves me with a profound feeling of depression.  If my learners or colleagues read this article, they might be rendered equally depressed; is that what representatives of “the west” (understood as a political and social entity) think of our efforts?  I am still left with the difficult task of proving the value of adaptation as a cultural and psychological process (that we are never the same people today as we were yesterday, or will be tomorrow) as well as trying to sustain communities of purpose dedicated to literature – not as a subject for “aesthetic education” but as a means of discovering something about ourselves and the way we respond so differently to the world around us.

The only way to overcome such reversals as this is to follow the advice of Winston Churchill – KBO (Keep Buggering On).  Do what you believe in to the best of your abilities.

Laurence Raw

28 Mar. 2016


  1. Don't really want to dignify this with a comment, Laurence, given that there are no other comments, and my main concern would be that others might read my article through the smudging lens of your post. But anyway, for what it's worth, I find you misconstrue and misrepresent my argument repeatedly -- which is not the same as debating with it. In the end, you seem mainly concerned with showing that I'm impolite, inconsiderate, unkind, unsympathetic, and just generally, not the nice guy that you are. My failure then is really a failure in the realm of diplomacy. Quick note: scholars and diplomats differ radically in their projects, motivations, and methods.

    1. I am grateful to you, Don, for raising issues that have engendered considerable debate.

  2. Prof Randall. I have also read your article several times and believe Raw’s summary to be accurate. You’ve accused him of misconstruing and misrepresenting, but I think that this description is more appropriate for your own use and abuse of the Turkish scholars in your piece. I know, work and communicate in English on a daily basis with two of the people defamed in your writing and was disgusted to see how your ‘scholarly’ approach condescendingly misrepresented their intelligence and language abilities with unwarranted ad hominem attacks. Yes, it is fine to counter arguments or even to suggest that the typos reflect badly on this particular edition of the journal, but you go much too far by concluding that these scholars lack the ability to communicate or even think in academic English. This hypothesis is based on an untrue premise because all of the scholars you singled out for personal attacks have been educated overseas! Furthermore, you should have focused on the arguments, as you briefly did with Althusser (but were set on humiliation rather than explication), and done some research, as you obviously didn’t do with Macaulay or the Turkish curriculum, if you intended this writing to regarded as an academic article rather than as a piece of xenophobic gossip to besmirch the names and reputations of your Turkish peers in a mendacious attempt to further your own career.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Don. I am grateful to you for raising issues that have caused considerable debate since your article appeared.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. So, point one: I am retired, as of May 26, 2016, so you need not worry about me further. Point two: ARIEL, my publisher, has informed me that they've received a few protests about my article, and also that they've offered to publish critiques, if they pass the journal's usual vetting process, which is set at a high international standard (eg. ARIEL is on the AHCI list). So, if you can get through this vetting process (and my contention is that very few scholars in Turkey can) hey, go crazy, bring it on. ... And remember, meanwhile, the old Bernard Shaw line: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach [and poorly, I'd add].

  6. Thanks, Laurence, for your gracious response (though, somewhat unfortunately, it tends to confirm my sense of you as a kind of expat-scholar-diplomat). ... You're right that I have little knowledge of teaching practice in the lises or in the prep schools. I was extrapolating from student performances I've seen during my rather lengthy career. In the light of your comments, I'd now say that, yes, indeed, the teaching is not working, and the students know it, and therefore take to highly inefficient translation practices in an effort to survive. My main point, however: in the lises and in the prep schools and in (most) universities, teachers of English whose own English skills are poor are not a rarity but the norm. Note: I've discussed my article with a couple of my better former students and neither of them said, Oh, but Don, you're totally wrong about the teaching we received before we came to Bilkent. They, and several of my colleagues, admitted I was right, in my main points, but that my statements would make me unpopular. ... Which seems to have proved true. So be it.

  7. Don, many thanks once more for your reply. I would agree that I designate myself as an expat-scholar-diplomat, but would consider that status in a positive light: part of the purpose of the original blog-post was to try and cultivate a more generous attitude towards my fellow-scholars irrespective of their origins. I agree that there are shortcomings within the local education system, irrespective of its educational level, and that solutions are difficult to find. But my knowledge of such shortcomings will not deter me from trying to overcome (negotiate) them through every possible means during the remaining years of my academic career. I have this quixotic belief in the capability of everyone to learn, irrespective of their previous experiences.

    For your information, I wrote a lengthier reply to your original article with Professor Umunc that ARIEL kindly agreed to publish in their October issue. They kindly allowed us a 3000 word limit to express our opinions. We would welcome your comments on that article once it appears online or in print.

  8. Laurence, I just got my copy of the latest ARIEL the other day. As you'll see, my comments, which you said you would welcome, are published in the same volume as a response to your response to my article.

  9. Many thanks for your response, Don, whıch I have now readç I note your poınts and thank you for takıng the tıme and energy to revıew our artıcle in detaişl. Obviously I cannot agree with your conclusion but I appreciate what you are arguinng