Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cultural studies in Turkey Twenty Years on: Reminiscences and Reflections

Cultural Studies in Turkey Twenty Years On: Reminiscences and Reflections

In the mid-Nineties I worked with the British Council as an educator/ innovator charged with the introduction of British Studies into university curricula.  This was an initiative initiated by my then boss, Alan Mountford, to try and promote an understanding of and an empathy towards Britain, in a fashion similar to that of American Studies two decades previously.  I worked closely with Susan Bassnett, then the head of the Department of Translation and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, to develop a series of curricula that could be taught both at the Council and local institutions. The experiment worked extremely well at Hacettepe University, Ankara; and provoked other initiatives at Ege and Marmara Universities, among others.

As time passed, so the topic of discussion shifted from British Studies into cultural studies.  I was quite happy with this development, as I was not at ease with the Fortunes of War scenario of being parachuted into local institutions with the sole object of “promoting an identification with British cultural products,” as one British Council mandarin was fond of suggesting.  As well as developing the Hacettepe program, I became involved in a far bigger initiative – the Ege University Cultural Studies Seminar, organized annually (later biennially) in the Departments of English and American Studies at the İzmir university.  I do not remember how it came about, but I had known Gülriz Büken (of the American Studies Association of Turkey) for several years – and shared an office with her for two years at Bilkent – and enjoyed good relations with Günseli Sönmez İşçi and Ayşe Lahur Kırtunç of Ege.  Anyway, we got together and planned the first seminar in 1996, with guest speakers provided by the British Council and the Cultural Wing of the American Embassy.  The seminar attracted over one hundred participants, and the proceedings published as Cultural Studies in the UK and the US.

I was involved in three further seminars, the last in 1999 when I parted company with the British Council on Popular Cultures.  By the time I had finished the event had established itself as a major force in the local calendar of events devoted to literary/ cultural events.  Debates flourished between what we might term the forces of traditionalism and those interested in becoming “movers and shakers.” The traditionalists argued that cultural studies might erode the status of literary curricula, and thereby endanger the modernist project that had permeated Turkish cultures ever since the creation of the Republic.  Others claimed that cultural studies was a nothing subject devoted to the study of ephemeral material such as popular cultures, music and video.  I was firmly part of the movers and shakers group, in the belief that cultural studies could alter the way we think and reflect on our lives and the texts that represent them. My site ( is full of articles setting forth my theoretical position.  I believed in the intercultural approach, where learners were introduced to the foreign culture and encouraged to compare it with aspects of their own culture.  After sufficient exposure to the foreign culture, they could acquire what is termed intercultural competence, putting them in the position of being able to negotiate between cultures from a privileged position.  This methodology appeared to work, but whether I adopted a similarly intercultural perspective in my pedagogy is debatable.  The British Council representative should uphold British interests.

Yet things moved swiftly.  In 1995-6 I taught a Master’s course in Hacettepe, “Introduction to Cultural Studies.”  It was a particularly popular year for learners, with sixteen registered for the course, all but two of them Hacettepe graduates.  That popularity was in many ways attributable to the efforts of Can Abanazır, a member of the Hacettepe English department with an abiding interest in the discipline.  He was something of a cult figure, invariably dressed in black, with research interests in science fiction and rock music.  He worked with me at the British Council, and delighted learners with his easy familiarity and language (Turkish and English) peppered with swear-words.  That year was a remarkable one; my course was particularly successful in theoretical and comparative terms.  I split the group into two – one came to the British Council on Thursdays, the other on Saturdays.  The level of discussion was particularly high – so much so, in fact, that it spilled out from the classroom into Yeşil Vadi, the kebab restaurant and bar next to the Council offices.

I think the reason the classes worked so well had a lot to do with a learner-centered approach, where learners discussed the material in groups and subsequently fed into a larger group discussion.  This approach was very different from the more traditional lecture-based pedagogy that dominated their lives at Hacettepe.  That method certainly has its advantages, especially as a means of transmitting information about a foreign culture to learners largely unaware of Britain and British ways of life.  For a group of graduate learners, however, the need to hear their voices rather than mind seemed especially significant: cultural studies is a bottom-up discipline rather than a top-down.  Some learners were a little diffident at first, as if they believed that what they had to say lacked value; as the semesters unfolded, however, they became more and more confident in themselves.  By the 1997 İzmir seminar many of them had decided to make the trip down to the Aegean coast, and two of them (Sinem Bingöl and Aykut Uluer) presented a paper on Rudyard Kipling’s family home Bateman’s (79-85).  In the following year Defne Ersin, Rahşan Giritli, Deniz Örücü, Hanzade Ayas followed suit.  It seemed that cultural studies was on the academic map, with Hacettepe in one of the pole positions.   

From such beginnings new initiatives mushroomed.  Uluer, Ersin, Zeynep Özek and Cenk Erdil formed a Cultural Studies Study Group (CSSG) that met fortnightly at one of their apartments to discuss methods and matters related to the discipline over food and drink.  The fact that I attended such meetings as well kept the discussion going.  Members of the group toured to local universities; I remember one memorable Saturday when a minibus took us all to Erciyes University in Kayseri in Central Anatolia.  We had to leave at a fiendishly early hour and enjoyed the pleasure of beer for breakfast.  Meanwhile Bingöl had been fortunate enough to obtain a Chevening Scholarship from the British Embassy to do a Master’s in British Cultural Studies as Warwick University.

Sadly there were forces in the background whose principal aim seemed to be to limit, if not curtail such initiatives altogether.  I remember one professor saying that the Hacettepe learners “belonged” to their department, not to me; and it was incumbent on me to observe established practices rather than instituting anything new.  The learners I had worked with had to learn about Britain, not about socio-political practices.  This was a curious statement, especially since another member of the same department participated in one of the courses I ran at the British Council and thoroughly enjoyed herself.  Such struggles were characteristic of all cultural studies programs worldwide, especially those introduced into existing department; they were mostly resolved by the number of learners applying for such courses, rendering them both financially and academically profitable for the institutions involved.  Sadly for me (and the learners), the solution at Hacettepe was far less satisfactory.  When I left the Council it was suggested to me in no uncertain terms by the Dean of the Faculty that my talents as a cultural practitioner might be better used elsewhere.

Nothwithstanding such reversals I continued to teach cultural studies, and felt extremely flattered when I was invited to be one of the founding members of the Group for Cultural Studies in Turkey (renamed the Turkish Cultural Research Group (Türkiye Kültür Araştırmaları).  I attended their first conference at Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) in 2000, and was impressed by the variety and scope of the papers presented.  On the other hand there were colleagues who resented my interest in cultural studies in Turkey; my mere presence as an English person constituted a quasi-colonial presence, especially when my spoken Turkish was not good enough to participate effectively in the conference discussions.  One writer went so far as to accuse all foreigners doing cultural studies in Turkey to be solely interested in their personal reputations.  On this view I had attempted to convince the learners that, as a foreigner, I was “superior” to my Turkish colleagues, chiefly because of my origins in one of the countries where cultural studies originated.

Cultural studies has continued to flourish in many forms, although my personal research agenda moved away from the discipline towards adaptation studies.  The Turkish cultural studies group continues to flourish, organizing conferences in Turkish as a way of countering the “incongruous” situation of papers about Turkey presented in English at the Ege seminars (Pultar 47).  Cultural studies programs flourish at Sabancı and Bilgi Universities in İstanbul, as well as İstanbul Şehir University.  The Ege seminars also continue, with proceedings appearing soon afterwards, while Hacettepe still runs its British Studies MA.

 I had been to only one of the previous nine Ege seminars, but was drawn to the topic of the recent event (“Narratives of Trauma”), because I had recently experienced the trauma of a long illness and wanted to hear what others had to say on the topic.  The organizers very kindly invited me to give a plenary speech, where I would speak on the relationship between national and individual traumas, using Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009) as an example.

Time had wrought its changes.  I still teach, but now work in a Department of Education with trainee learners wanting to obtain formal teaching qualifications.  I am nearer sixty than forty, and age has given me a certain cachet.  Whether it is deserved or not is not for me to suggest, but I do have the capacity to look back on my past life and understand the mistakes I might have made.  The British/ cultural studies initiative of the Nineties was a good one; its legacy remains at Hacettepe, where learners are taught extremely well with the emphasis placed on the relationship between source and target cultures.  The emphasis is not so much on the intercultural but rather on the reflective: what can the study of the target culture’s practices tell us about ourselves?  What really struck me, however, was the atmosphere at the Ege conference.  The attendees came from a variety of institutions across the country, as well as foreign guests, for the most part they were willing to listen and discuss the points raised in the papers without being involved in any disciplinary or other arguments.  There were plenty of literature professor there, but they accepted without question the principle that cultural studies might be different from and similar to literature.  The post-paper discussions were conducted in an atmosphere of community with everyone willing to listen to and contemplate one another’s arguments.  Some papers were obviously better than others, but all the papers were given due attention.  In all my years attending the cultural studies conference I had never seen participants so willing to forge a community of purpose where listening assumed as much significance as talking.

Age has taught me a lot.  Close work with my learner teachers has made me understand the traumas they experience when they deliver papers.  I understand just how much it took for my Hacettepe MA learners to deliver papers at the Ege event all those years ago.  I also realize the need for me to support them – not only listening to their work but looking for the positive aspects all the time.  Emotional support is as important as academic support. In the British Council years, my offer of emotional support was misinterpreted by other professors as becoming “too close” to the learners – in other words, treating them as friends rather than learners.  Understanding just what the process of offering support involves is true “cultural studies” – it has nothing to do with national, ethnic or racial similarities/ differences, but treating everyone as a human being with similar emotions.  We have to listen rather than proselytize, be constructive rather than pontificate.  Such strategies were alien to the older professors in the late Nineties, but on the evidence of this year’s conference, the academic environment has softened significantly.

I gave my speech, based on the belief that I was going to talk from a personal perspective informed by academic knowledge.  I talked about my illness and when it taught me about human behavior.  A problem aired is a problem shared; if you are honest with someone, then they will be honest with you.  I shared my frailties, not in the spirit of asking for sympathy, but because I needed to do so for my own santé.  As I spoke, I could feel the audience empathizing – on at least two occasions they interrupted my speech to applaud.  I was amazed, even though I tried my best not to show it.  My speech finished, and I was surrounded by learners and educators alike generously thanking me for what I had done.

What was this?  Was this the same seminar where I had once been treated as an intellectual pariah, a colonizing presence preventing my colleagues from understanding their cultures?  I left the lecture-hall and surveyed the foyer where the participants were drinking their tea and coffee and talking to each other.  There was none of the intellectual grandstanding characteristic of earlier seminars.  Learner after learner came up to me and asked questions; the perceived gap between themselves and their educators (that often prevents them from communicating) assumed little or no significance for them.

I suddenly realized – after many years of engagement – what “cultural studies” actually is. While academic interventions past and present have established complex agendas for the discipline, the true key to an understanding of “cultures” and our relationship to them is the ability to listen and reflect.  Questions of language might be useful for communication, but understanding human behavior and human emotions are very different.  A sympathetic atmosphere at a conference arises from a willingness to accept contradictory opinions and scrutinize them, not to reject them.  Everyone should be treated fairly, from the youngest learner to the most superannuated professor.  In the late Nineties this state of accepting others at face value was impossible to achieve, as some colleagues believed themselves to be threatened by the upstart cultural studies.  Last week at the conference the environment was, quite simply, unique.

I had approached this conference with as much trepidation as learners might have done twenty years ago.  With a damaged voice and a lack of confidence in my powers to communicate over a sustained period, I wondered whether I could do the speech at all, especially as this was my first conference out of Ankara (my hometown) for eight months.  At the end I experienced a form of elation I’d seldom previously understood: the subliminal aim of cultural studies had been revealed to me.  It took a long time, but the knowledge will hopefully stimulate further interventions.


Bingöl, G. Sinem, and Aykut Uluer.  “Reinvention of Rudyard Kipling and Bateman’s.”  The History of Culture: The Culture of History.  Ed. Laurence Raw, Gülriz Büken, and Günseli Sönmez İşçi.  79-95.  Ankara: The British Council, 1998.  Print.

Pultar, Gönül.  “Cultural Studies in Turkey: The State of the art.”  Culture Unbound 5 (2013): 43-71.

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