Interview with Begüm Başdaş : Academic Freedom, Academics for Peace and Review of Academy in Turkey Before and After State of Emergency

Interview with Begüm Başdaş : Academic Freedom, Academics for Peace and Review of Academy in Turkey Before and After State of Emergency

Part I

As Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), we conducted an interview on the subject of Academic Freedoms with Begüm Başdaş who expressed herself as a feminist urban geographer and currently working as an Activism Coordinator at Amnesty International while pursuing a career in academy through giving lectures at several  universities in Turkey. In the first part of interview, we have mentioned the working conditions and freedoms in universities of Turkey, we have also talked about the consequences of coming together with the changes after 15th July, new initiatives and the academy’s ‘quest for freedom’.

 

Summary of the Interview

 

“In Many universities, people do not want to force themselves anyway. This person has already taught lesson 10 years ago, and he is going to the class today with the same curriculum. If it’s a revolution in those ten years, these people will not be aware of this as they are telling the same thing. We are able to emerge more effectively in the works we want to do at present, in relation to the students who want to change the university like us, but this is not accepted”

 

“If you want to get a scholarship, and you are a poor student, you have no choice… Students pay considerable amount of money for each course. I am talking about vast sum of money, you could not get into the public universities, and you want to make a PhD on anthropology, and there is not much place you can make a PhD on anthropology in this country”

 

The most difficult situation for me at the university where I was working full-time was that the university administration’s request of wanted us to have a list of these topics form Ph.D. and master students, and even our undergraduate students. And I think the students were being blacklisted on what they were researching. Students could receive scholarships only if their research topics were related to the subjects the university administrative board were close to

 

“Academy could not define as a world of freedoms even before 15th July Coup Attempt. We did not start to lose our freedoms with decrees in law. It refers to a very long process. Before this, state authorities were given the signals in several statements. Even shortly before the declaration of Academics for Peace, the President made a statement about possible changes that would take place in government institutions like hospitals, universities. However, such changes were not clear, we did not know what and how it would be at that time…”

 

Full Text of the Interview

 

Could you introduce yourself?

 

I am thinking about how I start to answer this question. In fact, I introduce myself, rather than where I work or what I do, as how I describe myself, I am a feminist urban geographer and academician. Currently, I am working at International Amnesty (IA) as Campaign and Activism Coordinator. I started to worked in IA in 2012. Before that there is a long history starting in 1999 with my graduation from Sociology in Boğaziçi University. Following graduation, I went to the United States of America. I got my Master of Art (MA) degree in History of Art at California University, Riverside, but I mainly worked in architectural history and urban history fields. Moreover, I studied on hundred years of urban history and transformation of Galata, İstanbul in my thesis. After that, I started my postgraduate degree in Geography department at California University, Los Angeles. In Turkey, there is a predominant perception about geography as a field of study of human geography and physiography, but I worked on public sphere and rethought public sphere within the frameworks of political philosophy through female body. In that sense, I wrote my doctorate thesis that I can described myself as a feminist urban geographer in the field of Cultural Geography. The thesis finished at the end of 2007. In fact, I already started my post doctorate in the United Kingdom (UK) before the thesis was finished. I worked for 2 years at Open University as a project assistant on urban geography. During those 2 years that I worked in UK, I really suffocated in there. After living for 8 years in Los Angeles, Southern California with the sun, the sea and the nature, living in UK was hard for me. Following the post doctorate, I returned to Turkey in 2010. After giving lectures in several universities as part-time academician in the first year of my return, I started to work in Department of Anthropology at a university as an assistant professor. I give many lectures like anthropology, geography and gender. Following I was assigned as a co-head of department. However, I could only endure for two years to structure in foundation universities. In terms of, the density of work load, given excessive amount of bureaucratic responsibilities in addition to that we could not understand what all of these correspond are the reasons for my resigning.

 

What did your working schedule look like?

 

You have been working very hard. You have to go to school every day from 9 am to 6 pm, you have to be there even in the mid-term break, in the summer; you have to be in school all the time. It is not acceptable for a social scientist because we need to do research in the field and conduct those researches with people in the street. This ruled for sociology, geography anthropology and many other disciplines. However, we could not explain this to the university. We tried to explain the field of anthropology, the “laboratory”, to academicians in administrative positions during several interviews. We explain this with “think about physic laboratories where you are doing experiments. Our laboratories are villages, cities, so different places from school. We need to do research”. At the same time, they are waiting academic publications from us, but how could we do such publications without researches. You have 5+5 course load. We also have master and doctorate degrees. We have tens of master and doctorate students in the department with small number of academicians. An excessive amount of responsibilities, courses… there is no time. Accepting all… but at least giving us permission for summer terms in order to do short periodic researches. We could not get permission in any manner. I started to feel myself getting blunt. You are giving same lectures continuously; there is also rules in thesis management that are developed outside of you. You think that this student is not good enough and shall not pass the exam. Others make that student pass. You are saying I am not going to sign this thesis, but at some point you have to do it. I think, I have never sign any thesis in there. While experiencing all of these, I felt like I need to make a decision. At that time, the position in IA was opened. I have already worked with organizations for human rights since I carried out activism for Women and LGBT rights since the beginning of 2000s. And I realized I am not an academician in such situation, I just a part of the system. In any circumstances, you cannot even fight for your rights. In this regard, I made a decision to leave my job at university. I was a hard decision.

 

And then?

 

When I started to work in IA, the way of working, reporting, etc., I was actually familiar to the system. However, being an academician is such a thing that constantly emerging in any case. Students, academy, it is a different kind of bond… producing knowledge is something else. Academy permeates to your soul. You have entered to the university at the age of 18. I had finished my undergraduate degree in 5 years. You create your own perspective of life within a certain structure in Boğaziçi University. I did not say I am going to be an academician when I had started to the university. At the time that, I was studying in Sociology department of Boğaziçi University, I realized that I do not want to work in a company, in the business world. I believe that It was not suitable for me, for my characteristic. When I realized such environment in the business world is not for me in terms of being competitive, controversial and devoid of producing knowledge, and decided to stay in academy by saying “being an academician would be the best choice for me” at 3rd grade after that I pushed myself hard to graduate. Following you started your master, doctorate and post doctorate and then you realized that I have been in university for 15 years as a student. You have started at your 20s, the term you create your own identity in academy of a little in Turkey but mostly in USA and UK. One of the advantages in doing your Ph.D. in USA is gaining a unique practical experience by being part of teaching process as an assistant since you are pursing your degree as a research assistant or a teaching assistant, which is actually an usage of financial needs of students and count such students as a cheap work force. I have started to give lecture since 2000. In other words, I have been giving lectures and being with students for 17 years. In this regard, when I started my job at IA, it was really difficult for me. Even the structure of IA complies with some part of academy and producing knowledge, I could not break my bonds with academy. For this reason, I continue to teach. I am giving lectures at different universities in each term.

 

What were your fields of study at universities? What subjects did you teach?

 

Currently, I am giving lectures on gender, quorum theory and sexuality. However, I think I gave lectures in all fields of study from causes of rain to Ancient Greek art, urban geography to citizenship contracts in EU and international politics in these 17 years. It reminds me that there is a book of my friends “We give whatever the course is”, which exposed the sanctions of academy to the people like assistant, doctorate students and assistant professor who were not promoted yet to certain positions. This lecture has not given by anybody, you give this, and you need to work, be in a university, okay then I will give this and that; at the end you find yourself by giving any lecture. I feel like if I could give a lecture about why do earthquakes happen, I can teach everything. I have spent 17 years like this.

 

What is your role in the International Amnesty?

 

In IA, I am responsible for studies on refugee rights, forced displacement and, Women and LGBT rights. Such subjects are quite close to my specialities. Since my both master and doctorate degrees are in urban studies. I could do my research in Sur without doing preliminary study. Also, refugee issue is another topic that I am very familiar from globalization politics as a geographer. Women and LGBT rights could not been thought disassociated from me anyway.

 

On the other hand, we are having hard times to find a job as academicians in these days. It was like that even then in the times before Academics for Peace when I had returned to Turkey. Of course, today it is more difficult. When I look back to 2010, the year that I returned Turkey, I was a person with high academic skill in terms of having a graduate degree from Boğaziçi, a master from UC Riverside and then a doctorate from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Open University has one of the most significant geography department but there was no job. In fact, rather than that, there should be opportunities since universities are constantly opening, I think we will have a chance to talk about such universities, but how is these universities and who are gone be employed in there. I have no idea about such universities criteria for employing academicians based on what? New graduates, also previous graduates like me who are graduated with remarkable grade and various prizes from universities with high reputation, are looking for a job; even universities are opening in almost everywhere, there is no job  at such universities. This is a problem. When I returned back to the Turkey, nobody has willing to get hire me. In addition to that, after the statement of Academics for Peace, situation became a little more political which made us could not be employed. Before that, you study on women rights, done ethnographic researches, and raise your voice for women in public sphere but these were not count as “knowledge”. So, it did not seem as a significant field of study.

 

“In Many universities, people do not want to force themselves at this point anyway. This person has already taught lesson 10 years ago, and he is going to the class today with the same curriculum. Those people who will not be aware of the revolution in ten years. Because they are going, they are telling the same thing, they are going out. We are able to emerge more effectively in the works we want to do at present, in relation to the students who want to change the university like us, but this is not accepted”

 

Why it is not considered a valuable research area?

 

I don’t know. When I was started as assistant professor, there was a professor from the doyen of the university who did not allow for me to being associate professor and decided concerning my thesis was not an ethnographic study. Feminist ethnography, work from a gender perspective has changed since the time of these scholars, but they are not aware of it. At many universities, people do not want to exert themselves to the utmost. This person has already taught lecture 10 years ago, and delivering lecture today with the same curriculum. Those people who will not be aware of if the revolution would happen in ten years. Because they are delivering the same lecture so on and so forth. We are able to emerge more effectively in the works we want to do in association with the students, like those of us who want to change the university, but this is not accepted. When I returned to Turkey, I went to a university that offered English education for a job interview. I’m very used to writing in English during the of invitation talks. And then, they called me; I opened the door to enter the interview room. I said hi, 6 male academicians inside, ‘you are from Turkey’ he said to me. I said yes, he guesses someone who came from India Pakistan because he read Begum Basdas in English. I said I am from Turkey. I thought they’d never google it. Nowadays, if nobody ever does anything, at least you are going to google it, or actually google it tells you where I came from. They asked me nothing about the production of academic knowledge, and almost one of the most striking questions was that about my marriage status. I said that would you explain this questions relevance with this job interview. Probably due to inflection of my tone, they behave themselves and said “We’re like a family here, we go everywhere together, we worked together…” In fact, they were expecting for me to be bachelor and devote myself to the university. You know that such situations can consider two dramatically different way, whether married or but in terms of general recruitment perspective, not married or not having a child, don’t have to get permission so you’d devote all your life to the university. They did not even write me a reply later. Then, of course, didn’t recruit me.

 

The most difficult situation for me at the university where I was working full-time was that the university administration’s request of wanted us to have a list of these topics form Ph.D. and master students, and even our undergraduate students. And I think the students were being blacklisted on what they were researching. Students could receive scholarships only if their research topics were related to the subjects the university administrative board were close to

 

I have had experiences like this. When you offer slightly alternative views to system and the conservative structure, you are not already in a position to be hired. I was not one of them either. I finished my Ph.D. in 2007-2008 in a time when the global economic crisis highly prevailing in America; so, recruitment in America was frozen in this period. This is one of the reasons for my return. There has been no recruitment for a very long time, which is now at universities where it has led to very serious clashes. Unfortunately, newly graduates prevalently do not find a job easily. For this reason, many academics have been returning to Turkey like me. We were all unemployed… I also do not know how to measure the value of the work you are doing, but the more the rigorous research the academics have done, the more valuable it is. In here, nepotism is much more alive and well. I am sure that corruption is valid everywhere but in Turkey establishing a university without thinking on it due to these reasons; I did not apply for many of them.  One of the reasons that I was accepted the anthropology department is relatively relying on some people’s works in there. We have left together after all. Anthropology is very rare department at the universities in Turkey.  In this university, there was a Ph.D. program, which is very important to Ph.D. student. I was dreaming about it but things did not happen as I thought.

 

In short, I quickly gave up my dream of being a tenured academician. I also look at the speeches of the professors, associate professors on TV, people who put their titles in front of them, at the and of the day they became professors… There could be two points of view, you can say that I can be quite a place where they are professors, but the opposite is happening in Turkey. So, first one does not happening. Because when you are preparing for your dissertation defense to associate professors, the criteria are not the same or when it comes to stand up before the academic jury, it’s not the same as people who are associated to you. Namely, there is problematical, troublesome processes aforementioned recruitment. You do not get titles like a professor of associate professor owing to quality of your professional presence. The most difficult situation for me at the university where I was working full-time was that the university administration’s request of wanted us to have a list of these topics form Ph.D. and master students, and even our undergraduate students. And I think the students were being blacklisted on what they were researching. Students could receive scholarships only if their research topics were related to the subjects the university administrative board were close to.

 

So there was nothing we could talk about like academic freedom or autonomy?

 

There is no such a thing as academic freedom or autonomy. You do what you want to do for a while but in the end you do not get a scholarship or being blacklisted. If you are a poor student and want to get a scholarship, there is no possibility. Students pay for considerable amount of money for each course. If you want to PhD in anthropology and you have not entered the state universities, there is not much place you can do in this country.

 

Or else, your freedom is restricted in here, for instance when I said to a student take a fieldwork concerning research topic but the other scholars in the jury would say that, “It is not possible.” Why not? No answer. But they cannot… When you try to motive students towards other things; other academic/university bodies are unfortunately disapproved. Obviously, I cannot say that this may occur in any university in general. In as much as there is such a reality in a widespread manner, apart from the desire to be a professor, to become an associate professor. Like I indicated before, if they are professors, I must be the other way around. I do not want to be subject to that system. I will do my own research in a freeway. If you want to publish something freely in journals abroad, you can do it without the academic title.

There are already serious obstacles concerning free research now even if you haven’t tenured. Because of that I made such a choice. As it is with the recently issued Turkish Council of Higher Education (Turkish acronym, YÖK) decisions, non-tenured faculty members cannot be allowed in the master and PhD thesis supervisory committees. Foundation universities admit more students while going downsizing themselves, but they do not have enough staff and there are not a number of faculty members who can provide adequate counselling to students. There are dozens of students, who will give these students enough time. Thesis counselling does not mean ‘saying yes to everything’, it requires reading, reading in detail, thinking together with, and walking with in the same path. We cannot do that anymore. I try to help theses in tea coffee conversations with students from outside.

“Turkish academia was not the world of liberties before the July 15 coup attempt. We have not started to lose our academic freedoms with the decrees. This is already a very long process. Before that, the state authorities gave the signals in various explanations”

There is a situation that universities impede themselves. We understand there is an academy sprinkled with dead land while waiting for liberation. And there are also external factors; We want to talk about external factors rather than internal ones. We would like to talk about the situation of the academy after the 15th of July coup attempt in the most recent summer period. What has changed? How do you observe this situation? Do you see it as a transformation? What direction do the freedoms evolve? Are the rules of the game changed together with decree laws (KHK)? Where do the academics for peace stands? The emergence of a large number of academics with a collective report on the same platform, which makes the dialogue with the government complicated…

 

Turkish academia was not the world of liberties before the July 15 coup attempt. We have not started to lose our academic freedoms with the decrees. This is already a very long process. Before that, the state authorities gave the signals in various explanations. In fact, the president gave statement regarding changes will be made in government institutions, hospitals, and universities right before the short time ago Academic for Peace’s declaration, These are uncertain, and then we do not know what will happen and how they will change. I do not know if the idea was the same after the coup attempt with that day’s think so. We knew that such an apprehension was in the mind of the government, and we were expecting what they would do. Some things need to look at the universities in general, as well as the differences between state and foundation universities.

-THE END OF THE PART I-

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

Comments

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.