“However over-optimistic it may sound, I focused
on a growth mindset and transferred it to focusing on creating a change in our
From June 6 to Augus 4, 2016, I was a visiting
assistant professor at the Political Science Department of Bogazici (Bosphorus
in Turkish) University, the first American higher education institution founded
This account is of my personal experience of the
traumatic events that happened last year in the midst of the summer semester on
July 15. I want to explain the immediate emotions of discouragement, fear, and
stress that I and my students experienced on campus after the incident and how
we coped with the trauma.
About one year ago, I awoke from sleep on the
fifth floor of the Ucaksavar dormitory at Bogazici University, that
accommodates hundreds of students and faculty members. I had fallen asleep that
evening whilst waiting for my friend, who was stuck in traffic on the Bosphorus
Bridge connecting the European and Asian sides of the city of Istanbul. From 10
pm onwards, Turkish soldiers had blocked the bridge, closing it to traffic, an
action by a “military group” which was later denounced by Turkey’s prime
minister Binali Yildirim as illegal.
What awoke me from my sleep was the huge bang,
massive vibrations, and shaking of the building caused by fighter jets flying
over us. Unaware of what was going on, many of us in the halls of residence thought
that a war had broken out and that jets were dropping bombs on us. The dormitory
administrators immediately asked students and faculty to go to the basement and
stay there until the threat had passed: we were nervous, fearful, and scared.
There were rumors that the army was taking over:
but that did not sound right. We were full of suspicion, our minds racing as we
tried to calm ourselves down: “Why should the armed forces bomb its own
population? Why shouldn’t it? It DID in Syria. Are we not another Middle
Eastern country after all?!”
We heard later that the tremendous noise and
shaking was a sonic boom caused by F16 jets deliberately flying under a certain
altitude to cause fear among people. But we were not sure. Those could only be
rumors and they might have been hiding the real cause. Uncertainty raised our
levels of anxiety. A few hours later, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made
an appearance via
FaceTime, speaking to a news anchor who held an
iPhone in front of the camera, which felt plain awkward, urging citizens to,
“go into the streets and give them their answer.” Fighter jets continued
flying above Istanbul as state-employed imams were calling the salah prayer to
rally the citizens and encourage them into the streets. That night was total
chaos. We were all traumatized.
I had been an undergraduate student myself at Bogazici
in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the AKP’s rise to power. And I had observed
a lot of positive changes on the campus that I graduated from during the two
weeks prior to this attempted military coup. The most significant change that I
observed from the very first day of my return to campus was the great diversity
that enriched campus life. The campus seemed to be more inclusive in many ways.
Fifteen years ago, for example, female students
wearing headscarves could not enter a campus in Turkey. Many Muslim female
students on campus had to wear wigs to cover their hair if they wanted access
to the education that their peers had. The problematic policies of mainstream
political parties with elitist mindsets combined with corruption to alienate a
majority of the population before Erdogan’s ascent to power. The Kemalist,
rigidly secular mindset made generations of female students invisible on
campuses and in public spaces.
I always felt that a grave injustice had been
done them and was now so excited to see that these girls were very vocal and
confident. To me, that seemed a great achievement. In the first two weeks of
our summer course, I felt I had an environment conducive to learning in my
classroom. My students from all points on the political spectrum, from every social
strata or creed seemed to enjoy participating in discussions about politics and
current events. But this was no longer so after the attempted military coup.
The first Monday after the attempted coup, no
classes were cancelled on campus. The incumbents wanted to normalize life
immediately after the incident, conveying the message that things were functioning
perfectly well. So on July 18, we had our class meeting. For my students, many
members of the faculty, and myself, things were far from “normal” in fact. We were all traumatized and there was no way I
could behave as if nothing had happened in my class.
However, when our class met and I wanted my
students to share their views about what had happened a few days ago, the
conversation suddenly got very tense. When a few students made comments about
Erdogan’s authoritarianism, some students, who seemed to be much older than the
average college students, fiercely responded and accused those commenting on
Erdogan’s authoritarianism of supporting the military coup.
Suddenly, anyone who criticized Erdogan found
themselves in the position of having a pro-coup and/or militarist mindset thrown
at them when in fact no one was supporting a military coup against the
government. All were in favour of a democratic Turkey.
These conversations were not designed to calm
anyone down. Therefore, I decided then and there to talk about our feelings and
emotions. Almost everyone showed signs of distress: they felt overwhelmed,
depressed, pessimistic, discouraged, fearful, and scared. Some, on the other
hand, did not elect to speak at all. They showed no signs of grief, or anger,
or anxiety. Perhaps that was the most difficult group to deal with.
As a precursor of mine advised me, “Once you learn
to quit, it becomes a habit”. I was determined not to quit or lose hope under
these conditions. I believed in the need to build a culture of positivity and
collaboration in my classroom. That was the moment when I felt that the
pedagogical tools that I had learned back in graduate school helped me most in
my interaction with my students. However over-optimistic it may sound, I
focused on a growth mindset and transferred it to focusing on creating a change
in our emotional state. I tried to convey to my students that it was in our
hands to change how we felt, and that our feelings were not fixed, and that our
success would be based on our persistence and hard work, and that eventually we
could also change our emotions by working on them.
And it worked. My students began to focus their
energy on their work and they stayed positive throughout the summer. Now I had retrieved
class sovereignty, I felt more confident as a professor. Because no argument
could beat that growth mindset.
My classroom at Bogazici seemed to me to be a
microcosm of a Turkish society and politics suffering from PST (post-traumatic
stress disorder). Today the same conversation about pro-democracy vs. pro-military
prevails in Turkish politics. Erdogan and his supporters accuse anyone who
criticize the policies of the AKP of supporting attempts to stage a military
coup against the government.
This is a dangerous mistake that will not alleviate
the pain or suffering of anyone party to it. It will not heal the scars of
democracy but only strengthen extreme radicalism, exacerbate differences, and
make Turkish society more polarized.