I consider teaching an integral part of philosophical reflection and deliberation. Common questioning and inquiry of a subject matter through Socratic deliberation, tailored to the demands of the learning context, has always been my preferred approach, regardless of my interlocutors’ age or level of education. I owe my love of philosophy to Dr. Stephen Voss, my undergraduate philosophy professor at Boğaziçi University, who also had a decisive impact on my own teaching philosophy with his performative, Socratic style. Even though my major was political science, his model inspired me to apply various customized versions of the Socratic method years later when I started teaching.
My formal teaching career began when I volunteered as a TA for my professor at a small college in Istanbul, where I had started to work as an RA. Given that the majority of students there considered a university as no more than an institution that would certify them for the job market, they had little interest in intellectual matters. I believed that this was mostly because the education system had failed to provide the means and the will to engage in free and critical thinking. Pushing them to reflect on themselves and to question received ideas, I observed a visible improvement that enabled them to engage in far more intelligent and enthusiastic discussion sessions.
However, my long-term teaching experience was formed in the US as a TA during my MA and PhD studies, when I led discussion sections for several years. When I taught “American Government” as an international instructor for the first time, such a cross-cultural teaching experience in Texas was a challenge for me. However, it also globalized the learning experience for both myself and the students. At the University of Virginia, my discussion sections were always in political theory courses and thus helped me develop my own teaching style through an interactive and deliberative interpretation of philosophical texts. Although getting through such dense material is often a real struggle for many students, helping them relate those seemingly obscure issues to their everyday ethical conundrums has, in my experience, made a real difference. In order to facilitate a deliberative study of the texts, I would often send provocative discussion questions to them beforehand. For some courses, I would ask them to send in their responses to make sure that they have given the texts some thought. These questions formed an important portion of the positive feedback I received in my evaluations over the years.
My most intensive teaching period as a lead instructor occurred after my appointment to Istanbul Commerce University as an assistant professor. I taught “Ethics,” “Political Philosophy,” “Middle East Politics,” and “Introduction to Political Science” for several semesters. Apart from teaching as many as four courses per semester, I volunteered at an independent center to teach a course I specifically designed out of my comparative political theory research area: “Contemporary Muslim Political Thought.” Students from several universities attended this course, which I offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
As this course attracted considerable interest, with at most one-fifth of the applications accepted, I am inclined to think that this was due to my approach to teaching thinkers who were normally studied in intellectual history courses, through quite didactic means and based on secondary sources. In these sessions, as well as my Ethics and Political Philosophy courses at my own college, I encouraged students to join the conversation not only to interpret the texts, but also to engage the humanities’ longstanding riddles of freedom, justice, and equality. Most students were not used to this, but as the course progressed they began to make comparative analyses of thinkers and relate them with the current ethico-political discussions.
Although many senior Turkish professors had tried to convince me that students could not grasp primary texts, I observed firsthand how they started to make their own critical analyses. Students would say that they really could not tell which thinker or ideology I favored, given my attempt to discuss each one’s merits and weaknesses in an even-handed manner. As I read their answers to my short questions and longer papers throughout the semester, I could see how much progress they were making in this regard.
My Middle East Politics courses were based more on comparative historical analyses; however, I tried to keep the mutual learning element significant. The main challenge here was the gradually deteriorating quality of national college education. As most of the students had not written a paper before, I had to locate educational technological tools even to communicate with them and to share instruction materials. At the end of one semester, a student shared with me her feelings: “Now that the class is over, it is as if something is missing in my life, given the lack of your emails, short questions, short documentaries, weekly movies on the Middle East. I feel a lack.” Customizing both my reliance on audio-visual materials as well as different learning and evaluation tools (e.g., reflection papers, essays, policy briefs, policy papers, and short questions according to the demands and levels of different types of courses) proved to be quite effective during my years in Turkey.
Upon my dismissal immediately after the Peace Petition in January 2016, my students held a rally in front of the university campus in my support. I was quite touched to see that they were also some of my best students, who sometimes would ask me to go an extra hour to discuss our assigned texts further. Observing how my students stood up for values of freedom after our lengthy debates on it was the most fulfilling side of teaching for me in Turkey. Furthermore, my students from the independent seminars also kept in touch with me both for long-term mentoring and to join my efforts at the Istanbul Think-House for the free circulation of ideas. Currently, that organization carries on its activities mostly by my former students’ voluntary work, and I have many mentees from there in the UK and the US who are now pursuing their graduate degrees.
After a two-year interval following my departure from Turkey, I was fortunate to start teaching again at Stanford with the very same course I had designed in Turkey: “Contemporary Muslim Political Thought.” After teaching large classes for many years, I was able to use the small classroom setting to hold quite lively interpretive and deliberative sessions with very interested students. I believe that my love for teaching as a reflective and deliberative endeavor will continue to resonate with many more students who I hope to teach over the coming decades. Thank you for letting me share my passion for teaching with you.