Letter From - Winter 2007

Istanbul: The Group

By Suzanne Scanlon | December 1, 2006

“You are an American soldier. You have one mission and one mission only: To protect your country and to fight against the enemy.” Gözde reads the opening lines of her story to the creative-writing workshop I teach at Koç University. I am the only American present in the classroom at the English language, American-modeled school in Istanbul; all of my students, about a dozen young people, are Turkish.

“You love the respect that people show towards you,” Gözde continues. “You feel proud and important when they applaud each 4th of July. You feel confident in your uniform since no one cares if you are good-looking or not, or whether you are an African-American or Hispanic. You know that you are superior to the rest of the society. You are very well aware that you have to do just one thing: follow the orders…. They tell you to wear your uniform and appear on ceremony; you wear it and appear in the ceremony. They tell you to go to Iraq and kill some people there; you go and kill.”

When she finishes reading, silence pervades the classroom. The usually talkative and lively students look around at each other and at me, saying nothing. I try to open the discussion on matters of craft: What did they make of the writer’s provocative use of the second-person voice? How did it work or not work in the story? Finally, slowly and thoughtfully, Duygu speaks: “I don’t think you should write like this—about American soldiers. It is crude and disrespectful, I think.” Buðra adds, “I think it is overdetermined. It’s too much.”

Gözde’s fictional American soldier goes on to kill an innocent Iraqi, whose death, years later, is avenged by his son, a Harvard law graduate. It’s an obvious exercise in anti-Americanism, a recurring theme these days in Turkish popular culture. (Metal Storm and its sequel Metal Storm II, novels depicting an imagined war between Turkey and the United States, have been best sellers since 2005, and that fall the authors spoke on campus to a packed crowd.) My students continue with a sort of self-censure that surprises me. “It would have been better to write about an imaginary war, or a soldier from a made-up country,” Özgün offers.

I give up on form and turn obliquely to substance. Why, I ask, are they offended? After all, I, the only American in the room, was not. Current events are valid subject matter for fictional treatment, I say. I offer such concrete suggestions as maintaining a consistent voice and point of view and delineating the characters with more particular insight. This relaxes some students who see that I can tolerate criticism of my country, but most of them remain noticeably uncomfortable throughout the discussion.

The next morning Buðra comes to my office. “What did you think of that story yesterday?” he asks. I don’t answer right away, and he offers his opinion, more revealing than he would have allowed in the workshop: “I thought it was cheap, an easy shot. The students here—you don’t know, but there is a conspiracy theory going around among the Turkish youth, fueled by nationalists. They think that the U.S. is going to go from Iraq to Syria to the Turkish border, eventually taking away our land.” Buðra claims to have “a larger understanding” because he’s an international-relations major. (International relations is what Turks call political science, a term that was squeezed out of the academy in the 1980s by a military dictatorship that feared the Marxist implications of studying politics.) I don’t ask him to elaborate about how his understanding coincided with his taking offense to a story that depicts American soldiers committing war crimes.

By then I had thought about what had happened the previous day in my writing workshop and understood a bit more about the tension. The students had come to identify themselves as members of a group; the discussion of the story seemed to challenge the group’s unwritten rule of respecting the teacher (me); and respecting me meant not insulting my country. The group takes precedence in the Turkish classroom, and Gözde’s story had threatened the group’s cohesiveness.

As a college student more than 10 years ago, I was keenly aware of a prevailing sense of competition among my peers and of their struggles to impress the professor. Later, when I first taught in the United States, I thought it necessary to put a note in the syllabus: “The classroom, like a city or country, is also a community, and for it to function properly, individual students must participate. As we read about other communities, students are reminded to pay attention to their own community (the classroom).” That caution seems unnecessary in Turkey.

When I arrived in Istanbul one year ago, I romanticized the Turkish view of collective culture. After all, couldn’t an individualistic cultural emphasis, as we have in the United States, correlate with the high rates of depression we experience? My own experience of living in New York City as a student seemed to intensify my sense of isolation, and isn’t living in isolation a defining characteristic of Americans today?

In contrast to your average New Yorker, Turks generally refer to each other, even to someone whose name they may not know, as my friend. My students, from the very first day of class, typically begin an assertion with As my friend said or I agree with my friend. Cliques and in-groups, visible on campus, pretty much vanish in the classroom. The nerds, the alternatives, and the scholarship kids are as important to the group as the nouveau riche, the bourgeois, and the high-society Istanbullu commuters.

Strong group identity usually works to the advantage of individual students and sometimes for the class as a whole. In one stellar class, the very motivated students seemed to keep the slacker minority silent, and the average students were pressured into working harder than they might have done among other less enthusiastic and dedicated students. Toward the end of the semester, a student told me that they had shared mobile phone numbers and had called each other with questions or concerns the night before a major assignment was due. The success of some students was surely influenced by the group’s collective motivation.

A member of that class wrote her final research paper on the challenges of cross-cultural adaptation for foreign students. She hoped to study someday in a foreign country and was curious about the difficulties she might encounter. “It is hard to explain,” she said in a conference with me, “but in your culture you don’t think of your friend all the time; in our culture, we do. I know that my friend is thinking about me as much as he is thinking about himself.”

Her analysis seemed simplistic, but I didn’t interrupt. “No offense, but your culture is a bit more . . .” She paused, and gave me an apologetic smile. “It is more selfish.” I wasn’t offended. This, too, is a cultural difference: the degree to which they respect me as the instructor and worry that I might take offense. In my experience, very little respect is shown to an instructor—at least to one who is youngish and female—in American universities. My Turkish student may be right; the American mindset may be more selfish. Paradoxically, Koç is an “American-modeled” and “English-medium” university, as the promotional materials put it. In the Pre-University English Language Center here, only American teachers are hired, and the Turkish professors in the various departments hold Ph.D.’s from top-ranked U.S. universities. Although a number of students are on scholarship, Koç students generally come from wealthy families who want them to receive a U.S. academic experience without having to go to America. Some will attend graduate school in the United States; others will stay here or in Europe, obtaining jobs with multinational companies that value the ability to speak English and, in many cases, American-accented English.

And so I sometimes wonder if it would be a disservice to allow them to retain their collective way of thinking. When I arrived here in the fall of 2005, I attended a preparatory workshop set up by Turkish psychology professor Zeynep Aycan. We new teachers were instructed on our cultural differences. “Here is a simple test,” Zeynep said, introducing her ideas. “Complete this phrase: I am. . . .” She looked at me.

“I am Suzanne,” I said. “I am Anna,” the woman next to me answered. “Marlisa,” a third American responded.

“A highly individualistic sense of identity,” Zeynep observed. “If you ask our students, they might say I am the son of so-and-so. I am the brother of so-and-so. This is one easy indicator of a very different way of being in the world.” The danger, she said, was that with such emphasis placed on the group, one never needed to take individual responsibility. This, combined with a cultural outlook that tended toward the fatalistic could dampen motivation. (This fatalism was borne out after earthquakes, terrorist attacks, an economic crisis, and a lack of jobs for even the college educated; further evidence is a tendency to drive recklessly without using seat belts.)

I’ve wanted to try Zeynep’s test in one of my classrooms to see how it would play out. So far, I haven’t. Certainly there are the students who are unmotivated, and I often find myself arguing against their tendency to fall back on the group. I want them to be individuals, and sometimes I want them to simply mind their own business. When assignments are turned back, they all share their scores (much to my chagrin), letting each other read my comments, at times calling out to others across the room to compare results. Later one or another will come to me with a comment like I had an 80 and my friend had a 78, but she only wrote five pages, and my paper was eight pages.

Of course, students react this way in a U.S. university, but it is much more widespread here. It’s almost required that you let others know your grades, and perhaps this is how the group sets up a hierarchy. At times this tendency makes me feel more alienated than I am, such as when I arrive in class and find students huddled around the desk of someone they’ve identified as the best student, who is briefing them on the day’s reading assignment. By the spring semester, I’d learned enough Turkish to understand when Ege was explaining the difference between Gandhi’s definitions of passive resistance and noncooperation and when Enes was relating the plot of Antigone to the group. “He might be able to tell you the plot of the play, but it will never be the same as if you had read the play,” I’d say. “No one can read for you. You are responsible for your own education, and this means that you must struggle with the text, even if it is challenging. Your friend cannot do that for you.”

“Yes, teacher.”

I’m not, however, entirely comfortable with my own argument. I want them to read, of course, and I give the same advice to American students. My ambivalence comes from the fact that I am promoting an American model in which individualism equals capitalism, and that isn’t what I want to teach. Any time I start lecturing this way—and I’ve been doing it more and more—I feel ridiculous. I recall being a student, and I realize that most of my students couldn’t care less about what I’m saying. The few who understand don’t need to be told, and the many who need to be told will not understand.

When I began teaching, I told myself that I would never lecture students in this way. I wouldn’t speak down to them. And yet, here I am, one year into my teaching at this university, and I find myself lecturing on such basics as individual responsibility.

Last fall, a less-than-stellar group of students got together the night before the first draft of the research paper was due (they’d known about it for six weeks) and conspired to e-mail me requesting an extension on the due date:

Hi Miss Scanlon;
well, this mail is about draft of course and i know your decision about the date of our first draft and i know its because our bad behaviors[such as not doýng other homeworks in time].But mercy and comprehension is the most distinguishing factor of human being. So i want mercy and comprehension from you again.I have 2 papers,1 quiz and 1 extremely important midterm this week. This midterm will designate my next term. . . . Me and my friends are all extremely busy and i know that we are unable to do our draft for tomorrow. So can you delay it? like tuesday? Please


And, a minute later:

hi miss Scanlon,
I think I will not be able to give my first draft on time. First of all I apologize for this but in the mean time if you’ll show a little mercy and comprehension about the taff working conditions of other classes I will really appreciate it and be thankfull to you.


At least 10 more followed closely in this vein. The next day I found myself lecturing the group on their flawed strategy. The fact that I found a dozen e-mails in my in box that morning, all sent from the dorms the previous night, I said, was far more disturbing to me than if one or two of them had come to me ahead of time asking for an extension or explaining their individual difficulty meeting the due date. “I am far less likely to respond to a group e-mail bombardment, which ultimately will annoy me and perhaps make me less responsive to any claims.”

Standing at the front of the class, I go on this way while the students sneak looks and share guilty smiles. In these moments more than any other, I feel myself to be merely playing the role of the teacher, a job ascribed to me through a system established long before I arrived. The performing nature of teaching is something I’ve always understood. Half of the job seems to be dressing up and playing the part. But here, with the language gap, the honorific bestowed on teachers (hojam, which translates as “hero” in Turkish), and various other cultural confusions, it seems even more pronounced.

Given their strong collective identity and unjaded worldview, it would be all too easy for me to languish in this role. But that’s the very reason why I must work harder to help them develop critical thinking skills so that they can move from a refreshing lack of skepticism to a healthy dose of it.

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