GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

Teaching an Unmotivated Audience

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2013/01/23 at 04:19
Itir Toksöz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey

In Turkey, students are admitted into universities through a nationwide test. After the students take the test and receive their scores, they submit a list of choices of the institutions and programs they want to attend to a nationwide center which places them to one of their choices. This placement is a result of not only the test score of the student but also the relative scores of all other students who made the same choice across the country.

Getting into a university programme is a highly competitive process, often called a race, which requires a high investment on all fronts, in terms of the hours students spend studying after school and taking practice tests to prepare for this one big exam; in terms of the money spent on the part of the families since the students often attend extra courses at the weekends or take private lessons to do better on the exam, and in terms of the focus in the classroom in high schools since all the attention is geared towards getting the students better prepared for this exam during their last year.

The result is generally twofold: a tired student body entering into university life and a considerable number of students who are placed into programmes, and therefore into professions and futures, that they do not like to begin with.

The tired student body entering into university life is a factor which reduces the quality of higher education when students get into university after one or two years of intense, non-stop studying. Especially if they come to study in a city where they won’t live with their families for the first time, they often end up going out and enjoying life without enjoying the educational experience that they have worked so hard to attain. They mostly study just to pass exams; although they are clever and can do better, they have high rates of inattendance and read almost nothing outside of the minimum assigned for their class.

Of course this cannot be said for every university student. There are some very motivated students in higher education. As I don’t have statistics, I cannot give an exact number about the rate of students who are placed into programmes they don’t like. However, from the informal conversations I have had with students over the course of the years, I know that the number is far greater than many academics would like to admit. The number is also enough to make teaching a challenge.

In the short term, this process results in an unmotivated student body, disconnected from the classroom, uninterested in the topic they study. In the medium term, it creates a body of fresh graduates out of higher education who don’t know what to do in life. In the long-term, it causes a part of the population being unhappy with their jobs and their lives.

Since changing departments or universities is very difficult (which means either you have to retake the test or you try to get a good GPA to qualify for a transfer to another department, which in itself is difficult since the process is only open to students with a good GPA, something a student is not likely to have when he/she does not like his/her department or if a student applies for a double major which again has the GPA requirement) and since the investment to start over is too high, the students are stuck in their majors.

Teaching intensively in the classroom, it’s been a huge problem for me trying to reach out to these students, engage them, attract their interests and feel that I am able to teach them something about the substance. I am not in a position to suggest solutions to this nationwide problem. However, I must find ways of reviving my class atmosphere when I have such a group of students.

Linking topics with the everyday lives of the students is one way of engaging them. Group work asking students to deal with the topics among their peers and using teaching methods which include material such as films, cartoons, and songs which the students find easier to relate to is also important.

Since I teach international relations, doing the above is not difficult, as events of international politics are on the news everyday. I wouldn’t know what to do if I were teaching a different topic not so closely related with our everyday lives.

Any other suggestions would surely be welcome…

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The University Diploma: Is it Enough for a Young Woman? Or Man?

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2012/04/10 at 02:33

Itir Toksoz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey.

I am writing this blog piece on March 8th, Women’s Day.  I started the day by a very meaningful message which was sent by the President of my University. In her message, Prof. Dr. Elif Çepni of Doğuş University stated how proud she was to be at a University where the majority of high administrative positions were held by women: The President of the University is a woman, there are 5 faculties and 4 of them are led by Deans that are women. There are also 4 women Vice Deans in the University, since in 4 of the 5 Faculties, one of the 2 Vice Deans is also a woman. Moreover, the Dean of Students is also a woman. The head of the Foreign Languages School, the Secretary General, the Director of Student Affairs, the Director of the IT department and the Director of Purchasing department are also all women. There is a considerable number of Department Chairs or Academic Unit Heads who are female as well. In my faculty, which is the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, 62% of all faculty members are women.

This is an exceptional performance even in the Turkish higher education system where women are considered to be well represented with a figure of 38.7% of all academic personnel. Unfortunately one cannot say the same for higher positions: only 5.2% of University Presidents and 15.3% of Faculty Deans are women across the country.[1]

In the young Turkish Republic, established in 1923, women were granted their political rights between 1924-1934, earlier than in many Western democracies. Inclusion of women in all aspects of life was an important part of the modernization project of the country and the high overall percentage of women in academia in Turkey is a result of the efforts sown during the early Republican period. Since then, women have been active members of professional life, although considerable improvement is needed in the number of women members of the Parliament. So the same pattern exists here, women are everywhere but hardly in high positions.

On the domestic level, it is another story. From one side, during recent years there has been some considerable reform for bringing the Turkish Civil Code in line with the internationally accepted women’s rights. Since 1985 Turkey is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Both the CEDAW and the Turkey’s candidate status to the EU may have helped the legislators in Turkey to do the necessary reforms in that area.

Yet the improvements seem to be only on paper when one looks at the newspaper every day; the news is filled left and right with violations of women’s rights. From honor killings to domestic violence, from lack of education to lack of access to a professional life, women are discriminated against, mostly by a patriarchal culture and a societal structure which cannot fully grasp the significance of women’s rights for a healthy society.

One way towards women’s emancipation is through higher education.  The rationale goes that when women are educated, they can earn a livelihood and do not have to depend on a father or a husband to sustain their lives. As an academic today, I find myself in a position to ask if giving a diploma to young women is enough to consider them ready for the life ahead of them. Some women use their education to land a good husband and that is not a very bright prospect from a social point of view. Moreover when the society in which the educated young women live does not know how to handle them, one needs to ask what skills we need to provide to our female students other than a diploma.

Yet the emancipation of women cannot be only fostered through the education of women, education of men is also crucial. Then I find myself with a second question of asking if giving a diploma to young men is enough to consider them ready for life which they will need to share with emancipated women in a country like mine, between the East and the West.

Today is Women’s Day and I am wondering what I should be teaching to my students beyond International Relations…

[1]For figures see Status of Women in Turkey Report published by the Prime Ministry Women’s Status General Directorate in July 2011, accessible online in Turkish at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Academia: Utopia or Dystopia?

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2010/06/14 at 09:00

Itir Toksöz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey

I’d like to warn our dear readers: This piece is likely to be a somewhat dark one.

Here I am about to end another academic year and maybe for the first time in my life, in the past few weeks I have felt the need to do a retrospective evaluation of the whole year, maybe even an evaluation of my entire academic life. Actually, I know that my teaching and research experiences are enriched by each passing year and I always take a mental note of these experiences. However, for the first time since the year 2000, when I first started teaching, I have the opportunity to express my opinions on academic matters to a wider population thanks to this column at the University of Venus.

I would like to offer two conflicting perspectives in order to discuss which one is more relevant to my experience:

The perspective number 1 would be called “Academia as Utopia”. In that perspective, I’d see academia as a place with an efficient and motivating administration and with dearly held ideals for real progress, where students’ lives are enriched, their views changed, their knowledge multiplied. In that sense, one would see academia as a rational wizard of transformation towards better people, better generations and better societies.

The perspective number 2 would be just the opposite and would be called “Academia as Dystopia”. In that perspective, I’d see academia as a place where all the above optimism is shattered, where the efforts to create better people, better generations, better societies prove to be in vain. It would signal a hierarchical, ineffective, status-quo oriented organizational structure coupled with human flaws such as jealousy, laziness, greed and a student body unwilling to invest in learning.

From one side when I grade exam papers where students used their analytical skills and made valuable arguments, caught significant comparison points or when I come across a student who ended up turning in a good graduation project or when I attend the defenses of the 4th year students’ graduation projects and observe how their spoken English as well as their presentation skills improved, I tend to see academia as a utopia which we can hope and aim to reach. The same thing happens when individual faculty members are acknowledged and applauded for good teaching and research by their colleagues and superiors or when I hear successful projects or publications of other faculty members. I then think that what we do means something, that all the rain we have to absorb without an umbrella is actually worth it.

Unfortunately from the other side when I come across plagiarized student papers or when I have students who refuse to even do the readings or when I have to fail students who do very poorly on the exams, my perspective shifts to that of a dystopia. On top of those, when the superiors remain indifferent to faculty members’ efforts and keep on demanding more, when hierarchy becomes more valuable than capacity and merit, when faculty members are often left with too many administrative duties, the sense of a dystopian academia gets even darker.

Experience mostly shows me that the reality oscillates between these two perspectives. However two major points bother me: First of all, I am not so sure how healthy this oscillation is. Secondly, I have been observing lately that the dystopian picture reflects more of my experience than the utopian one.

A utopia is an ideal hard to reach. However to hold on to an ideal in the face of stark truth is where the hope lies. Hope may be the only thing that shields us under a heavy rain of frustrations.  When the frustrations are too much to bear and bring me closer to a dystopian perspective, I leave the daily academic life aside for a second and think of initiatives like the University of Venus to serve as a kiss of life, for University of Venus represents the utopian face of academia for me.

Itir Toksöz

Photo of Itir taken by photographer Erzade Ertem.

Bookmark and Share

Singing in the Rain: An Academic and Musical Meeting of the Minds

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2010/04/20 at 09:00

“One day I read a book and my whole life has changed” is the first sentence of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel: The New Life.* I read that book when I was in college in my early 20s. I never thought at the time that I would set up a similar sentence in the next decade of my life:

I attended a conference and my whole life has changed.

I like attending academic conferences because that is where I update myself with the latest areas of research, where I force myself to finish papers sitting in some corner of my mind, where I meet new and interesting people, and where I get my next ideas of research. It is through a meeting of the minds that my brain is activated and performs best.

The conference that changed me and my life was the International Peace Research Association Conference in Leuven, Belgium in 2008. I had randomly found the conference call for papers on the internet and had sent two proposals both of which were accepted. One of my papers was to be presented at the Security and Disarmament Commission and the other at the Art and Peace Commission.

It was very bold of me to send a proposal to the Art and Peace Commission. Well, I love the arts and I consider myself a talented person in some fields of the arts but I’ve never had a formal education on the arts and coming from a realist IR background, I had studied war more than I studied peace.

I remember the first panel I attended. Having attended panels on security issues at many other conferences before, this time I had decided to follow the panels at the Arts and Peace Commission as well as those of the Security and Disarmament Commission. I had always liked interdisciplinary approaches and I wanted to diversify and maximize my learning from the conference.

The speakers of this panel had written chapters in an edited book on music and conflict transformation.** I was mesmerized by the ideas I heard. I must admit, I envied those scholars so much. I had been studying security issues such as threat perceptions and military interventions at the time and these are not often the most fun topics. I envied the creativity, the perspective and the team spirit. I left the session thinking “Why can’t we do such fun things in IR where I come from?” Luckily, I became friends with some members of the group, hoping to get contaminated by the academic spirit there.

There must have been a genie that goes around the academic conferences and takes people’s wishes. I remember making the wish although I did not see the genie. Yet my wish was granted. (Thank you, Genie!)

Eight months later, I became a member of the group. I was asked to join to an e-mail discussion group on the power of Music for Conflict Transformation (Music4CT). This e-mail discussion group proved to be one of the most intellectually nurturing online experiences I’ve ever had.  Over the summer 2009 I proposed a chapter for a possible second book on Music and Peace. Last February I was in Tunisia, making my first academic paper presentation at the conference Music for a Universal Consciousness of Solidarity*** and now this week I am about to submit the article for a peer-reviewed journal. I am going back to IPRA’s next conference in Sydney, Australia**** this July and I will present a paper (possibly two) there on Music and Peace as well.

The group on Music4CT became a part of my daily life as we communicate often, not just professionally but also as friends. It has become one of the two areas of priority research for me. It has also bolstered my idealist side. The group now has a website***** and as members we have started to benefit from all uses of technology and online social networking to stay connected. We are scattered around the world, yet we are close enough to work together. Just like the women at the University of Venus.

Years ago I had written a song named “Meeting of the Minds”, describing the kind of human connections I wanted to have in my life: Finally I feel like I found it and this time I feel like I am not just under the rain with no umbrella but that I am singing in the rain with company: both academically and musically!


*Pamuk, Orhan. (2009). Yeni Hayat. İletişim Yayınları. Istanbul (first edition: 1994) available in English (1998). The New Life. Vintage Books USA

**Urbain, Olivier.(ed.). 2008. Music and Conflict Transformation: Harmonies and Dissonances in Geopolitics, I. B. Tauris, London in association with the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research

*** The Conference was jointly organized by the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research of Japan and the Ben Ali Center for the Dialogue of Civilizations and Religions of Tunisia.



Bookmark and Share

Mission Possible? Teaching Social Sciences to Engineering Students

In Guest Blogger on 2010/04/05 at 09:00

Guest blogger, Aslihan Erkmen, writing from Istanbul, Turkey.

I have been teaching Media and Art History courses to Engineering and Architecture students at a technical university for the past three years. One of the main reasons why I have returned to the academic arena from the private sector was the love of teaching, but I sometimes experience difficulties while teaching social sciences and art to students coming from engineering departments.

Engineering students are taught to search for exact solutions to daily problems related to buildings, machines, electronics, basic sciences, etc. 2+2 is almost always 4 for them and they aim to get to the target without noticing the fantastic stops on their way.

As a social scientist, I usually loved the journey itself no matter how hard it has been. There are always challenges on the way and the aim is to handle them, not to combat them. For engineers, every problem is a pain and the solution is the cure. There are certain rules and challenges in engineering and engineers (or engineer candidates in our case) do not handle them with joy but with seriousness. That’s why the Fine Arts and Humanities Departments work very hard to form interesting and fascinating schedules for the engineering students so as to widen their horizon and fill it with “social” sunshine.

At our university the students have to take 30% of their credits from Humanities and Art courses in order to graduate and they tend to choose the “easier” or “fun” classes like Photography, Film Art, Media and Society, Traditional Arts and Crafts, etc. wishing that the lessons will not be as difficult or demanding as Quantum Mechanics or Architectural Design. Most of them do not have any intention of learning how to take photos or how to make films. The majority of our classes are filled with students who are there just for the credits.

In my first year of teaching the “Media and Society” class, my students were mostly the writers of the student bulletin and they were willing to learn the main rules of Journalism while trying to achieve the basic journalist’s skills. The day of my course was pretty much the most eagerly anticipated day of the week as all of my students used to bring their questions into the classroom waiting to solve the issues. The following year my students were there for credits after hearing how much fun we had during the lessons.

As an idealistic lecturer, I believed that it was my duty to change this attitude and I tried to make them really learn something. I want the new generation to be aware of the beauties of Art, to gain Media Literacy and to try to develop their social skills. Sometimes my efforts work and after a few classes the students get more excited about the topics. Sometimes, the engineer within rises and questions the artistic traditions disregarding the contemporary conditions of the period.

I am still an amateur in teaching, but I am learning from every student in every class. I guess this is my challenge and I am willing to take it.

Aslihan Erkmen

Aslihan Erkmen is currently a Research Assistant at the Fine Arts Department of Istanbul Technical University (ITU) in Turkey. She is at the last stage of completing her Ph.D. on Islamic Art of Painting at the same university. She has her B.A. and M.A. degrees on Public Relations at Marmara University and a second B.A. degree in Art History from Mimar Sinan University in Turkey. She worked in Marketing, Communication and Public Relations fields in the private sector for almost 11 years. After returning to Academia she directed the Media Relations Office of ITU for more than 6 years. Her major interests are Islamic Art of Books, Traditional Turkish Art and Crafts, Sponsorship and Arts Management. She is also the co-organizor of an Art History Symposium that has been held at ITU for 8 years.

Pretenders (Aren’t We All?)

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2010/03/31 at 08:00

I decided to write this post last week. I was frustrated and angry. A series of unrelated events that has been unfolding for a long time had finally made me come to the conclusion that in academia, there were many people who just were not who they said they were. I called them “pretenders”.

They were those who constantly talked about their ideals and principles and who seemed to take pride in them yet I observed them to act like realists: They had the vision and the rhetoric of better universities, a better life, a better world, yet they held on to the existing power structures which favored themselves and the status quo, the hierarchies and the balances of power in their work place as well as in their personal spheres.

I thought those who had a gap between their deeds and words lacked integrity. I also thought those who had a gap between the principles in their professional lives and the practices of their personal spheres were not to be trusted. My long-lost newly-refound idealist side judged them. I got mad at them because they made my life difficult. I felt betrayed. I wanted to write about this to the readers here and ask the readers to punch me if one day I too would become one of them.


Before anyone else, I punched myself. I punched really really hard.

I had a writer’s block. I could not write what I wanted to write. Something was wrong, I felt uncomfortable with my own arguments. I doubted the conclusion I had reached. It seemed like there was more to it than what seemed to be and I needed to explore it. All of a sudden I found myself to be too judgmental, too absolutist, too puritan. I wanted to know if I was biased. I was not sure if it was just them who had such gaps.  I wanted to find out if I too had those gaps. I wanted to see if I too pretended at times. I wanted to judge myself before I could judge them. I knew very well that otherwise my arguments would lose all legitimacy and credibility before my own eyes, before anyone else’s. In the end, I had to acknowledge that I was also less than perfect.

I punched myself by revisiting what it meant to be an idealist. I remembered that it was first and foremost the belief in the goodness of the human nature and in its perfectibility. So I thought: if the goodness of the human nature is a major assumption of idealism, how can I be an idealist by refusing to give my fellow academics and myself the benefit of the doubt? If I believe in the perfectibility of the human nature, how can I deny our right to be less than perfect? How can I not embrace those who struggle to find themselves and how can I judge them in the end result of the present when we are actually all work in progress?

I remembered that being a humanist was a prerequisite for being an idealist. I used to think that I needed to be strong for being an idealist. I now understand that I also need to be a humanist, fully, if I want to be an idealist. That includes acknowledging our right to be not so flawless.

And I came to a brand new understanding: that we are all humans, that we all have ideals and that we all struggle between those ideals and the realities of life. In that sense, unintentionally we are all pretenders. Because we are humans.

So if I had written this post 48 hours ago, before I punched myself, it would be completely different. It would be bitter. To be honest, I am glad I had a writer’s block because I like this version better. More accepting, embracing and tender. And this is how I believe we should all be towards each other. Not only in academia but also in life in general.

It is sunny in Istanbul today. But as you can see…

I have been under the rain

without an umbrella again.

Itir Toksöz

Bookmark and Share

I’m Not Just Rhetoric: Dreaming of the Rainbow, Between Realism and Idealism

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2010/03/16 at 09:00

I’m teaching 3 courses this semester and during the last two weeks in all of them I had to teach about international relations (IR) theories of realism and idealism. It’s probably every IR scholar’s dilemma: which one of these two basic perspectives to favor over the other?

The realist perspective claims that humans are selfish and that states always go after their national interests which they try to attain through usage of power. Realists believe that self-help is the only way of surviving in a world they see as anarchical where there is no central authority such as a world government. The idealists on the other hand emphasize the good nature of humans and believe that through education and better institutions, people can change, so can world politics, and that the effects of the anarchical state of the world could be alleviated.  The realists see the world as it is whereas the idealists see it as it should be.(*) In other words, idealists and realists are caught up in a dilemma between dreams and reality.

I recently realized that not only I have favored realism in my studies and analyses as a professional perspective in IR so far, I also favored it in my daily life and saw the world as it is, not as I want the world to be. That actually contradicted my personality because I also do have this very idealist side, which wants to work for the betterment of my own personality, betterment of my own life and of those who I love, betterment of the society in which I live, betterment of the world. Why then all these years have I been a realist and supressed my idealist side?

I now believe it was the lack of courage. Being an idealist requires tremendous courage because envisioning the world as it should be has a lot of potential for disappointment and frustration. The progress is slow, the waiting is long and the odds against the ideal dream are everywhere.

For a long time I have studied the spill-overs between external threats and internal threats in international relations. Now it looks like I am on to something else: Will IR theories help me better find myself? Can there be a spill-over effect between my professional self and my personal self?

Lately I’ve come to the realization that I am not just rhetoric. I just cannot be. I cannot be content to sit back and make realist analyses of the world. I also have the dream to make the world a better place for myself and for others, on professional as well as personal terms. As much as I always believed in the past that ideals should be based on good analyses of the reality, I now think maybe it is best not to limit the ideals to what we think is possible in the current picture, for realities are not constant, they are mostly temporary.

In the worst-case scenario, if you are ready to handle the frustration, why not dream? Even dream big? For peace inside us or for peace in the world? If you are already ready to face the rain with no umbrella, why not start by dreaming of the rainbow and the gold buried beneath?

I’m not just rhetoric, I am now a dream.

Itir Toksöz

(*) As a reference on realism and idealism (also known as liberalism, as in this following source), see Genest Marc A.. 2004. Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations. Second Edition. Belmont, CA. 

Bookmark and Share

Under The Rain, With No Umbrella

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2010/02/25 at 09:00

I always loved the rain. Being born on the northern Aegean coast of Turkey, rain is equal to not so cold winters for me. I never feel bothered when it rains, because I know that in the geography where I live in, rain cannot last more than a few days and eventually the sun will come out. It is almost a favorite pastime of mine to stand out in the rain without an umbrella. I let the raindrops fall down on my cheeks, refresh my hair and chill me a bit. I know I risk catching a cold, ruining my clothes or looking like an idiot when I do that, but I can’t help it.

“Under the Rain, With No Umbrella” was the first name that came to my mind when I was asked to find a name for this column because that is exactly how I feel in academia.  When I first decided to become an academic, I was very idealistic. I did not care much about how long it would take me to finish my studies and become a full academic, I did not care how much money I would make, I did not care how late I would have to “start life” after school, I probably did not even know that once you are an academic there is no such concept as “after graduation”. I did not know what kind of a world I would find myself in, to be honest. I just wanted to learn and pass on what I learn to others. I wanted to lead the people, the nations and the world in general to pursue better lives guided by better education. That ideal was the shining sun that gave me the energy.

However, unlike on the Aegean coast, the rains never cease in academia. We are constantly under the rain of challenges and we have so many things to carry in our hands and so many things that we would like to get a hold of that we have no room for an umbrella and we are getting wet in the process. Challenges are pouring down on us and it’s really rare that we get to feel the warmth of the sun. Yet we still say that we do love the rain of challenges as they help us grow and be better at what we do and we are not trying to escape.

We are aware of the need to strike a balance between the determinism and the commitment to an idealism that will keep us in the classroom and the reality of the time and environment necessary to “have a life”. As GenX women, we are academics, but we are so much more than that: we are also friends, mothers, sisters, daughters; we are dreamers, artists. We are ourselves and we are in a constant effort to build better versions of ourselves, personally and professionally, under the rain, with no umbrella.

Itir Toksöz

Bookmark and Share