Davenport Grant Takes Ertas ’16 to Turkey for Senior Thesis Research

As a Davenport Grant recipient, Deren Ertas '16 was able to spend a month in Istanbul, speaking with activists, politicians, neighborhood organizers and academics in Turkey about the period leading up to the uprising and the Taksim Commune. 

As a Davenport Grant recipient, Deren Ertas ’16 was able to spend a month in Istanbul, speaking with activists, politicians, neighborhood organizers and academics in Turkey about the period leading up to the uprising and the Taksim Commune.

In this Q&A, we speak with Deren Ertas from the Class of 2016.

Q: Deren, what are you majoring in?

A: I’m majoring in the College of Social Studies. I’m also getting the Social, Cultural and Critical Theory Certificate.

Q: You received a Davenport Grant to do research for your senior honors thesis. Could you tell us a little about the grant?

A: Yes, the Davenport Grant is a nifty $3,000 grant that the Public Affairs Center awards to a number of students who want to pursue research that might require them to travel. You apply with a research prospectus and a budget proposal. I’m writing a political theory thesis that engages with the city from the perspectives of neoliberalism, resistance and democracy. My argument is that we can arrive at a radical pluralist democracy by resisting the conditions created by the neoliberalization of cities, or something to that effect. I am using the Gezi Protests (2013) in Istanbul as my case study.

Q: Where did you conduct your field research?

A: With the Davenport Grant, I was able to spend a month in Istanbul. I had the pleasure of talking to many activists, politicians, neighborhood organizers and academics in Turkey about the period leading up to the uprising and the Taksim Commune as well. It was the first truly pluralistic non-violent resistance movement that has happened in Turkey’s recent history. I am really fascinated by it because it started very attached to the physical space of Taksim Square and Gezi Park (which the government was planning on replacing with a shopping mall, a residence, and a mosque), and ended up spreading to the entire country and demanding the resignation of then Prime Minister Erdogan. There is so much going on there — there is the reality of neoliberal urbanization, the resistance against neoliberalism, and the birth of a radical democratic potential. Although I’m not sure about that last part yet. Ask me about democracy again in a couple of months.

Q: How is your thesis progressing?

A:I told one of my professors last week that the thesis so far has been a process of constantly reconciling my own feelings of mediocrity with deadlines. I think that’s pretty accurate.

I am halfway through a chapter, my first chapter, but it’s taking a lot more time and planning than I expected. I refuse to make outlines, and I’m really obsessive about everything I put on the page. Both of those things are slowing me down, I think. But I’m learning how to forgive myself, too, and that’s the most important lesson I’ve gotten out of the process so far. I’m also learning how much I love the intellectual labor that goes into the production of a project I really care about. That’s great because so much of the work we do in college is deeply alienating busy-work. This feels like I’m constructing something with my own hands, and that’s refreshing.

Q: What inspired this project?

A: The Gezi Uprising was hugely inspirational for many young people in Turkey, especially those of us with radical sensibilities. I was in Morocco studying Arabic when the protests started and I was obsessively checking Twitter day and night to keep tabs on what was happening in Istanbul. And then I took a seminar with Professor Chakravarti during my junior year called Theorizing the City. I ended up writing my final paper on the Gezi Uprisings from the perspectives of Hannah Arendt and David Harvey. And now it has become my thesis. As much as I have resisted falling back on Arendt, I’m happy to say that the theoretical work I have done so far has brought me back to her. She has a really cool conception of citizenship as individuals who share a public sphere, embody a collective identity, and exercise their political agency. The collective identity thing is a bit problematic but, I think, or I’d like to imagine, that she means collective identities born out of circumstances and not some kind of ethnic or religious unity, which is the very idea that I’m trying to work against. For example, resistance can be the emergent point of a collective identity in this framework. I think that interpretation of Arendt has a lot of radical potential, so I’m working with it.

Q: You are also academically engaged outside of your classes. What kinds of things are you currently working on?

A: I am the Preceptor for the Sophomore Political and Social Theory Colloquium in CSS. That’s been great. I’m learning so much about facilitating dialogue between 30 people and explaining really complex ideas in a way that’s easier to digest. It was really difficult at first but it’s getting easier every week. It’s really scary to get up in front of 28 people and talk about sophisticated ideas with very real political and social consequences. I am also working for Professor Kus in Sociology and Professor Curran in Romance Languages as a research assistant. I’ve been a little less involved with their projects as my thesis has began consuming all of the time I am not in class, but I’m trying to keep up and be helpful. Next semester, I will be a fellow in the Center for Humanities and hopefully doing some translating work for a professor in the Religion Department. I’m really excited about that.

Q: What other activities are you involved in?

A: My extracurricular/non-academic activities have really come to a halt this semester. During my time at Wesleyan, however, at different times, I’ve been involved with WesACLU, Wesleyan Democratic Socialists, and the Wesleyan Hermes. All of those groups are doing really cool things right now, and I’m happy that I was part of them when I had the time and energy.

Q: Your carrel seems a bit like a second home to you. How have you spruced it up?

A: I cleaned it up for you! My carrel was a disaster until about 20 minutes ago. Somehow I work better that way. My housemates were really worried that I wouldn’t get a carrel and there would be a constantly increasing sprawl of books and articles in our house. Alas, the Olin gods smiled at me, and here I am. I go through periods of loving it and hating it here. This morning it was great because I got to listen to the Turkish election results in the background while working on my thesis chapter. Last week I was only here for an hour or two total because I didn’t feel like being alone in a small room.

Q: Any bucket list items for your last year?

A: I’m not really sure! I’m going on a fairly long vacation to India over winter break, I’m really excited about that. My family does so much back and forth between Turkey, and I’m excited to see somewhere new. I am also happy to be going for so long—this is probably the last time I’ll have so much time off in the middle of the winter. But that’s not a bucket list item per se. I guess I want to keep cooking lovely meals with friends, and host an awesome Thanksgiving dinner at Wesleyan this year. I want to pickle vegetables and fruit. I really want to finish Ulysses, journal more often, and I should probably go to the Career Center at least once before graduating. I have heard it’s useful.