Bican Polat received his joint-degree Ph.D. in Anthropology and Intellectual History from Johns Hopkins University in 2016. He studies how psychiatric practices and knowledge systems intersect with politics, culture, and technological media, with a primary focus on the Anglo-American world during the twentieth century. His work received the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Center for Advanced Media Studies, and has appeared in publications including Parallax and Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Polat joined Tsinghua as a member of IWLC Tsinghua-Michigan Society of Fellows in 2017.
Can you tell us more about your educational and academic background? What were some of the most memorable things that helped or motivated you to develop as a scholar and a teacher?
I was trained in philosophy, intellectual history, and anthropology. One of the most memorable periods of my training was the time I spent at Johns Hopkins University during my graduate studies. This was a time when a host of interdisciplinary activities were being organized by the Humanities Center. Involving several humanities (philosophy, literature, etc.) and social science departments, these interdisciplinary collaborations brought many international scholars to campus for talks, symposia, and semester-long seminars. This vibrant intellectual community played an important role in shaping my research program and motivating me to develop as an interdisciplinary scholar. I am happy that we have a similar kind of spirit here at the IWLC. I look forward to participating in its development as a pioneering global institute, which would both help train students with interdisciplinary interests and advance cutting-edge research in the humanities.
What have you been working on since you came to Tsinghua?
I have worked on turning my dissertation into a book manuscript during my stay at Tsinghua. I submitted several journal articles to A&HCI journals. To share my research findings, I attended two invited talks at Cornell University and McGill University, two international workshops, and several conferences in the US, Canada, and Australia. I also started my postdoctoral research project, visiting key archives in the United States to collect the necessary material. Additionally, I conducted preliminary fieldwork in Baltimore and London, collecting ethnographic data for my research project. Recently, I began working as an editor for the Section of Ethnography for the Palgrave Handbook on the History of the Human Sciences. In terms of teaching, I developed and taught 7 undergraduate courses since I started my postdoc at Tsinghua.
How about teaching at Tsinghua? It must feel very different from teaching college students in the US. What part of it do you find most challenging?
I enjoyed teaching at IWLC very much. My experience with the cohorts I taught so far was very rewarding. I have found Tsinghua students exceptionally hardworking, analytically-minded, and very respectful. Having previously taught in the US, it was really interesting for me to interact with IWLC students, who, while being very modest in their demeanor, have equally, if not more, rigorous training and exceptional critical skills.
What were you doing when the coronavirus broke out? What were your original plans? And what kind of changes did you make?
I was having a vacation in Thailand when I heard about the coronavirus outbreak. I had planned to visit Cambodia before finally returning to Beijing. However, I had to change my plans because of the escalating situation. I was advised to extend my vacation and not to return to Beijing. So, I moved to Penang, Malaysia where I could stay for a longer period of time.
Could you say something about your experience of online teaching in this term? What pedagogical changes/methods have you introduced or applied to create a better teaching experience?
Teaching online worked well for me. Zoom’s interface enables us to share screen when using PowerPoint presentations. Both I and students were thus able to continue to use the format we were accustomed to in regular classes. Sometimes, I had to come up with new ways to hold debates or other kinds of group exercises to make the class discussions livelier. But, in general, I did not have any significant problems with online teaching.
Could you tell us in what way are your courses related to your research? Could you generally describe your courses and students’ feedback so far?
In my courses, I instruct students in principles of critical thinking by way of using a set of literary, historical, philosophical, and social science texts. I also teach students how historical and social science approaches help us assess the meaning and role of literary texts by way of highlighting the specific historical conditions in which such texts are produced. In my courses, I often use a number of concrete examples or case studies to illustrate how theoretical insights help us explain texts and their contexts. Showing how concepts help elucidate literary and other textual productions in a given historical age enables students to develop critical skills while simultaneously helping them to build a conceptual toolbox, which will allow them to keep practicing and improving those skills. I think the feedback I have received from the students is positive in general.
Caught in the middle of a crisis like this, what is most challenging/ unforgettable for you?
The biggest challenge I faced during the outbreak was traveling without using public transportation. I had to ask for private taxi service in few occasions to avoid the risk of contamination.
What kind of literary works, characters, tropes, themes or theoretical concepts that your recent experience and observations in the global pandemic reminded you of? How do you find it related to our realities? If possible, what do you think is urgent and/or necessary for the humanities as a whole at this moment?
I think the current pandemic has further highlighted the interconnected character of the world in many respects. It also revealed both the contradictions and the potentials for change that exist within the current world system. I believe one of the most important consequences of this global crisis involves the way it has made visible the need to forge new forms of solidarity at both regional and international levels. It was already known that certain public health emergencies, issues of environmental degradation, and global warming were best approached as problems that could be addressed through international cooperation. The current crisis has however further crystalized this vision, urging for the creation of new kinds of global networks that would enable actors from different countries to form and fund sustainable institutions. The World Health Organization is one of the oldest and paradigmatic examples of such institutions. The current crisis has alerted many to the need for expanding and improving its existing programs. The pandemic has also given rise to numerous smaller collaborative efforts, from municipal food distribution networks and nation-wide relief campaigns to the international research groups working on vaccine development. With the aid of political will and digital infrastructures, such networks may evolve to acquire regional and even global connections. They can help to create new public platforms that will facilitate communication and cooperation among different actors and institutions. Through this kind of collaborations, both experts and concerned lay public can have the opportunity to contribute to the production and dissemination of knowledge, the design and execution of effective policies, and the development of long-term strategic programs that will help improve life on the globe as a whole. The humanities can and should play a role in the implementation of this partly utopic vision by way of shedding light on both the conditions for and resistances to the development of such cooperative collectives.
Interviewer: Dr Boqun ZHOU