BY PELİN SU UZUNCAGİL (AMER/III)
Assoc. Prof. Ayşe Çelikkol is the chair and one of the instructors of the English Language and Literature department. She got her undergraduate degrees in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Bilkent University in 1998 and literary studies from Beloit College in 2000. After receiving her PhD at Rice University in English literature in 2006 and working as an assistant professor at Macalester College’s English Department between 2005–2009, she returned to Ankara in 2010 to teach at Bilkent. She specializes in 19th century British literature. Her research pursues connections between Romantic/Victorian literature and economic history. Recently, she has been writing about the ways in which novels and poems from the period respond to the environmental dimensions of economic phenomena. Apart from her many writings, she published a book called Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century in 2011. Currently she is teaching ELIT139 (Appreciation of Literature).
Why did you choose an academic career?
I knew I wanted to be an academic long before I figured out what discipline I wanted to study. I suppose I wanted to be free to use my time to think, write and talk about the issues that matter to me.
Why/how did you choose Bilkent? What do you like the most about being at Bilkent?
I chose Bilkent first when I was 18, when a booklet on the university convinced me that it was a place where people took both research and teaching seriously. I made the same choice years later when I was teaching in the US—I became convinced that Bilkent could provide the resources and infrastructure for me to continue to pursue my work while living closer to my parents. I love the library’s collections, physical and electronic.
What projects are you working on currently?
I’m working on a book project on farming and literature, specifically about farming and nineteenth-century British literature. In the nineteenth century, Britain was where the capitalist mode of farming was becoming the most firmly entrenched in the world, and I wanted to think about creative responses to that peculiar transformation. The project explores how novels, poems and travel writing in the period came to understand time and materiality in new ways as they reacted to the commercialization of rural life.
What’s your best work?
One that hasn’t yet been written.
What excites you about your work? What’s the coolest thing about your work?
I like revealing the ways in which nineteenth-century British literature is both a product of its own moment and relevant to our social and political concerns in the twenty-first century. My current book project tries to respond to what many environmental thinkers today say is a necessity: we need to stop fetishizing an imagined, pristine nature and recognize how plant and animal lives are intertwined with our own.
Could you share a turning point or defining moment in your career?
I went straight into a PhD program with a BA and assumed it would take a couple years of coursework to discover what subfield of English literature I wanted to study. My first seminar in grad school was on a Monday morning—a seminar devoted entirely to Dickens’s “David Copperfield.” The professor so passionately demonstrated the multilayered and playful nature of that text that I knew by noon that I wanted to specialize in Victorian literature.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
In graduate school, I delivered a lecture at Dickens Universe in Santa Cruz, California, a week-long gathering for Dickens scholars and Dickens lovers in all walks of life. It was a huge audience of people who knew Dickens inside out, and I felt dizzy when I first stood facing the audience, even though I love public speaking.
What’s one piece of information from your field that you think everyone should know?
That the specific way in which you phrase something cannot be separated from the content of what you’re saying. That you can’t express the same thing using different words.
When and where do you do your best thinking?
Sometimes in my office, sometimes in the classroom, sometimes at cafés. You never know.
What distracts you?
I am actually hard to distract. I am anxiety-prone, though, and I guess my anxieties sometimes distract me.
What are you most curious about?
What the future will bring—I mean mostly for the planet. Also, the origin of the universe. I am a very curious person by nature and find it great fun to hunt for all kinds of information, important or trivial. I love archival research. And suspense really motivates me when I read fiction. My students know that I hate it if anybody offers spoilers when everyone else in the class is in the middle of reading a novel on the syllabus.
What’s the most common misconception about your work?
I am not aware of any misconceptions of my own work, but people sometimes assume that being a scholar of literature amounts to knowing your grammar well or being aware of all sorts of details about authors’ lives. Not that there are no misconceptions about other disciplines. When I studied engineering in the 90s, people would ask me if I could fix their refrigerator.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like chatting with my spouse and son, walking Dipper (our giant Yorkie) and eating dessert with a cup of black coffee.
Which books have influenced you the most, and why?
When I was a senior in high school, I bought a collection of writings on postmodernism by Jameson, Lyotard and Habermas. I am not claiming to have understood much of it at that time, but I was fascinated with it. It was a different way of thinking about social issues than what I was already exposed to and more oriented toward interpreting texts than using social scientific methods.
If you weren’t an academic, what career would you choose?
I’d want to be a therapist, a laborer at a sheep farm, a dog walker… and the list goes on.
What’s the secret to leading a happy life?
I doubt there is one.
If you could go back to your undergraduate/graduate student years, what advice would you give to your younger-self?
I am not sure I have any, especially since I am convinced my younger self wouldn’t heed it. I do wish I spoke more languages.