Meet the Students Who Are Shaking the Teaching of History

17/06/2016 15:03 | Updated 17 June 2016

Chris Gratien and Emrah Safa Gurkan

Telling history use to be the preserve of a small group of academics writing books for other academics. There are more popular histories told by journalist and filmmakers, but the two worlds of popularism and academia remained separate. 5-years ago, two post-Grad students at Georgetown University, Chris Gratien and Emrah Safa Gurkan, changed all of that and set-up the Ottoman History podcast (OHP), The format is simple enough, invite authors and researcher onto the show and interview them about their work. What started off with two guys turned into an international success with the last season boosting one million downloads. They have recently expanded and now include students in the UK as among its producers, but why has it proven so popular and what does the future hold for the podcast?

I cannot remember when I first encountered the Ottoman History Podcast (OHP), but my heavily redacted memory tells me that it must have been in the autumn of 2013. It was not long after my first visit to Istanbul, a city I had visited many times in my imagination through the words of Turkish novelists that I came across the podcast which forced me to visit the past in much the same way. I was gripped by tales of intrigue, cutting edge research and the welcoming manner of the conversations.

For many people the academic world can be summed up by the Princeton recruiter played by Earl Boen in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, "We frown on that at Princeton." Of course this was not my experience of academic life but academia can at times feel like an independent kingdom where anything that does not involve publication in inaccessible journals is akin to breaking the law. But the academic world is full of young and idealist people who want to change things and be creative. The Ottoman history podcast is a microcosm of that youthful energy that lurks in libraries at ungodly hours on campuses across the world.

What makes the OHP unique is its focus on social history and the fact that its not chronological but theme based. Some of the more popular episodes concern Justice in Ottoman Courts, Intellectual and scientific state of the Ottoman empire. But the episodes go beyond standard Ottoman history and tackle topics from contemporary issues such as education for Syrian refugees in Turkey. It has also dealt with non-Ottoman history such as prostitution in the medieval Arab world, Iranian non-Muslims parliamentarians during the constitutional revolution, historical Palestinian villages, Moroccan Berber folktales and Kurdish Alevi music. Some have contemporary value such as Sectarianism in Lebanon. Available in English and Turkish on Itunes, their website, Soundcloud and Hipcast.

Susanna Ferguson, a PhD candidate of Middle Eastern history at Columbia University in New York, podcast host and tipped as Chris Gratien's successor as head of the OHP, "I met Chris in the summer of 2014 in Lebanon through a mutual friend. We went on a hiking trip up into the Lebanese mountains, I noticed he had brought with him a recorder and he was recording soundscapes of the environment. I looked at him and I thought to myself that it would never occur to me to do something like this. We started talking about it, he told me about the podcast and within a week he had sold me on it."

Susanna is an Arabist by training who has expertise in histories of thought, feminist movements in the Arab world and the modern history of Lebanon and Syria. "The stereotypical view of academia is that there is a fetish for archives and journals. But this podcast has enabled me to meet with young and fun researchers who I might not have met otherwise. A lot of work goes into producing the episode from editing to locating interviewees. Sometimes they are a little nervous, not use to speaking about their research, are afraid of saying things that might be controversial, and so as a host my job is to make them feel comfortable and encourage them to speak. I am usually excited by the research and so I think that helps when I interview researchers."

Gender politics and history is something that Susanna is actively involved with, she use to volunteer at a Woman's rights magazine in Jaramana Syria and now produces research on feminist movements in the Arab world. "I studied under people like Abu Lughod, read Saba Mahmood, and met with women in Damascus, Cairo and Beirut, which has made me re-think feminist politics in the West and how we can make it more inclusive of women's voices from outside the west. The conversations are similar even if feminists in the Arab world have different concerns that does not make them backwards, and I think they have a lot to teach us (in the west) about what it means to be a woman in today's world." Wanting to explore these voices through history is in part what Susanna brings to the podcast, "In the future I want to continue brining in young scholars to the podcast, I want to expand it, incorporate more voices from the Arab world and I am interested in building on connections between the present and past."

Perhaps unsurprisingly the OHP has attracted a following in Turkey, when the podcast began it was doing episodes exclusively in English but with the increasing popularity in Turkey, a Turkish language podcast was initiated. Turkish audiences were surprised by some of the content as Emrah Safa Gurkan told me, "Traditionally when Turks think about history, especially Ottoman history, they tend to think of Sultans, high politics and royal courts. We (OHP) tend to focus on social histories such as Ottoman bathhouses or Greek communities in the Ottoman Empire and so on. Actually our most popular download in Turkish was on housewives who poison their husbands." He paused for a moment and jokily looked around at the closed door of the room he was in. "As you can see I have closed my door so that my wife cannot poison me," he laughed and continued, "It's actually one of the greatest fears for Turkish men historically speaking. In terms of our audience in Turkey, I can say that we mostly get younger people and researchers both listening and participating. Older Turkish historians don't really understand what it is we do. Also History departments in Turkey are quite conservative in much the way history departments would have been 40 or 50 years ago in America."

Emrah teaches at Mayis University in Istanbul and was one of the founders of the podcast. Reflecting on the resurgence of popularity of Ottoman history in Turkey through television shows like the Magnificent Century, "The job of the historian is to depoliticise history, the study of history cannot solve contemporary political problems. However, in Turkey the past is politicised and depending on which government we have, the past is politicised in different ways. The current one promotes Ottoman history and the Islamic past whereas governments before it did not and instead prioritise pre-Islamic history. Among the people the reason for the popularity of shows like the Magnificent Century is that here in Turkey there is a strong identification with the State. We love having a strong state; it makes us feel good, but what we are doing is reinventing history to suit these desires."

However the OHP is not all serious and does have its lighter side too, "We have discussed doing April Fools podcasts and pranking people," Emrah says. "We tried to do an April Fools' joke about the Illuminati. In Turkey conspiracy theories are quite popular and we tried to do an episode on the history of the Illuminati and its plots against Turkey. We spent all day recording it and we made all kinds of wild claims thinking we could prank those who believe in these conspiracies. But when we tried to play the recordings back we discovered that nothing had been recorded. We pretended to be scared and joked by saying maybe the Illuminati is real and they got into our recording equipment."

One of the many reasons that I love listening to the Ottoman History Podcast is that they will explore issues that are rarely talked about. Some of my favourite episodes are on the enlightenment, science and intellectual history of the Ottoman Empire. But as Nir Shafir was telling me the topic is underexplored. "I specialise in intellectual history and its one of the things I bring to the podcast. The episode I did on the Ottoman enlightenment was one of our most popular. But in terms of the state of knowledge on Ottoman science very little is written or produced on it. There is a narrative about the Islamic world and the golden age in the eighth century, which ends with the decline in the thirteen and fourteen century, and this has created a narrative that nothing intellectually or scientifically important came out of that part of the world. The result of this has been a lack of interest in Ottoman intellectual culture and science. Very little has been published on it in the last 50 years. Also when historians do research the science of the golden age, they tend to focus on the science that directly influenced and shaped Europe and so a value judgement is placed on scientific knowledge and its usefulness to European science. The rest is disregarded and so there are huge gaps in our historical knowledge. I do hope the podcast can get more people interested in doing research into topics like this."

Expanding on new knowledge and attracting new voices is what founder, Chris Gratien, had hoped for, "The initial drive was to create a situation where the researcher is being interviewed by an interviewer who understands where they are coming from. We did not have any other agenda besides that. When I set Ottoman History Podcast up, I had no idea what it would be; it was not done for commercial or professional reasons. It was just a bunch of grad students who enjoyed reading books and research papers who wanted to talk about it. I didn't realise how popular it would become and I remember attending an academic conference on the Middle East and people would approach me and tell me how much they loved the show. We also have a strong social media presence and we would get followers from different backgrounds, which forced me to re-examine the questions we were asking. This is how it grew into what it is today, audience participation and feedback is huge for us."

Reflecting on the future, "Working on the podcast has been awesome and I cannot imagine not doing it. In the immediate future we will better organise our online catalogue into themes and not just series. Hopefully by the end of the sixth season every episode will fit into ongoing themes that will stimulate discussions about these topics. We are also trying to branch out geographically and interview scholars who work on Iran, South Asia, early modern Europe and questions beyond the Ottoman Empire. At the moment we just have a strict interview format and I would love to do more multi-segmented, well produced, professional, radio episodes. The project belongs to a large number of people and I am trying to increase those working on the project."

One person who Chris sees as expanding on the future of the podcast is Taylan Gungor, "The podcast explores areas that I work on. I found their episode on food in Anatolia very interesting and it's interrelated to what I study. But as a historian we tend to look at numbers, facts and figures, we don't think as much about what the reality of things like wine production were like. The podcast brought this home to me and made me think about these questions in different ways. I am always surprised by how popular the podcast is and how far its reach extends. It's really needed and makes so much sense and I think this is why it attracts so many volunteers. We never promise what we cannot deliver on. I want to be part of that expansion and look at new areas from the history of trade to other areas, but crucially, it has to be content lend and we will do nothing unless the right quality is there."

"The Ottoman History Podcast is relevant. Academia needs to follow suit and not just rely on that article in that journal which is published only bi-annually and can only be found at the bottom of the library. History should belong to everyone and not just academics. We are changing the study of Ottoman history worldwide."

Speaking to everyone at the podcast that has passed its fifth anniversary, it's very clear that enthusiasm remains high and that the project does have a strong future ahead of itself. Talking to new recruits like Taylan has left me with the impression that there is so much more to explore and it will be explored. Key to the podcast success is its audience and it's driven by wanting to meet the interests of its audience- so long as the right content is there. What is being done is causal in that there is few career or monetary goals behind it and I think this is why the podcast is so enjoyable to listen too. What you are getting are people who do this type of work for fun and I think this is what the audience relates too. The future is unknowable but there is every reason to be optimistic about the podcast and its future. I always like to think that he who forgets the past is doomed to watch period dramas re-enacting it- but with the podcast we have something truly special and I for one intend to listen long into the future.