Dignified Spaces in European Cities: A Co-teaching Experiment

Multicultural Aksaray neighborhood in Istanbul, where domestic care workers establish their dignified spaces/ homes and their job agencies (by Hazal Kaya, graduate student at Koç University, Istanbul)
In this issue of On Teaching, the authors describe their collaborative, interdisciplinary, and inter-institutional undergraduate and graduate course "Dignified Spaces in a Plural Europe: On the (In)Visibility of Cultural and Religious Communities in Post-Industrial Cities," providing an overview of its aims and reflecting on their experiences teaching this unique, collaborative project.

Dignified Spaces in a Plural Europe: On the (In)Visibility of Cultural and Religious Communities in Post-Industrial Cities is a collaborative online course for graduate and upper level undergraduate students, created and taught by an interdisciplinary group of professors associated with institutions in four European countries: Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, University College Cork in Ireland, Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Koç University in Turkey. The central aim of the course was to elaborate on the concept and experience of dignity, particularly what it means for marginalized communities living in plural post-industrial urban cities in Europe. We started off with the idea that in order to live in and with dignity, religious and cultural minorities need to establish and have their own spaces, infrastructures, and material conditions. In European cities, spaces that were once industrial and part of the economic structures that accommodated migrants and minorities are often turning into cultural sites of meeting for these marginalized groups. When defining “dignified spaces,” we had in mind sites ranging from churches or former factories that are currently used as refugee shelters or mosques, to online prayer sites that connect communities in Europe and North Africa.1We would like to thank Nazli Ozkan for sharing her experience of teaching the course and giving us feedback and suggestions.

An obscure backyard where a mosque is located in Bochum next to a Kebab takeaway (by Ann-Kristin Götz, graduate student at Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

These sites and communities are either invisible or suspiciously received in European mass media. The goal of the course was therefore to encourage fieldwork that allows the students to study these lesser known urban sites and marginalized communities. Yet, this was challenging for students as they discovered that these communities often prefer to remain less visible in urban space (see Image 1 of an obscure backyard where a mosque is located, for example) and in media, especially visual media, or at other times are visually erased. At the end of the course, the students found themselves coming up with creative solutions to represent these urban spaces and communities, ranging from making drawings rather than taking photographs and making podcasts rather than video essays or short documentaries. An example of a student submission by Hazal Kaya, graduate student at Koç University, for this assignment can be found in the link below. Even in short documentaries, preserving dignity often required invisibility of the speaker who talks about their communities’ practices and beliefs. Representing and mediatizing dignity, we discovered, is a challenge.

The first challenge of the course was putting it together, working with varying course plans, calendars, and grading systems of four institutions, and even in different time zones. This teaching partnership is part of the larger inter-university consortium UNIC, a teaching, research, and community engagement alliance between eight universities in Europe. This alliance focuses on economic, structural, and technological transformations in post-industrial urban contexts and the impact that these changes have on higher education. In order to design and teach the Dignified Spaces seminar, five professors from three disciplines including the study of religion, philosophy and media studies worked together — Martin Radermacher (Center for Religious Studies, Bochum), James Kapaló (Study of Religions Department, Cork), Katharina Bauer (Erasmus School of Philosophy, Rotterdam), and Nazli Ozkan and Ipek A. Celik Rappas (Department of Media and Visual Arts, Istanbul). After having a number of Zoom meetings over the summer and fall of 2021, we finalized the syllabus (see link below) including the weekly division of themes, readings, and projects expected from the students. 

Our syllabus includes sessions on the definition of basic terms (such as “dignity,” “space,” “religion,” and their relationships); the entanglements of religion, migration, and materiality; and questions of socio-cultural diversity in urban contexts. Given the interdisciplinary and ethnographic nature of the research our students pursued, and the challenge of representing spaces that marginalized communities consider as connected to their wellbeing and dignity, we offered the students the opportunity to submit nontraditional assignments that would allow for more creative outputs such as audio-visual formats, maps, posters, drawings etc. Still, students were also expected to write a brief research report about one case study they conducted over the course of this seminar.

We began the course by elaborating on the definitions of dignity, showing the variety of understandings of the concept of dignity and its connection to the experience of space. Classical definitions of dignity as having intrinsic absolute worth, being above all price and as the inviolable basis of human rights, were contrasted with examples of violations of dignity. We also presented more recent discussions on dignity as an attitude or as embodied self-respect that could give room for a more fine-grained understanding of the concept. Further, we discussed which demands of respect towards which human capacities are implied in the concept of dignity and how these can unfold in specific spaces that allow for a self-determined and dignified life and for the realization of the human ability to become.

Social groups, cultural and religious communities, and particularly minorities, can only live with dignity if they have a “space”: Not only in terms of their political visibility, but also in terms of concrete locations and built spaces. To literally make space for people is a prerequisite for living together in our diverse urban centers. If dignity includes the possibility of self-determined action, these spaces must be designable and usable in a self-determined way. “Dignity” can thus become a normative reference for examining and organizing the coexistence of different cultural and religious communities in plural societies in Europe. To connect these questions with urban planning processes, we invited a guest, Christian Lamker from the University of Groningen, to provide more insight from Human Geography.

During the progression of the course, our students, thanks to their field research, expanded the definition of what a “dignified space” can be by adding such spaces as urban cafes and parks where migrant communities meet to have picnics and take strolls, or safe bars that bring together LGBTQ+ communities. The student fieldwork and projects expanded our heuristic definition of dignity further by underlining how their research participants from diverse marginalized communities described dignity in many different ways, and in some instances may choose not to associate their private or collective spaces with dignity at all. For instance, Uzbek domestic care workers in Istanbul describe “having dignity” as being “not humiliated” in their work space as well as having a private home and space of gathering and collectivity, while for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Istanbul safety of spaces was more important than dignity, a word they wanted to take a distance from due to its traditional and religious associations in Turkish. For members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Cork, ultimately their understanding of dignity depended on their ability to serve as “host” for others and to not always be compelled to be “guests” in someone else’s space or city.

This international cooperation of teachers and students proved highly valuable in terms of expanding our conceptual and methodological horizons. Bringing together cases and examples from Cork, Bochum, and Istanbul made it possible to compare the situation of cultural and religious minorities in these diverse urban contexts, and at the same time, focus on structural similarities, for instance, the idea that social inequalities are mirrored in urban built environments. 

During the creation of the course we faced a few challenges, ranging from deciding on a time frame (dealing with three different time zones, and very different habits of scheduling university classes throughout the week) to deciding on how to grade the projects, bearing in mind the different rules and regulations on credit points in the universities involved. Also having five professors teaching one course and being present online was at times intimidating for the students who were already challenged by the less personal online format of the course. Given these challenges, and the new format and content of the seminar, we explicitly announced the class as an open space of collaborative learning from each other—staff and students alike—and sought to establish a friendly and constructive atmosphere among students and teachers.

One of the common points among our interdisciplinary cooperation was our methodological experience, which made us base the student projects predominantly on short ethnographic fieldwork, including participant observations and semi-structured interviews. This was intended to really get the students involved with the empirical world. Concepts such as “dignity” or “built environment” can be rather abstract, but actually visiting sites associated with religious or cultural minorities in their own city or neighborhood was a chance for students to apply these concepts and to bring their conceptual learning into conversation with actual people living, praying, working, and socializing in their own hometowns. They would talk to people, take pictures, sketch or record audio-visual data and more importantly ask, think, and write about “dignified ways” to represent and give voice to their research participants (see the sketch provided by a student of the Cork Dawn Center in Image 2, for example).

Sketch from memory portraying Cork Dawah Centre (Islamic Information Centre) interior (by Ingrid Glen, graduate student at University College Cork)

We dedicated a few sections of the course to the basics of setting up the fieldwork, approaching research participants, and ethics before the students moved into the field, and they gained commendable experience from their brief fieldwork that spanned overall to nearly one month. Naturally, conducting fieldwork in such a short span of time and while the pandemic was still ongoing posed some significant challenges for our students. The challenge also arose in relation to privacy concerns that marginalized communities may have, especially when the research question concerns their spaces of faith. Hence, at times they were unwilling to accept the students to observe their ceremonies or conduct interviews with the congregation. While this is frustrating at times, students were encouraged to see this as nonetheless part of ethnographic research and as constituting an integral part of the research data, and that these experiences should be taken as an opportunity to learn how to handle difficult situations in the field. For instance, one student, when confronted with rather skeptical feedback from the community he sought to study, then chose to turn his attention to another community, which was structurally similar and where he already had established connections. We discussed this—and many other cases—both during the class and in consultation hours.

Teaching this inter-disciplinary and inter-university course was an exciting challenge and enriching experience. We believe that the course setting allowed for a successful interplay between theoretical reflection and practical experience, pushing the boundaries of the concept of dignity, the phenomenology of dignified spaces and alternative ways to represent marginalized communities that honors them, their privacy and their space of dignity. The field study, as in most field studies with vulnerable communities, offered a great challenge but also an opportunity to think about research practice and also highlight differences and similarities between various dignified spaces in different cities and socio-cultural environments. We hope to inspire similar teaching projects to create a space where students from diverse backgrounds can learn with and from each other, and also come up with fresh ideas on portrayal of underrepresented groups.

Official Syllabus: UNIC Dignified Spaces in a Plural Europe

Sample of Student Work from the Course:

  • Podcast: “Dignified Spaces and Affective Labor – The Case of Uzbeki Women Care Workers in İstanbul,” by Hazal Aydin, Ph.D. student in Design, Technology, and Society Program at Koç University.

 

Notes[+]

Bauer, Katharina, James A Kapalo, Martin Radermacher, Ipek A Celik Rappas. "Dignified Spaces in European Cities: A Co-teaching Experiment." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 3 (September 2022)
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