Dr. Yucel Yanikdag is Associate Professor of History at the University of Richmond. He received his B.A. in History from ODU in 1991, and his M.A. in 1994.
Your first book, Healing the Nation: Prisoners of War, Medicine and Nationalism in Turkey, 1914-1939 (2013), exposed you to scholarly debates in psychiatry and the history of medicine. Have your interdisciplinary interests evolved since the publication of this book? What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on a monograph dealing with gender and masculinity in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. I am interested in knowing how the war altered expectations and perceptions of gender and masculinity. While there exists a plethora of scholarly literature on masculinity on the European Great War, there is not a single study, with the exception of an article or two I have written, on the late Ottomans. It is as if masculinity was discovered only in the Turkey of the 1930s, if we are to judge from the still small but quickly growing number of works focusing on that time period. What many of these studies focusing on the 1930s seem to miss is that the connection between manliness and military service so prevalent then, as still voiced in the frequently uttered militarist-nationalist motto "every Turk is born a soldier," was actually there much earlier than they assume.
I am still producing occasional articles on the history of medicine and psychiatry since invitations continue to arrive. My book also turned me onto exciting areas for possible short projects. For example, I am contemplating a major article on Turkish nationalism from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective. However, who knows when I might be able to get to it.
Do you usually conduct archival research in Istanbul? Have you also worked in provincial archives in Turkey?
My archival research in Turkey has been both in Istanbul and Ankara. The Ottoman state archive is in Istanbul, but the military archive happens to be in Ankara. The latter is controlled by the military. While I worked in both extensively, I found my most unique sources, especially for the first book, in libraries around the country—in the provinces as well as major cities. These were hand-written prisoner of war newspapers produced by the Ottoman POWs in camps in Egypt and Russia. Not all, but most were uncatalogued or catalogued only under the title without any description. In some places libraries did not know what they were.
Because of the Allied invasion of Turkey after the First World War and the War of Liberation (1919-1922), which followed it, there might have been some plundering or removal of documents relating to the war. In the 1930s there was even a deep disregard for Ottoman history and Ottoman imperial documents. This was part of the Kemalist effort to build a new Turkish identity by making the Ottomans the ultimate Other. The republican government at the time actually "sold" at recycled paper prices truckloads of Ottoman imperial documents to places like Bulgaria, which expressed interest in acquiring documents relating to Ottoman Bulgaria before their independence. So, while there are small private or institutional archives in the provinces, provincial archives as such do not exist in Turkey. Thus, those wanting to do research on Ottoman Bulgaria would have to go to both Bulgaria and Istanbul.
There are private or foundation archives in various parts of Turkey, but provincial archives as such do not exist in the same sense as, say, Russia. I think one can still find sharia court records in the provinces, but that's about the extent of it. A lot of these documents were brought to the capital city either in hard copy or microfilm.
When did you come to the United States? How strong was your English at that time?
I came to the United States in 1982 as a high school student. In Turkey I had attended a high school specializing in business. One would think that learning English would be an important part of the curriculum, but it was not. It would be no exaggeration to say that I did not speak any English. I could understand simple exchanges about my name. However, I do remember that when I was asked where I was from, I had no idea what the question was about. Because I had not finished my school work in Turkey and many of the courses I had taken there did not transfer (Accounting, Business Ethics, etc), I attended high school in Arlington, VA, where I first started to learn English. I attended the ESL (English as a Second Language) section of Washington and Lee High School, while taking courses in math and science, where English was not as crucially important. I can say with certainty that I learned quicker than almost anyone in W&L's ESL section. I was the only student who spoke Turkish among those learning English. Therefore, I could only rely on myself and had to speak English with all others. ESL had dozens of students from Central and South America, South East Asia, and Afghanistan. The students from Afghanistan were the refugees of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In learning English, students who spoke the same language collaborated in looking up words in class. I was frustrated for a while because I had to look up each word on my own in a dictionary. By the time I looked up one, they collaborated to look up 5-6. Yet, at lunch time or at home they always reverted to their mother tongue to communicate easier among themselves. Let's just say I could not communicate with anyone for a while. Then suddenly, I realized I was learning faster than them because I had to do all the work on my own and speak English all the time (My aunt, with whom I lived, always answered in English, which helped me).
How did you get interested in history as a young person in America?
After finishing high school, I went to NVCC for financial reasons. Due to family pressure in Turkey (even after I arrived here), I attempted to study business and computer science. However, I was not much interested in either of these subjects. Consequently, I did not do well at all. At some point, I decided to take a history course and ended up earning an A. While continuing with the other two disciplines, I continued to take history courses to balance my GPA. At some point, it was very clear to me that history was what I liked and I should study what I liked, rather than struggling with something that did not hold my interest at all. I came to ODU as a transfer student and history major. Once in Norfolk, I did well in my history courses and was encouraged by some of my instructors to consider getting a graduate degree. For my M.A., I wrote a thesis on the Ottoman reaction to the Austro-Hungarian Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was a nominal Ottoman territory until then. It was directed by Patrick Rollins, Carl Boyd, and Craig Cameron. The same people also encouraged me to apply to Ph.D. programs. I was offered admission and funding from the Ohio State University to study Islamic History.
What professors do you remember from ODU?
I remember all of them actually. I took classes with some as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and I served as a teaching assistant for others. Though I might be missing a name or two, I took classes with Patrick Rollins, Carl Boyd, Craig Cameron, Annette Finley-Croswhite, John Kuehl, Harold Wilson, Jeff Hamilton, and Darwin Bostick. I was a teaching assistant for Norman Pollack and Frank Willard. James Sweeney was my/our Phi Alpha Theta advisor. I was an active member and was awarded two "best paper" prizes at the graduate student level in the regional competitions. I did not take any classes with him, but it was always nice to briefly chat with Michael Hucles, as he stopped by our TA office to say hello.
What topics do you especially like to explore in the classroom at the University of Richmond?
I especially like exploring identity construction and nationalism in the classroom. I teach a research seminar courses on nationalism in the Middle East (and a more general one on nationalism for International Studies). I am currently teaching a colloquium on Modern Turkey. It has been a very interesting course partially because many of the topics we explore in our weekly readings are about or relate to nationalism (Turkish, Kurdish, etc.) in one way or another.
Because I cannot seem to give up on the history of psychiatry and medicine, I decided to offer a First Year Seminar on the history of eugenics next year. This is partially because eugenics was taught as a science course for a number years at the University of Richmond. It is also because courses relating to (pseudo)science and medicine reveal much more starkly from the students' perspective how seemingly different people were from us less than a hundred years ago.