A Passion for, and a Career of, Research and Teaching

By Bianca Munguia

“I often joke about how I feel like I'm cheating at life because research and teaching—the two things I love the most in life—are things I can make a career of. It almost seems as though it shouldn't be that way because I enjoy them so much.”

Onursal Erol, a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago, is a 2019-2020 CISSR Dissertation Fellow. He earned his BA in Political Science at Bogazici University in Turkey, during which time he also attended The Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po, on an exchange program. The combined experiences helped him solidify his interests in Political Science.

Despite being accepted to various graduate studies programs in the United States following his undergraduate studies, including the University of Chicago, Erol decided to go to Sweden, where he obtained his MSc at Lund University. His time there had significant impact on his educational journey.

“I started to feel like I was more of a mature researcher and person, and I knew that I could go ahead and pursue this because research was my life,” he says.

Erol reapplied to PhD programs, but this time “it was an easy choice for me. I wanted to come to the University of Chicago. I have never regretted going to Sweden in between and being able to discover myself and my research a little bit better; it worked out well for me.”

Erol was particularly drawn to Political Science at the University. “The Department has amazing faculty, something that has been proven one hundred times over since I’ve been here. I look up to them for their intellectual achievements and their debate ability, and I look to them to see what strategies they employ as teachers and as trainers of new researchers.”

Erol especially appreciates the work of his committee chair, Linda Zerilli, the Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor.

“Imagine writing a research project that is hundreds of pages that is constantly evolving; she has read and offered edits over and over, always giving feedback. I admire the intellectual labor and attention to detail she shows not only to me, but all of her students. I could never pay her back, but I’m definitely going to pay it forward.”

“Teaching research -- how to do research, how to write a research proposal, collect data, interpret data, the ethics of research, and how to write up a thesis -- is a very specific talent, different than teaching a course. It was a different training for the students themselves when I taught it. It was also different training for me that I greatly value.”

Erol’s dissertation is at the intersection of urban studies, social movements, and gender studies, specifically, a study of gender politics in Istanbul. He traces his interest to the topic back to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests.

He recalls being a first year PhD student and hearing about the protests. “I was taking a social movements course with Professor Cathy Cohen. It was the year after the Arab Spring, and we were just wrapping up the academic year. I talked with Professor Cohen about going to Istanbul, which meant that my final paper would be late. Her response was that the experience would essentially be field research and to go. And so, I went.”

He continues, “The movement started originally with a small-scale protest to protect an urban public park, but it was also stamped by feminist and queer demands. At its peak, millions of people were on the street. I found it interesting how there was a fundamental gender politics aspect to claims surrounding the situation: what will cities look like, who will have access to where in these cities, will it be modern secular space or traditional, pious space? Now everything has complicated over the years, making it a very fecund area for research.”

While much scholarly discussion surrounding the topic takes place within the literature of social movements, Erol has forged a different path. “Although I constantly refer to that literature, social movements, and contentious politics, I do something original by steeping my work in a profoundly genealogical approach. I work back from the present, towards the contingencies that came together in space and performance and repetition, to give us our certainties today.”

As a result of his approach, Erol’s methodology is based on archival data, some of which he had to reserve for future projects. “I had to meditate through the feasibility aspects of my project and narrow it down. While it’s incredibly useful to have organized this data for other purposes, it won’t be making its way into my dissertation. It's a learning process, but it's one of the most valuable lessons I've learned in my educational career, having to keep focus in your work.”

Another aspect that has made Erol appreciative of his choice of UChicago is the interdisciplinary opportunities. Last year, Erol served as a Mansueto Urban Fellow, which he credits as a significant asset of his dissertation process. “That interdisciplinary environment fueled my work and I was able to grow as a researcher by workshopping my drafts and ideas. I took everybody's feedback to heart.”

For three years, Erol was a preceptor for BA seminars in both Political Science and Global Studies programs. “I thrived in that intellectual environment. These students are writing their theses from scratch, and it is your responsibility to guide them through. It makes me proud to see how their projects evolve.”

Upon earning his PhD, Erol says he has a particularly publication-focused period awaiting. “I am eager to publish two papers that will present certain archival data I collected but ultimately did not use. Then I will be working on transforming the dissertation into a monograph for which I will be writing an additional chapter.”