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NTFS 20th Anniversary: Q&A with Eylem Atakav

13 May 2020 | Advance HE Eylem Atakav from the University of East Anglia and NTF 2016, reflects on the sectoral impact of the NTFS on teaching and the impact of the award on her career

1. Do you remember how you felt when you found out you won the award in 2016? What did the recognition mean to you?

I knew getting NTF status was a huge deal so I was over the moon! Honoured, happy, proud, excited about being part of a community of scholars who are ambassadors for teaching excellence. 

2. What have been your main achievements since you won the award in 2016? 

Being promoted to Chair was one of the highlights. Also, being elected as the Chair of the Teaching, Learning and Scholarship Knowledge Community at NAFSA: Association of International Educators was great. Being appointed as Associate Dean International for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at UEA was also one of the happy moments – I had the privilege to write the first ever International Strategy for the Faculty. Winning the Innovation & Impact Award in 2019 (Outstanding Social and Cultural Impact) for my documentary film on child brides and forced marriage, Growing Up Married, was one of the most unforgettable moments of my career. NTF funds have provided me with significant support with the dissemination of and public engagement activities around this project.

3. How has becoming an NTF impacted on your career so far? Do you feel it has opened any doors for you? How has it helped you to have a positive impact on your students/colleagues/institution so far?

Certainly! I received so many invites to do keynote lectures, consultancy, and externalling for mock-TEF panels at various institutions. It supported me and my students while we were making the documentary, Growing Up Married. It helped me to connect with colleagues in this amazing and brilliantly supportive network of scholars.

4. What are you most proud of in your academic career?

Not giving up and bringing projects that I put my mind and heart in to completion, particularly when it is about women’s rights. At times, being a woman, being ‘young’, being accented (sadly) requires you to work more and harder. 

5. How do you think the sector has changed – good or bad – since you entered academia?

The culture of speed in the academy has gone much faster, for sure. This does not always have good implications. It has the potential to burn one out pretty quickly. The demands have been increasingly higher.

I really love the fact that academic culture has changed and the focus shifted to taking teaching, scholarship and research outside the classroom. The emphasis on reaching out to the public, engaging more with the media and policymakers have been aspects of academia which I find extremely exciting and fruitful. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I see the work we do as more meaningful when it has some kind of impact on, and when it translates into the world outside academia. While adopting this approach, it is, of course, crucial to consider the ways in which this can benefit your students.

6. What role do you see National Teaching Fellows/The National Teaching Fellowship Scheme having in addressing the challenges faced by the sector? 

At this moment in time, with everything related to covid19, I can see a lot of discussion on the NTF network on how to proceed to online teaching and virtual learning. It is great to see that NTFs are leading the way to find strategies and share their innovative ideas around how our teaching can and perhaps should change during and in the aftermath of this global crisis.

7. Who have you looked up to most in your academic career and have they influenced the particular areas of interest in your pedagogical approach?

Lots of colleagues from different places around the world, and from a diverse range of disciplines. Also, the non-academic community I have engaged with: the public, media professionals, policymakers, individuals – everyone I ‘collected’ throughout my journey within and outside academia has taught me something, little or big, that informed my pedagogical approach.

8. What challenges have you faced in seeking to embed inclusivity and internationalisation in the curriculum and how have you overcome these challenges?

The key challenge in getting colleagues to understand the value and significance of internationalisation has been a challenge. It is not REF, it is not TEF, it is not KEF, so colleagues at times perceive internationalisation as something that is not core to their work. Inherently, it is, and if it is not, it should be, in my view.

Demonstrating the positive impact of a comprehensive internationalisation approach by using case studies has been helpful in getting colleagues to appreciate it more. Real examples, international-level employability projects backed up with evidence from student testimonials; evidence of international level public and media engagement opportunities embedded in the teaching content… all these have been really helpful in getting students and colleagues engage with internationalisation more positively.

Teaching film and media is great because we are surrounded by media texts, but in the classroom we learn (with students) the ways in which we can put a critical distance between the media and how we consume it. It is at that point when teaching becomes meaningful.

Cinema is powerful and my teaching (mainly on Middle Eastern media) has been very rewarding in that students are exposed to media texts that are not Western. A great example I use in Women, Islam and Media is the Fulla doll TV adverts from Saudi Arabia. Students are usually aware of the Barbie but not Fulla necessarily – she is the Arabic Barbie doll in veils. Or critiquing Hollywood films in class while we try to understand the ideological system in place that represents the Middle East in a rather problematic way, students find it fascinating to examine examples from Middle Eastern countries. I always make sure I put the texts discussed into their cultural and historical contexts. So, they leave the classroom learning new things.

One funny incident, though, was when I decided to screen one of my favourite comedy films from Turkey. Knowing Turkish and coming from Turkey, the humour in the film made sense to me. So, I thought it would be so much fun to watch it with my students. During the screening I was laughing out loud to everything where they were trying to understand what it was that I was finding funny. So, sometimes cultural products do not travel well. But, that is an experience in itself. 

9. What changes have you seen – or would like to see – in the sector in relation to embedding non-traditional teaching, learning and assessment methods in the curriculum?

It seems like we are heading towards using online teaching and virtual learning platforms. This is great, but it is important to remain an inclusive approach – we might be prepared to teach online, but are learners ready to learn online, too? Big shifts ahead, indeed.

10. What, for you, encapsulates teaching excellence?

The impact of teaching to me encapsulates teaching excellence. This is beyond evaluation forms, though. I think it is crucial to take teaching outside the classroom, beyond the campus. Working with students in projects that have local, national or even international level impact on culture, society, policies, the media, the public, that’s what makes teaching excellent.

Central to my teaching, scholarship, engagement and innovation activities is the concept of voice: for students, I provide opportunities and spaces for their voices to be heard. I also provide opportunities for them to hear a diverse range of voices through teaching Middle Eastern media. For colleagues, I lead training sessions on internationalisation, through individually organised events; working in research and engagement projects that involve enabling diverse voices to be heard; and, finally, in the area of my scholarly expertise and media practice, by enabling women from around the world to voice their experiences of violence (as evidenced by my documentary Growing Up Married).

11. Away from academia, what do you like to do to relax and/or have fun?

I love going for long walks by the beach or just getting lost in nature. Doing yoga seems to be my new favourite activity. And theatre! Love theatre!

12. Do you have any advice for this year’s cohort of winners as to how to maximise the impact of their award?

Joining the brilliant #LTHEchat on Twitter is a great starting point! Also, there are amazing international leadership opportunities available at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, particularly seeking interest from those committed to teaching excellence. So I would say please check out the TLS website.

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Share your #NTFSis20 story with us on Twitter and join the Advance HE Connect group especially for National Teaching Fellows.


Eylem Atakav is Professor of Film, Gender and Public Engagement at the University of East Anglia where she teaches courses on women, Islam and media; and Middle Eastern media. She is the Chair-Elect for the Teaching, Learning and Scholarship Knowledge Community of NAFSA: Association of International Educators and NTF 2016.

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