Welcome to the second blogpost of the 4TU.Ethics Alumni Network series!
For our second blogpost, we’re interviewing Melis Bas, 4TU.Ethics graduate and Senior Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam.
A bit about Melis
Melis started her academic journey by doing a bachelor’s degree in international relations in Turkey. She then did a master’s in political studies at Istanbul University, writing her thesis on Jacques Ellul’s political philosophy. It was 2011, and she was witnessing the eruption of the Arab Spring movements. While studying in Istanbul, a professor of hers introduced Melis to the idea of technology being not value-laden and having significant philosophical importance. If it hadn’t been for them, Melis would have already set her mind on the fact that philosophy was outdated and couldn’t play a role in the rapidly changing world. The encounter with this professor lit a spark in her: right after her graduation, Melis discovered “What Things Do,” a book by the Dutch philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek. At that point, she set her mind to go wherever he would be. Melis wasn’t really familiar with Verbeek’s approach to philosophy besides having read his book. By researching his name, the first thing to come up was the 3TU.Ethics Center. After exploring some different options, Melis realized that she needed more philosophical background before embarking on a PhD journey and discovered the Philosophy of Science and Technologies Studies (PSTS) master programme at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. Melis moved to the Netherlands and started the new master’s, and from day one in PSTS, Peter-Paul and her were a good match. Melis enjoyed her time studying at the PSTS programme, and before finishing the master’s, she had already been accepted for a PhD.
When her contract ended with the University of Twente, Melis found a job as a lecturer in New Media and Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Her interest in digital media never vanished!
Melis’ experience with 4TU.Ethics
By starting off with the PSTS program, Melis has somehow always been linked to 4TU.Ethics (at that time 3TU.Ethics). When she and her classmates were PSTS students, most of the courses they took were also courses that 4TU.Ethics PhD’s were taking. That’s how she got to know Shannon Spruit, Jan Bergen, and Zoë Robaey. That environment helped to foster a nice sense of community and motivated Melis to continue pursuing a PhD. Melis emphasized that having an inviting environment was essential, especially considering she was not yet a PhD candidate.
In general, 4TU.Ethics was the place for members to learn how to be an academic. Different PhD candidates worked in their departments, but in the department, not everything is about doing research! Through 4TU.Ethics you get to know different researchers, different angles, and different research perspectives. For instance, Melis hasn’t always had an affinity with analytic philosophy, but thanks to 4TU.Ethics, she had to take courses in that, and she learned a lot from courses like Design for Values or Philosophy of Risk.
On top of that, Melis also got the chance to meet people that can be inspiring. In her opinion, writing retreats are the best thing that can happen! Back then, they lasted two to three days, and PhD candidates had a lot of tutors who could inspire their writing in different ways. In Melis’ opinion, also talking to people who aren’t necessarily your supervisors and discussing your research can be extremely enriching. During PhD trajectory, writing can be a very lonely process, but writing retreats proved to be very instructive, inspiring, and fruitful.
This experience also taught Melis how she wants to treat her students: her encounters during 4TU.Ethics courses and writing retreats inspired her to treat students with care and with a good eye. On the same note, Melis’s experience with writing retreats and her supervisors taught her to be a good supervisor.
What has surprised Melis most about working with 4TU.Ethics?
From the very beginning, everything was very new. Melis certainly didn’t expect to have such budgets! She had the wonderful opportunity to travel for conferences to China, Japan, the USA… And during her PhD, she thought that was a given. But talking to other PhD candidates and researchers working outside of 4TU.Ethics or outside of the Netherlands, she realized that some people were paying out of their pockets. Financial freedom definitely allowed her to pursue interesting conferences and topics instead of being restricted by location boundaries.
About Melis’ work and how 4TU.Ethics can be intertwined with it
We left Melis’ story at the University of Twente, where she was pursuing her PhD. When her contract ended with Twente, she still needed to continue working in the Netherlands. The chance arrived when she got the opportunity to work as a lecturer in the New Media and Digital Cultures at UvA. While working on her PhD in Enschede, her interest in digital media never vanished! Melis, in fact, thinks that the societal impact that she has can be understood as teaching, in the sense that she’s influencing students when being their lecturer. While working in the media department, her focus is still on developing a philosophical perspective on it, but from a different angle. In this, the network that she developed during her time at 4TU.Ethics has been unbelievably helpful. For instance, Melis can invite lecturers to her classes who have diversified skills and expertise. To this day, Melis still feels like 4TU is still part of her and makes her a better educator.
For the near future, there’s one thing Melis would like to do: bring closer these two fields of studies – ethics and philosophy of technology and media studies. She’s sure that there are some bridges to be built, but the connections need to be explored. The people in contact with Melis on this project are very much willing to talk about their work, so it just takes courage and open-mindedness to bring this forward. Overall, Melis tells us, “You don’t have to make it very complicated to make an impact.”
Does Melis have tips for philosophers who want to make a social impact?
She definitely has advice for early PhDs: don’t limit yourself to where you can or want to go. The thought of being stuck is always lingering there, especially when you’re writing your thesis! You may think that your research needs to be more niche or that you need to stay within the philosophy of technology. That’s not the case! Philosophy or ethics of technology are just some of the options. Other fields offer very similar objects of study; they approach them from different angles. Do not limit yourself to philosophy departments: the 4TU.Ethics Centre is so interdisciplinary, and your research can provide insights into a variety of fields. Expanding even broader, you don’t even have to limit yourself to academia! There are 4TU.Ethics alumni who are consultants, who work in the healthcare field, who do policy work… That’s the wonderful thing about specializing in a PhD topic that is in itself multidisciplinary.
We’re coming to the conclusion of our conversation, so we ask Melis if she has any final pieces of advice. A specific quote catches our attention as she tells us, “What you get from 4TU is an exercise with thinking”. Applying that is not limited to anything. It is such a basic and valuable thing that you have acquired. That’s just opening any door if you want to apply it. It is so fundamental that it can work as a base for you to flourish. It is an exercise in thinking to give you the ground to go wherever you want to go.
Another valuable suggestion Melis mentions concerns the academic setting: the pressure that all – especially young – academics have to go through must not go unnoticed. Mental health and support in an academic setting is essential. 4TU.Ethics has been a wonderful place to be supported in this. What she learned during her PhD journey is that she also had to take care of her mental health. It is important that 4TU.Ethics as an institution supports their PhDs in this regard as well, but this should not only be limited to 4TU. In all academic life, support for mental health is fundamental to allow people to flourish. In general, in academia, this is not really talked about. There needs to be room for researchers to deal with this, and this is something that academia should really aspire to as a community.