Conversation Pieces

Conversation Pieces*

By Deniz Şallı-Çopur


With Bengü Taşkesen on “Being Ailurophile”


Ailurophile is someone whole loves cats. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ailurophile has only been documented in English since the early 1900s” and the word comes from “Greek word ailouros, which means ‘cat’ and the suffix -phile, meaning ‘lover’”. After reading a news article last Spring about Tombi, the orange tabby of a primary school in Izmir, I wondered how wonderful it would be to have cats in our classrooms and offices. Only an ailurophile would share this dream and would understand me that having a cat or cats at home is not enough. So I decided to have the conversation for this issue with someone who is an ailurophile herself, Bengü Taşkesen. Bengü and I have known each other for more than 15 years, but we, shame on us, never had such a purrrrfect chat before.

Deniz: Bengü’cüm, we have something in common: we both love cats. But you have a longer history. When I first had a cat, only about a week later I remember I realized I had learnt a lot from him.

 Bengü Taşkesen: They teach us.

Deniz: They do, and the things I learnt from him were not trivial like what he eats or what he does but they were about life or the meaning of life. What are the things you have learnt from cats, the things you did not realized before but you start understanding after having them.

 Bengü: Well, I wish they had made me much wiser but unfortunately not. I felt the need to control everything in my life, and I had some ambitions. After cats, you know you can’t keep your apartment clean all the time, you can’t keep things organized all the time, you can’t control everything, and there are moments to live. You should have time to just pet your cat without being worried about writing papers or your thesis. Life is there to live at the moment. My cat, Fidel, taught me that. I’m glad to have learned something because in the end I never finished my PhD. And if I tried to I would be under so much stress. And Fidel had a short life, comparatively and relatively, of course. And I would have missed that, I think.

 Deniz: What I learnt from cats is the priorities. I always thought that I had priorities and these priorities are for everyone. When I started living with cats, I realize you love that cat and you want to show it to him/her, but they have a nice and gentle way of saying “no, you are not my priority right now, I just want to sleep.”

Bengü: Like “You sacrifice means nothing to me” or “I won’t be interested at all”

Deniz: Exactly! I sometimes talk about my cats in class. I give an example using them or to tell about something. For example, I teach Research Skills course, and I use my cats as a metaphor of research in the first week as something that signifies research for me because they always look for, smell and even taste something in different parts of the house, they have the curiosity of the researcher and they are very brave to use different methods to learn what they are curious about. For me, they are like study samples for me and I observe them a lot. Do you do that too? Do you use cats in class?

 Bengü: I do. There is so much to learn from cats.

For a long time, I have had this habit of buying everything with cats and owls on them and as a result, most of my wardrobe has cats or owls on them. Students stop me and ask me “do all your t-shirts have cats on them?” They change you, I became a 95% crazy cat lady, I know that, but it is ok for me. Sometimes during the lesson, the students bring a cat question. I know what they are trying to do, but that is ok. They want to get relaxed about 5 minutes, why not then? There are things like you associate with cats, even body language. I was very tense once, but now I’m not. I think that is something I learnt from cats. I wasn’t aware but I do this blinking thing. For cats, it means “I respect you, everything is ok”. The students were not aware of it but then I became aware of what I was doing in catish.

Cartesian Philosophy: “The idea that non-human animals do not have souls, and they are merely complex machines. Since they lack any immaterial thinking substance, animals cannot think, and all of the movements of their bodies can, in principle, be explained in purely mechanical terms.”


There is so much to learn from cats. For hundreds of years, due to Cartesian Philosophy, people would believe that cats and dogs wouldn’t feel. That’s nonsense! If you interacted with a cat, you would see that they feel very much. So hurting them is not different from hurting a human. They may not have the same intelligence, but they are sentient. As a result, we have to respect them. A cat is not a boy/girlfriend or someone you can drink with, of course, but emotionally they are very satisfying.

Deniz: Bengu, I have learnt a lot from the fictional cats as well. My favorite is Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland because he is so wise. He is my example when I teach why objectives are important in lesson plans.  Do you have a favorite cat?

 Bengü: I like Cheshire cat very much too. Once Alice in Wonderlandand Through the Looking Glasswere my thesis subject; I love them. I love the way language is used in those books. Do I have a favorite fictional cat? T. S. Elliots’ cats, some of them I like. What I like these days to relax is, there are cozy cat mysteries. They are detective stories with cats in them and I read so many of them. There are so many favorite cats in literature for me.

There was this 57 year-old cat in a novel by Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas. I don’t know if I will live 57 years, but it is very hard to lose them, hard to lose anyone. It is law of nature but when the time comes the loss is still there, so the 57-year old cat would be my favorite.

Even escapist literature is not escapist anymore. Look at Avengers, The Infinity War. It is so dark because not even in fantasy we can’t escape the reality, the state of things, the hopelessness. Even fantastic heroes, Marvel Comics heroes, tragic heroes do their best and fail at the end. They can’t cope, like Hamlet. You become a hero because you do whatever you can in the face of all those and you fail. So you need some relaxing corner you can go to, and read about cats. Meanwhile, if your cat is with you, it bothers you and humors you, then it is nice.

Deniz: My last question: Have you ever thought what kind of a cat you would be?

 Bengü: Actually, I have. When I was a kid my mother got this book about Chinese horoscopes, and found out that both our signs were Tiger. Apparently, Chinese astrologists once advised men not to marry Tiger women, because they turn out to be, well, feminists, which I happen to be. And if people demand things against their nature, they- tiger women retreat into the forest rather than give in. Not that I take astrology seriously, but I like tigers a lot, so I’ll happily take tiger.

Deniz: Bengü, thank you very much.

Bengü: Thank you.

With Yasemin Tezgiden-Cakcak on “Critical Pedagogy”

With Özge Yol on “Dedication”

With Kerem Selçuk on “Inspiration”

With Nil Korkut-Naykı on “Imagination”

With Zeynep Ürkün on “Equality”

With Ali Fuad Selvi on “Glocalization”

With Stephen Krashen on “Fictional Language”

With Joshua Bear on “Experience”


*About 15 years ago, in an MA class (ELT 521 Cultural Aspects of Language Teaching), I learnt that small ornaments we collect from different parts of the world are called “conversation pieces[1]” because they help people start a conversation during small talk or “misafirlik”. I think when the small talk turns into a professional exchange, the concepts work as conversation pieces. We, of course, do not record those informal exchanges with our colleagues. We remember the key points, we may share the main idea and important aspects with our friends, we may think about integrating it into our teaching, or we may simply just forget about it. But what if we record and share it with others? Would others be interested in our professional exchanges?

When I thought of recording the exchanges or discussions I had with my colleagues or experts to share them with other teachers or student-teachers in an online platform, MLD Bulletin came to my mind. I shared the idea with Elif and Yaprak, who were, as always, very welcoming. 

[1] Conversation piece: an interesting or unusual object that attracts attention and makes people start talking about it (Macmillan English Dictionary, 2002)