blog posts I Want to Teach a Different Story About the Armenian Diaspora: A Reflection on Pedagogy Feb 6, 2023 11:30 am by Helen Makhdoumian Images I write this blog post as a potential resource for any current or future instructors of Armenian Studies. I also write this as a potential conversation starter on pedagogy in the field of Armenian Studies. While we in the field have had a sorely needed book-length publication on Western Armenian language instruction and a number of articles on that topic and while instructors are developing innovative teaching practices for language instruction, there has not been a recent institutionally organized venue to formally think through best teaching practices in Armenian Studies at large or Armenian Diaspora Studies, if we were to carve out such a subfield. One such event occurred in October 1973—a two-day conference organized at Harvard University by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). The press release identified the conference as “the first of its kind” and that it was “organized for those who are directly involved in teaching and administering courses and programs in Armenian Studies at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.” Finally, in writing this essay, I take a broad, inclusive definition for the field of Armenian Studies, as evidenced by the breadth of scholarly interests taken up by scholars affiliated with the Society for Armenian Studies. I see the study of the Diaspora and, as will later become clear, study of the Armenian Genocide, as parts, not the whole, of scholarly inquiry in the field of Armenian Studies, though I grant the porousness of boundaries between these modes of inquiry within the umbrella of Armenian Studies. Delete Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed. align image leftalign image centeralign image right How might we train not just future scholars in the field of Armenian Studies, but instructors? As an inroad to addressing such open-ended questions, I offer this reflection on the course that I had the opportunity to design and teach as an Alex and Marie Manoogian Postdoctoral Fellow through the Center for Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. If I were to answer my own question, I would say that I am committed to getting students to see a course like the one that I taught at the University of Michigan as not just a study of the Armenian Diaspora but a course that allows students to see how a particular case can prompt fascinating discussion on big questions. Specifically, I designed a semester-long undergraduate course titled “Armenian Relationality: Diasporas Old, New, and in the Making.” My course ran as a semester-long, 300-level undergraduate course through the Department of English Language and Literature and counted as an “Identity/Difference” course requirement for the undergraduate major. Straightforward questions served as my springboard in designing this course: What would I teach, how and why? Given the venue—the programmatic and institutional infrastructure for teaching and conducting research in Armenian Studies and the proximity of both the university and the Center to local diasporic Armenian communities—as well as the breadth of my previous teaching experience, I decided to design a course through which I could experiment and learn how best to teach a story of the Armenian Diaspora as I had inherited it, witnessed it from within community, lived it myself, and studied it through an array of disciplinary perspectives. To design and teach such a course carried inherent risks and considerations: Would any students sign up for what would arguably be a specialty course? What knowledge, if any, would students bring into the classroom and how could I best give them foundational knowledge while at the same time opening up new perspectives for this potential community of students, especially those for whom diasporic livelihood would be all too familiar? How would I navigate my own identity as an instructor and more specifically, as an instructor who would inevitably be perceived as a cultural informant yet one well-versed in critical scholarship and whose job necessitates critical distance? Questions like these, though, made me that much more committed to figuring out how to teach a rich course that would demonstrate to students how contemporary primary and secondary texts can illuminate one another. In my pedagogy in general, I seek to position students to reflect on why we read different kinds of texts—different genres of writing produced for different audiences—in relation. I also prompt students to reflect on how we ask the questions that we do and how we find answers to them. As with any other course, I wrote in my syllabus: “I want you to see yourself as a young scholar and as a member of a community of scholars, researchers, and writers.” I reiterate this statement throughout the semester. Moreover, to acknowledge the trust in me that I ask them to undertake given my praxis of juxtaposing texts for study and to affirm their bravery in responding to question prompts that do not always have straightforward answers, I position myself as a scholar of genocide, trauma, and memory studies and acknowledge that we, too, confront the messiness of the critical inquiry process, the challenges in discussing open-ended questions about humanity that originate from the study of violence, and negotiate our own affective responses that we are trained at times in the academy to set aside for the pursuit, acquisition, and generation of knowledge. Prompted by directions that discussions take, I also reflect on my own relationship to my work, especially the ways in which I can and cannot claim community, the tension at times between my ideals in producing respectful and ethical interdisciplinary scholarship and the difficulty in doing so as a praxis, and ultimately, questions of for whom I write, for what purpose, and in what way. Through this openness to self-reflection and humility, I build rapport. That rapport mattered for this course that drew students at different stages of their undergraduate degrees, from different majors, and from different communities on and off campus. In pre-planning, I concluded that the notion of diasporas, plural, rather than the singular Armenian Diaspora would best conceptually anchor the course. Working from the thought and image of the Armenian Diaspora as a sum total of heterogeneous communities acting as nodes across a temporal and spatial network, I opted for “relational” as a second key conceptual term. Though we may invoke the encompassing “Armenian Diaspora”—perhaps eschewing its limitations for its utility as a framework for naming and studying a collectivity—that very “we” construct at any given time consists of individuals who relate (or don’t) to one another based on their personal backgrounds marked by differentiated geopolitical conditions that so inform questions of identity construction, citizenship, language, and belonging, to start. In Utah, for instance, I am among mostly Syrian-born Armenians of my father’s generation. In California, I am mostly among Iraqi-born Armenians of my mother’s generation. In the latter, I am also among Lebanese-born Armenian friends and colleagues. In both, I am among a generation of US-born Armenians, though my own experience often makes me feel like an outsider learning about a history in one location that in the other location I share only in name. In Illinois, I carved out a sense of home alongside fellow graduate students and faculty who had been born and raised in Armenia, both during and after Soviet rule. In academic circles, I am the one Utah-born Armenian—a perennial conversation starter. Wherever I go, then, I am aware of locating my personal and familial history—my inheritances and my journey—within a tapestry that in theory forms a well-structured, discernable image but upon closer look consists of a dizzying spell of overlapping and divergent, tightly bound and loose, receding and more newly formed threads. Add to the mix a pattern of multiple displacements and migrations for so many, and “relational” takes on additional meaning. I didn’t know of Joumana Haddad’s Book of Queens (2022) when I crafted my syllabus, but the layered narrative echoes cycles of witnessing and inheriting memory not unfamiliar to the Armenian Diaspora. Prompted by my own observations and my own commitments as an instructor, I generated the following course description: In the novel The Hakawati (2008) by Druze Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine, the narrator describes the grandfather figure and titular character as among a generation who “escaped to Lebanon during the great Armenian orphan migration” (84). Alameddine here refers to the genocide of Armenians, understood in Armenian Studies as a totality of violent events from 1915-1923 that so defines the Armenian diasporic experience. While the history of this forced migration has traditionally anchored approaches in Armenian Studies for the study of Armenian identity negotiation outside of a territorial Armenian homeland, scholars such as Khachig Tölölyan have demonstrated the limitations of the singular rubric “the Armenian Diaspora” when modern globalization is taken into account. Relatedly, scholars such as Sebouh David Aslanian have articulated that Armenian mobility transpired by other means before the removal of Armenians as part of the 1915 Catastrophe. Displacements during and after the Soviet Union and due to the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) provide additional avenues to conceptualize Armenian belonging. Taking cues from recent scholarship, this course turns to diverse media (literature, art, song, cultural artifacts, and print culture) to offer a relational approach for the study of Armenian diasporic experiences. Relational encompasses both time and space, which allows us to juxtapose migrations pre- and post- 1915 Catastrophe, the Armenian Genocide, as well as to situate different geopolitical sites of upheaval in conversation (in Turkey, Soviet Armenia, Artsakh, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine). Ultimately, this course will appeal to students within and beyond Armenian Studies as it situates Armenian migrations and ensuing lived conditions within connective, regional, and global paradigms. My Course Learning Objectives were: Conceptualize Armenian Studies as inclusive of history, literature, theory, visual arts, and social criticism Revisit and complicate assumptions about the lived experiences of the Armenian Diaspora through a relational approach Understand how creative and critical texts from Armenian Studies may enrich our interpretations of the wider world in which we currently live Develop analysis and interpretation skills through the study of diverse media, the writing of scholars from different fields, and cultural objects Conduct responsible research, including properly citing sources Delete Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed. align image leftalign image centeralign image right I organized the course around four units. The first section, “Methodological Foundations: Armenians of the World, Armenians in the World,” brings the works of creative producers to bear on received methodologies in Armenian Studies concerning transnational, diasporic, and network belonging. Second, “Narrating Transits Through Objects of Study,” welcomes students to take the concept of what Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh calls “survivor objects” and apply it to the study of song, storytelling, and mixed media art. Third, “Sites and Processes of Homemaking” pairs Alameddine’s The Hakawati alongside texts that grapple with Armenian identity formation and collective trauma in the locations I mention in the course description. Last, “And It All Comes Together: Connected and Connective Memories” zooms in on a particular location to have students understand how different sources can be used in a thematic or topical approach to the study of the Armenian Diaspora. Every text that I selected served a purpose. In other words, I picked each primary or secondary text not just for content but what I could do with it. The genealogy Sebouh Aslanian provides of the field of Armenian Studies in an article on what the field can learn from approaches undertaken by world historians and its call to action for thinking about Armenian history in terms of transnational, transregional, and hemispheric connections enabled me to demystify for students why I arranged the course in the way that I did and to give them some fundamental knowledge of the history of ideas in our thought-field. I paired a translation of Vahe Godel’s poem “Identity Check” and the introduction to Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant (2015). After having students analyze each piece, I asked them to step back and answer the following questions: “What does the poem illuminate about the critical text? And the critical text about the poem?” “How do YOU now conceptualize ‘the figure of the migrant’ having read these texts together?” In posing such questions, my goal was to get students to see that the course was strategically designed to facilitate discussion rather than rote memorization and to begin to give them the confidence in seeing themselves as young scholars capable of answering open-ended questions on topics with which they had various degrees of familiarity. In pairing a lecture by Scout Tufankjian’s There Is Only the Earth: Images from the Armenian Diaspora Project (2015) and articles by Khachig Tölölyan from different stages of scholarly study on the diaspora, I posed such questions as: “What did you gain from hearing the story of the Armenian Diaspora told through photography and Tufankjian’s narration versus through Tölölyan’s article?” In this way, I asked students to conceptualize Tufankjian and Tölölyan in conversation: Tölölyan through critical scholarship, Tufankjian through photography. My point was to emphasize that both make arguments, some that overlap, even as they approach finding answers to their questions differently. From these foundational conversations, we pivoted to The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice (2019) in part to study narrative structure, a decision that proved more useful than I expected given the complexity of the novel we then read in the class, The Hakawati, and the relationship between the main narrative and narrative frame there. In this section of the course, I had students dive into The Houshamadyan Project online and explore how they could use an object of their choosing from this digital archive and its history to elaborate on Zeitlian Watenpaugh’s arguments on “survivor objects.” Finally, to bring it all together at the end of the semester, I paired selections from Sato Moughalian’s Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian (2019), articles by Bedross Der Matossian on the Armenians of Jerusalem, and a selection of literary texts by Palestinian and Armenian writers referencing each other’s histories and cultures. This last constellation served as a means to return to where the course started, an attempt to cement knowledge and achieve those big picture goals for the course, and a practical way to emphasize to students that in writing their own research papers, they would need to make choices about the kinds of sources they would use and to what end. This is only a sampling of the texts that I used and the kinds of discussions that they allowed me to facilitate. What did I encounter in teaching this course that I couldn’t have predicted? It may be surprising, but I didn’t expect that we would return to the Armenian Genocide as a reference point for so many of our discussions. Certainly, I know how formative that experience is to the diaspora, especially given Turkish nation-state denial. In my mind, though, I had designed the course to focus on the ongoing story after this period of concentrated violence and trauma. I did teach the historiography of this collective trauma and its afterlives for contextual reasons in the course, but I assumed that I would devote attention to it in a focused lecture rather than teaching facets of its history and its legacies throughout the course. Looking back, I initially took for granted what I thought this audience of students needed to know to succeed in the course. I appreciated that organically, in-class discussion led to a reflection of how we teach and study diaspora as a lived condition and what place the history of genocide holds in the meaning making process particular but not exclusive to the case under study. Our discussions also led me to reflect on the relationship between Armenian Genocide Studies and Armenian Studies at large, how we teach what Armenian Studies is or could be, and the sensitivity and care needed in addressing such a topic when students bring a range of perspectives to the table, informed by their different positionalities and personal backgrounds. Finally, I valued having the practice of explaining our field of Armenian Studies—what we do, how and why—to a broad audience. For it was my students’ comments that continually reminded me about the need for self-reflection and the power of imagination that learning alongside others so generates. What would I do differently? Coordinate with events hosted by the university or in the community, if possible, for one thing. At times during daily instruction, I used snippets of YouTube videos of past events, as I wanted students to hear the authors discuss their work in their own words and to answer some questions that students had. Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh graciously joined us for a session, and students enjoyed the opportunity to ask her questions and learn directly from her. In an ideal world with all possible resources, I would invite more of our authors and creative producers to directly engage students, whether via Zoom or in person. I can also imagine co-teaching this course. I had to work through the fact that I cannot (nor ever will) claim expertise on all areas of inquiry within the umbrella of “Armenian Studies.” In class, I asked students to participate in a thought experiment: to imagine how what Aslanian in his piece names as “Garsoïan’s Law” could be applicable in our course. I never studied under Nina Garsoïan, and do not share her disciplinary training (Armenian and Byzantine history) and so could not teach this “law” as it applies to its original context. Why not see disciplinary boundaries and training, real as they are, not as limitations but as possible avenues for collaborative teaching? Would I ultimately teach this course, or a variation of it, again? In a heartbeat. As with teaching any course for the first time, I had to learn a few things through trial and error. Early on, I realized that for longer pieces of scholarship, students benefited from guidance on what to focus on—a gesture, however small, on what to read for rather than positioning them to stay afloat in deep waters on their own—and learned best when I highlighted key takeaways during lecture and discussion, or explicated key arguments and why they were relevant in context of the course or the larger bodies of scholarship to which the authors contributed. Any future iteration of the course may very well feature changes given the location in which I might teach it. It was ultimately one fun experience with positive student comments and feedback at the end and worth repeating. Bio: Helen Makhdoumian is a 2022-2023 Promise Armenian Institute Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. Previously, she was a Manoogian Postdoctoral Fellow in Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she also completed a certificate through the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies.  On language instruction, see for instance, Der Matossiam, Bedross, and Barlow Der Mugrdechian, editors. Western Armenian in the 21st Century: Challenges and New Approaches. The Press at California State University, Fresno, 2019; Chahinian, Talar, and Anny Bakalian. “Language in Armenian American Communities: Western Armenian and Efforts for Preservation.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 237, 2016, pp. 37–57; Karapetian, Shushan, and Hagop Gulludjian. “Armenian in Greater Los Angeles: Negotiating Intralinguistic Diversity in a Diaspora Epicenter.” Multilingual La La Land: Language Use in Sixteen Greater Los Angeles Communities, edited by Claire Hitchins Chik, Taylor and Francis, 2021, pp. 28-46; and Manoukian, Jennifer. “In Search of Linguistic Legitimacy: Western Armenian and the New Speaker.” Language and Globalization: An Autoethnographic Approach, edited by Maryam Borjian, Routledge, 2017, pp. 195–206. On pedagogy regarding study of the Armenian Genocide, see for instance, The Genocide Education Project; the Armenian Genocide Education unit of the IWitness program through the USC Shoah Foundation; and essays by Khachig Mouradian and Taleen Mardirossian in Totten, Samuel, editor. Teaching About Genocide: Advice and Suggestions from Professors, High School Teachers, and Staff Developers. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020. As Marc Mamigonian pointed out to me, informal conversations on pedagogy have occurred such as at the Armenian Chairs and Directors meeting held at the University of California, Irvine in 2018.  “NAASR Conference at Harvard, Oct. 19-20, for Educators in Armenian Studies Field.” Press release from National Association for Armenian Studies and Research. 28 September 1973. Cambridge, Massachusetts. PDF, pp. 1.  The press release for that 1973 conference indicates that sessions would be “divided into the following subject areas: Modern Armenian Language, Armenian Civilization, Armenian History - Medieval and Modern, and Problem areas in Armenian Studies” (2). The press release also clarifies: “The objective is to encourage and advance teaching, research, and publication in Armenian Studies” (1).  I made clear to students in the course that both Aslanian and Tölölyan set forth their critiques while working within Armenian Studies. It is the fact that they work within Armenian Studies, while carrying it forward, that gave me tangible material to explicate for students some knowledge of debates and hopes and future directions within the field. Such work was especially useful for illustration to students given that this was an English literature course. Thanks, though, to Marc Mamigonian who helped me see that the disciplinary positionality of these scholars might not be clear in this course description. I would revise language accordingly in a future iteration of this course description.  Specifically, Aslanian, Sebouh David. “From ‘Autonomous’ to ‘Interactive’ Histories: World History’s Challenge to Armenian Studies.” An Armenian Mediterranean, edited by Kathryn Babayan and Michael Pifer, Palgrave McMillan, 2018, pp. 81–125.  Godel, Vahé. “Identity Check,” translated by Victor Pambuccian. Counterfeits, edited by Luc Sante and Rosanna Warren, Two Lines World Writing in Translation, 2011, pp. 173.  Specifically, Tölölyan, Khachig. “Elites and Institutions in the Armenian Transnation.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2000, pp. 107–36 as well as Tölölyan, Khachig, and Taline Papazian. “Armenian Diasporas and Armenia: Issues of Identity and Mobilization, an Interview with Khachig Tölölyan.” Études Arméniennes Contemporaines, no. 3, 2014, pp. 83–101.  Specifically, Der Matossian, Bedross. “The Armenians of Palestine 1918–48.” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2011, pp. 24–44 as well as Der Matossian, Bedross. “The Armenians of Jerusalem in the Modern Period: The Rise and Decline of a Community.” Routledge Handbook on Jerusalem, edited by Bedross Der Matossian, Sulaiman Mourad, and Naomi Koltun-Fromm, Routledge, 2018, pp. 396-407. I taught literary texts by Nancy Kricorian, Sophia Armen, Shahé Mankerian, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Najwan Darwish in this last section.  Aslanian writes, “Known to many of her students and colleagues informally as ‘Garsoïan’s Law’ (a label probably coined by Ronald Suny), this observation appears to have never been elaborated in any systematic fashion in Garsoïan’s published work” (110).  I thank Sara Cohan for her feedback on this essay, Christina Maranci and Marc Mamigonian for entertaining my inquiries about the history of pedagogy discourse in Armenian Studies, and Khachig Tölölyan for the conversation that inspired my framing of this essay.