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UCLA Professor Richard Hovannisian's 'My Last Lecture' will draw on his studies of Armenia, the land of his origins

Richard Hovannisian, an Armenian and Near Eastern history professor at UCLA, will speak on Monday as the second recipient of the My Last Lecture Award.

My Last Lecture
Monday, 6:30 p.m.
Moore 100

Professor Richard Hovannisian

This year's My Last Lecture speaker, Hovannisian has spent almost 50 years as a UCLA faculty member.

Joined the faculty in 1962

Created undergraduate and graduate programs for Armenian studies

In 1969, he started a project to interview the survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

The project became the History 107D seminar and now contains more than 800 interviews.

After this quarter, he will continue teaching Honors 2, a collegium seminar comparing genocides of the 20th century.

SOURCE: Richard Hovannisian
Compiled by Alex Goodman, Bruin senior staff.

By Alex Goodman

April 15, 2011 1:47 a.m.

When Professor Richard Hovannisian started learning Armenian, it looked literally like chicken scratch. The letters reminded him of the markings chickens made in the dirt, back home on the 20-acre vineyard in Tulare, Calif., where he grew up.3

Though Hovannisian was born to Armenian parents, he was a college graduate when he started studying the language. During a year of intensive self-study in the Middle East, he studied children’s stories and then history books, carrying flash cards with him everywhere.

After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from UC Berkeley and a doctorate in history from UCLA, Hovannisian joined the faculty in 1962. In a political climate dominated by the Cold War, American academics were beginning to stress the importance of understanding foreign languages and cultures. Over the next decade, Hovannisian created both an undergraduate and a graduate program for the study of Armenian history.

As the second annual recipient of the My Last Lecture Award, Hovannisian will speak from his nearly five decades of experience as a UCLA faculty member. Selected via a popular student vote, the event asks the speaker to imagine what he would say if he was delivering his final lecture on Earth.

The award comes at a fitting time for Hovannisian, who will stop teaching all of his classes after this quarter, except an honors collegium seminar that analyzes the genocides of the last century.

The path he’ll reflect upon on Monday is not one his parents envisioned ““ they raised Hovannisian on Armenian food but never pushed him or his siblings to identify with their heritage. Out of the dozen or so Armenian mothers in Tulare, Hovannisian’s was the only native English speaker, the only one raising her children on American nursery rhymes and attending parent-teacher conferences.

But that changed when Hovannisian went abroad. He spent a year living in Beirut but also moved about the Middle East, climbing the Egyptian pyramids and walking the streets of Damascus. For the first time, he learned in great detail the history of the Armenian people.

By 1969, Hovannisian was creating a seminar aimed at documenting that history in a way that had never been done before. After a week teaching background information and a week on interviewing skills, he sent his students out to speak with survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, a group he realized would not be around much longer.

“I grew up with that generation of survivors, and I thought they’d be around forever,” he said. “Then I looked left, and I looked right, and they were disappearing.”

Over the next 30 years, Hovannisian and his students conducted, transcribed and translated more than 800 interviews into English. The professor said he hopes to create a database of the material, accessible to scholars nationwide.

Jano Boghossian, a third-year physiological science student, took the seminar as a first-year and spent the quarter translating interviews that often included stories of deportation, rape and murder.

“Sometimes I would stay up at night thinking about their stories,” Boghossian said.

Inspired by that experience, Boghossian has since taken two other classes with Hovannisian. As a member of the Armenian Student Association’s executive board, he campaigned this year to have Hovannisian nominated as the My Last Lecture speaker to honor the professor in his last year before semi-retirement. According to Shaye Blegen, the vice president of the Alumni Scholars Club, Hovannisian received more than 1,600 nominations; last year’s speaker, Asim Dasgupta, received around 2,000.

But the professor does not appeal only to Armenian students, said Nick Odani, a fourth-year history and political science student who has taken three classes with Hovannisian since transferring to UCLA last year. Odani is half Japanese and half white, and he said his time in Hovannisian’s courses led him to consider how his ethnic background affects his personal identity.

Odani and Boghossian both said they were impressed by Hovannisian’s ability to learn his students’ names and his tendency to lecture without using slides or notes.

Hovannisian was finishing up one of his lectures when Blegen walked into his class and handed him a letter, which announced his selection as the My Last Lecture speaker. He said he was flattered by the campaign to nominate him for the award, although he is normally a very private person who rarely reflects on his own life.

But whatever he chooses to lecture about on Monday, he will be speaking straight from memory.

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Alex Goodman
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