Dzovinar Derderian, a second year Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan State in Ann Arbor, was recently in Yerevan to do research on her thesis covering the socio-economic history of the eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.
While here, she saw an advertisement for a web-site called kursayin.am, a sort of online information data base for university students in need of scientific and academic publications. During our conversation, Dzovinar used the site as an example to illustrate the level of education in the country.
“The situation here is pretty bad. I know a few young academicians who are doing great work. There are many who are trying to do what it takes to become better professionals, but if we are talking about the system in general...If students don’t sit down and write their own work, they aren’t really learning. I learn the most when I write and relate it all to others. Writing and speaking cause people to actually think,” Dzovinar says.
Thesis on Armenian-Kurdish Relations in 19th century Ottoman Empire
She received a Bachelor’s degree at Tufts University in International Relations and then went on to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C. for a Master’s degree, specializing in Russian and East European Studies.
Dzovinar’s thesis will concentrate on Ottoman-Russian relations and their influence on the political orientations of Kurds and Armenians within both empires, in the last quarter of the 19th century. She says of particular interest is the “land issue” (ownership, taxes, etc) between various Armenian and Kurdish communities in the overarching Ottoman framework.
Her long-term goal is to become an historian/Ottoman specialist. She laughs and confesses that the road will be a long one. Ph.D. students in the States can take from 5-7 years to complete the course.
Plagiarism and politics in Armenia’s universities
Getting back to the kursayin.am site and the services it provides, Dzovinar says that plagiarism in top American universities could get a student kicked out or, at a minimum, disbarred from a year.
“Such cases are severely frowned upon at all levels and students are made aware of the risks,” she tells me.
While Dzovinar doesn’t rule out the possibility of such academic infringements happening at Michigan University, she believes they pale in comparison to Armenia. Students in top American colleges and universities yearn to learn and don’t want to blemish their professional job prospects.
She believes that political party affiliation of university rectors in Armenia is a fundamental problem. While Michigan University is a state institution, government intervention is kept at a minimum and doesn’t play a factor in terms of academics.
Dzovinar, who also works as an assistant lecturer of Arab culture for undergrads, laughs when she tells me that she isn’t even allowed to use the school copier for personal use or to make up political campaign flyers. More to the point, she can’t use her teaching position as a forum to propagate her political inclinations to her students.
“I think this is the correct way to go. I wouldn’t want any student to feel intimidated and not express their own opinions. Students shouldn’t be made to feel that they can get a higher grade from me just because they believe they can cajole me by expressing sentiments similar to my own,” says Ms. Derderian.
Research in Turkey and Armenia
Dzovinar, who was doing research in Istanbul before coming to Armenia, said that there are a handful of universities in Turkey that have achieved commonly accepted international standards. Her hope is that steps are taken in Armenia to achieve a similar goal.
While there are around 50 Armenian students (both from Armenia and the diaspora) studying for their Bachelor’s at Michigan University, there are fewer in graduate and post graduate studies.
She says that, along with UCLA in Los Angeles, there are probably more Armenian Studies academics at Michigan University’s Armenian Studies Program than anywhere else in the diaspora.
Getting back to her area of research, Dzovinar pointed out that in the 19th century, as far as she has been able to make out, Armenians, including the Armenian press, never referred to the lands of the eastern Ottoman Empire as “Western Armenia” – it was Ottoman or Turkish Armenia and similarly, Russian Armenia.
“Of course, the land issue, in its legal, economic, psychological and political aspects, facilitated the Genocide to come. But I wouldn’t agree that it served as the starting point for 1915,” Dzovinar argues.
After a few weeks in Armenia, to see what the local archives and libraries contain of use for her research, Dzovinar travelled to the Turkish island of Cunda in the Aegean Sea.
The Ph.D. student is also taking courses in the Ottoman language, a prerequisite to research various Ottoman archives. Harvard University and Turkey’s Koç University jointly teach Ottoman Turkish at Cunda.
While in Yerevan, Dzovinar visited the National Archives, the National Library and the Matenadaran for her research. “I found quite a bit and it will require a lengthy study,” she says, adding that she plans to return in about a year’s time to go through all the material.
The term “Western Armenia” is a recent creation
She came across many 19th century Armenian magazines and periodicals describing the natural landscape and villages in the Van area, including the churches and other monuments.
Dzovinar says she was struck by the fact that Armenians of the time were describing, in detail, things that they still had claim over; things that they hadn’t yet lost.
“That’s the interesting aspect. Maybe other historians have wrote about this but I have yet to come across why Armenians wrote so much about the lands back then, even though they were still there. Usually, it’s the other way round. You write about a place where you no longer live, no? Or you want to describe a place to Armenians whose connection was severed a long-time ago. Throughout the entire 19th century, for a variety of reasons, Armenians were leaving those lands.”
As to possible reasons for this, Dzovinar refers back to the land issue. As Armenians were being stripped of their lands and property, their physical safety and well-being also suffered, forcing growing numbers to leave western Armenia. This is the crux of her thesis research – getting to understand what was actually going on in the villages and towns, especially between Armenians and Kurds, regarding land and other property rights.
“In Armenia today we also are witnessing a decline. People fell they are losing out. No wonder there are growing protest actions to save the environment and other things,” Dzovinar says.
In Istanbul, Dzovinar uncovered much in the Ottoman archives and the municipal library. There, all the material is catalogued digitally, unlike Armenia. It’s a great convenience for researchers and students alike. She says she’ll probably return to Istanbul to continue her academic research.
“What I find so encouraging is that academic research opens up entire new mental vistas on a variety of levels. I couldn’t see myself working in some office like a robot. The whole experience would be way too mechanical,” Dzovinar confesses.
Born to diaspora Armenian parents who relocated to Armenia in the early 1990’s, Dzovinar remembers attending public school in Yerevan.
She recounts that her teacher had said that history is a science of dates and that they must be memorized. In the States, Dzovinar says that teachers tell their students that history is a science of logic or rationality.
“There’s a big difference between the two and I’m inclined toward the latter. Questions must directly be presented. History can lead to various interpretations. You can have several people witnessing the same event but each will interpret it differently. All of it must be studied.”
Dzovinar confesses that she chose history as a professional pursuit in order to understand why people and governments act the way they do.
“Most important for me is explain the why. Why that date, why that person and why that event? That’s history for me and not the simply the who, what or when.”
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