History Professor Dzovinar Derderian talks about her students, Armenian history and mentorship

May 20, 2024

History Professor Dzovinar Derderian began on her journey to become an academic because of her strong desire for an American education (having grown up in Armenia) and her interest in the social sciences and humanities through the conversation with her family and friends. Sharing her Armenian heritage and history has become a focal point in her research, teaching, and relationship with her students. 

Professor Derderian attended the University of Michigan for her Ph.D. in Middle East Studies, after attending a conference there. That experience had been an integral part of cultivating her path to becoming a historian while focusing on Armenian and Middle Eastern history. After teaching at the American University of Armenia and the UC Irvine, Derderian became a history professor at Cal and director of its Armenian Studies Program

Professor Derderian spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences to discuss her experiences as a researcher and mentor to her students. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Please tell us about your background and path to UC Berkeley
Dzovinar Derderian: I grew up in Armenia, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, at a time of war when there was little electricity and no gas. Despite the material difficulties, the conversations my parents had with their friends about politics and society under candlelight shaped my interest in the social sciences and humanities. Since my teenage years, continuing my education in the United States has become a dream of mine. Taking history courses, conducting research in multiple languages during my bachelor's and master's programs, and participating in conferences, shaped my path to becoming a historian.  But my career changed quickly. After two years of teaching at the American University of Armenia and UC Irvine, the amazing opportunity opened to direct the Armenian Studies Program and teach at UC Berkeley’s  History Department.. 

What do you like most about working at UC Berkeley?
Dzovinar Derderian: I love the curiosity of UC Berkeley students, and I love learning something new from them every day. It has also been amazing to work with senior colleagues whose works shaped my approach to the history of the Ottoman Empire, and to be in collaboration and conversations with colleagues with whom I share similar visions for the fields of Armenian Studies, Middle East Studies, Russian and Soviet Studies. 

Tell us more about your students
Dzovinar Derderian: Most of my students at UC Berkeley are from immigrant families of different ethnic backgrounds. They are full of curiosity, compassion, concern and empathy for people whose history we cover. For my students of Armenian heritage, this past year has been tough as they had to grapple with the mass exodus of Armenians from their ancestral land of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh in September of 2023. This came after nine months of a blockade that had left 100,000 people with little access to food, medicine, clean water, electricity and fuel.

Most of my Armenian students, like me, know their family’s survival stories from the Armenian genocide in 1915. So it has been additionally difficult for them to see Armenian livelihoods erased from yet another piece of ancestral land. At the same time, it has become impossible to teach about the Armenian genocide without running parallels with the attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. My students, both of Armenian and non-Armenian heritage, strongly desire to try and make sense of the senseless contemporary tragedies. As their professor, it has been important to teach them how to contextualize and historicize both past and current violence to help them avoid essentialist explanations. 

How do you mentor them?
Dzovinar Derderian: Students often come to me to talk about their career prospects. They always seem to want to make up their minds as to what they want to become, which I think is a familiar anxiety for many. My advice to them is to focus on gaining new experiences and meeting new people to learn from, rather than focusing on making up their minds. That’s like coming up with an argument for a paper before doing the research and writing a draft—something that I also discourage them from doing. Focusing on the process rather than the outcome is what I always emphasize both for their academic work and careers. 

Tell us more about your research
Dzovinar Derderian: My research has focused on Armenians of the mid-19th century Ottoman Empire, which was a time of major transformations linked to modernization. There are two major goals that I have in my research and teaching. First, to show the multiplicity of expectations, actions, and experiences among Armenians and the interactions of Armenians with other ethno-religious groups. Second, I focus on understanding how hierarchies and relations of power are constituted, and how and why they persist. Of course, the following question is how to undo those relations of power that generate injustice, which is a difficult question that students at Cal always ask.

What kind of impact has your research made?
Dzovinar Derderian: Since I am at a relatively early stage of my academic career, it is difficult to talk about the impact of my research. However, I have felt that whenever I share a piece of my research in the classroom, such as petitions or court records of the mid-19th century Ottoman Empire, my students seem to remember the details and stories of those documents the most and they apply them to understand and explain broader historical processes.

What are your proudest accomplishments at UC Berkeley?
Dzovinar Derderian: In my short two years at UC Berkeley, it has been a great privilege to have the opportunity to direct the Armenian Studies Program on campus, which has allowed me to organize and co-organize more than two dozen interdisciplinary lectures, workshops and conferences attracting UC Berkeley students and faculty as well as members of the larger Bay Area Armenian community. I am also particularly proud that in these two years, I had my article “Orders and Disorders of Marriage, Church, and Empire in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Armenia” published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies.