Richard Hovannisian, professor of Armenian and Near Eastern history, admitted that he was a bit dumbfounded when he first learned that he had been chosen by the UCLA student body to deliver a talk called "My Last Lecture."
"When the representative from the UCLA Alumni Scholars Club came in with a [selection] letter, I didn’t know what she was talking about," Hovannisian said with a laugh. "It took a moment for it to sink in, and my first reaction was, ‘I hope this is NOT my last lecture.’ "
Professor Richard Hovannisian
Happily, the Armenian studies scholar plans to continue lecturing to different audiences for years to come, even after he retires from UCLA this spring. But on April 18, Hovannisian will continue a UCLA tradition that began more than 55 years ago: He will answer the question, "What would you tell your audience if you had but one lecture to give — your last lecture on this earth?"
"My Last Lecture" is unique in that it is the only faculty award at UCLA determined by the student body. It was inspired by a 1955 lecture series that featured six notable campus figures, including Philosophy Professor Abraham Kaplan, Chemistry Professor Kenneth Trueblood and renowned men’s head basketball Coach John Wooden. Each lecturer expressed his own life philosophy through his interests, discipline and personal experiences.
The lectures then went dormant for many years until 2010, when it was revived by the Alumni Scholars Club (ASC) and the UCLA Alumni Association. The inaugural awardee was molecular biologist Asim Dasgupta (who will introduce Hovannisian at the April 18 lecture). Hovannisian became the second recipient of the award when he received more votes than any other faculty member on campus. Students submitted his name in response to an email sent by the ASC in January, asking for nominations.
The title of the lecture series sounds a bit ominous, but it’s not meant to be, said organizer Shaye Blegen, vice president of ASC. She and her committee were quite familiar with Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor whose book, "The Last Lecture," was published shortly before he died of pancreatic cancer in July 2008.
"But that is not necessarily the inspiration for ‘My Last Lecture,’ " Blegen said. "Our goal is to revive a UCLA tradition. Though we were drawn to the idea of professors sharing life lessons and experiences with their students outside the confines of the classroom and imparting wisdom and knowledge that they had gained through their intellectual pursuits, we want to make it clear that the ‘My Last Lecture Award’ honors a professor who students have found to be particularly inspiring, regardless of where he/she stands in the timeline of his/her career."
The timing of the award is actually quite meaningful for Hovannisian, on the brink of retiring after 50 years of teaching. A UCLA alumnus and holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History, Hovannisian is well-known nationally and internationally as a pioneer of Armenian studies. Since joining the UCLA History Department faculty in 1962, he has organized both the undergraduate and graduate programs in Armenian history at UCLA and amassed one of the largest collections of oral histories by survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.
Once Hovannisian understood the concept behind "My Last Lecture," he said, "That made it a little easier to accept, because the finality of a last lecture is so difficult for me since I love what I do. I love to teach. It’s been my great passion and enjoyment for all these years. ... As a matter of fact, I have a number of them lined up for the next year in various places around the world!"
The historian delights in teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, including his popular classes in Armenian oral history in which students help him translate the interviews of the Armenian genocide survivors from Armenian to English. He also teaches a course on the comparative study of genocide, undergraduate seminars on Caucasian and Near Eastern history, and survey classes on the people of Armenia. He is pleased that the majority of students in his survey classes are not Armenian, but come from many diverse backgrounds.
His teaching philosophy, he explained, is twofold. "One is to be as objective and factual as possible but, at the same time, not to be afraid to be mission-oriented or something of an advocate," he said. "You know, that’s rather controversial. There was a time when we believed that scholarship should simply state the facts and not make judgments. But when it comes to a course like the comparative study of genocide, we have to make judgments. We have to want our students to feel the depth of the issue and want to commit themselves to rectify wrongs.
"And so, on the one hand, to hold to a high standard of scholarship and, at the same time, to not be afraid of embracing ethical issues," he clarified.
One of the many students who voted for Hovannisian was Editt Nikoyan, a second-year neuroscience major who took two of his courses and helped the professor translate his oral histories.
"Professor Hovannisian is a very beloved professor, not only at UCLA but amongst the entire Armenian community and diaspora," she said. "I feel lucky to have been able to take two classes with him before his decision to retire this year. Since he will no longer be teaching, this will truly be a ‘last lecture’ and will very meaningfully put a close to a half-century of teaching students at UCLA.
"I’m looking forward to what he has to say."
Professor Hovannisian will accept the "My Last Lecture Award" and deliver his talk on Monday, April 18, at 6:30 p.m. in 100 Moore Hall. Tickets are free for UCLA students with BruinCards, $15 for non-UCLA students and are available at the Central Ticket Office until the day of the lecture. Then, tickets must be obtained at 100 Moore Hall. For more information about the "My Last Lecture Award," click here.