Faculty Spotlight: Asbed Kotchikian Joins PSIA4 min read
Dr. Asbed Kotchikian joined the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) of the American University of Armenia (AUA) in 2021 as an associate professor. He specializes in foreign policy-making, small states, terrorism, and politics of the Middle East and Eurasia. With a wealth of academic experience from teaching at Bentley University and Florida State University, Dr. Kotchikian is currently teaching Introduction to Political Science, Comparative Politics, Russian Politics in AUA’s Political Science and International Affairs (PSIA) program. Check out the interview below to learn about his incentives for moving to Armenia, current research projects, the knowledge he shares in class, and much more!
What has influenced your choice of profession? Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree at Boston University in the U.S.?
More often than not, the life choices we make are determined by the opportunities we are presented. However, sometimes we also try to create opportunities that fit into the larger context of our life goals. When I started my undergraduate education at the American University of Beirut, I was planning on majoring in chemistry and pursuing a career in scientific research. But after taking an introductory course in political science and public administration, I realized that my love and passion for history and current events have met their match. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to move to the U.S. to continue my graduate studies. Boston was a natural choice for personal and academic reasons. A city with over 40 institutions of higher learning would provide the ambiance that fosters learning in and outside the classroom. BU was one of my top choices because of several faculty members whose work I was familiar with and who I wanted to learn from.
This is not your first visit to Armenia. What were your impressions of Armenian academia as a visiting professor?
The first time I visited Armenia was in 1984 and again in the 1990s. I first taught in Armenia from 2000 to 2002 when I was a visiting professor at Yerevan State University and Brusov Institute (with short stints at AUA and Gyumri Institute of Economics). Since then, I have stayed in touch with former colleagues and students and have collaborated occasionally with them over the years. In the past 20 years, I have seen academia in Armenia change steadily and sometimes even exponentially. The changes I have witnessed have been multi-nuanced and multifaceted and include advances in the level of engagement of Armenian scholars in international academic circles, but also in the level of academic output (in the form of scholarly books and articles). That being said, academia (especially in social sciences and humanities) still has a lot of room to grow and be on a par with western institutions. This is something that seems to be on the upward trend and there is a growing critical mass of scholars in Armenia that is shaping the academic environment in the country.
Tell us about your research on ethnic minorities.
My interest in this topic stems from childhood experiences living in a diverse society where I had many questions about issues of ethnic identity. While I did not focus on this issue in my dissertation (rather I focused on how small and new states conduct foreign policy), it has always been one that I researched and wrote about. In the past decade or so, this interest has taken me to northern Iraq, Turkey, Georgia (Abkhazia), Lebanon, and Syria trying to “decipher” the mosaic of ethnic and religious minorities living there, especially in the context of ethnic wars. It’s quite a different experience when you read about and research ethnic minorities and another when you examine them in their own “environment.”
What research are you currently involved in?
Unfortunately, my research agenda has been stalled in the past year or so because of COVID-19 as well as my move to Armenia. The most recent mini projects I was involved in (and hope to revive) include the issue of governance and rule of law during the global pandemic, as well as several consultancy projects on the rights and freedoms of lawyers in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
What was your most notable project as a freelance consultant on de-radicalization, civil society, and judicial reforms?
I think the term “notable” is quite subjective and depends on who you ask and from whose perspective you perceive a project. For me, consulting work always provides the opportunity to learn about new issues and to apply academic methodology to study real-life issues. Some of the more “exhilarating” opportunities I had to conduct research for various consultancies have involved trips to northern Iraq (2016) and Syria (2015 and 2019) where I witnessed firsthand the aftermath of war and the human toll that radicalization and fundamentalism take. Within that context, I have also conducted consultancies on approaches to radicalize individuals who have returned to their countries after having fought for fundamentalist groups. In recent years, I have also been involved in consultancies on judicial reforms in the post-Soviet space; it’s fascinating to see that, even after three decades, judicial reforms are still in progress and are needed.
Why did you decide to join AUA?
In the past decade or so, I had three opportunities to join the AUA family. In the first two cases, I was hesitant for family reasons, however, when the opportunity knocked on my door for a third time in December 2019, I decided that it was time to respond. At the time that the offer was made for me to join the AUA family as a PSIA faculty member, the world and Armenia were quite different and my decision to join AUA was based on the premise that my over two decades’ experience in academia in the U.S. could be put to good use in an institution like AUA, which itself was undergoing major changes (both in terms of expanding undergraduate programs as well as institutional developments). Of course, the Armenia I was planning to move to is not the Armenia I actually moved to. However, I believe that the post-war and post-COVID-19 landscape in Armenia can offer many individuals opportunities to contribute to not only the continuous advancement of AUA, but also to shaping the socio-political discourse in the country.
What is the most important lesson you teach in the classroom?
First and foremost, I ask my students to question everything that they learn and already know. Questioning one’s own beliefs and opinions (especially everything that one learns as a teenager) is the best way to understand the world around them. Of course, questioning or challenging ideas or beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean negating them, rather it provides fresh insight to build a stronger foundation. The second most important thing I always tell students is that there is a huge difference between studying and learning. While the former helps you receive good grades and eventually a degree, the latter is a lifelong process that doesn’t end. I enjoy when students challenge me with their own informed opinions, and we try to understand issues (conceptual and real-life events) from multifaceted and multi-nuanced perspectives.