Philippa Mullins

Philippa Mullins Joins Human Rights and Social Justice Program

5 min read

After completing her Ph.D. program at the London School of Economics (LSE), Dr. Philippa Mullins moved to Armenia last year to join the American University of Armenia (AUA) as an Assistant Professor in the Human Rights and Social Justice (HRSJ) Master’s program. Along with teaching Social Justice and Community Engagement, Social Justice and Identity, and other courses, she is engaged in qualitative research with a particular focus on disability rights, civil society, and social movements. Read on to learn about her motives for coming to Armenia, her teaching philosophy, and more!

Why did you choose to come to Armenia and join AUA?

When I applied for this position, I had also applied for another job at LSE, where I had just completed my Ph.D. It became a matter of deciding between LSE and AUA. A key question was: where would I learn more? I figured I’d learn a lot more from being in a new place, than from staying in London for another three years. If I were still there, I wouldn’t be taking Armenian language classes, nor would I have met so many new people or had the opportunity to get to know a new place and culture. 

I was excited about the Master’s in Human Rights and Social Justice (HRSJ) program for several reasons. Thematically, it aligns perfectly with topics I love to research, teach, and think about. It also offers the opportunity to play a part in developing a new program. Finally, I was interested by AUA’s greater commitment to Armenia, both in terms of how the university is already working and how it’s trying to develop: increasing recruitment from the regions (marzes), offering financial support to make AUA as accessible as possible, and trying to turn AUA into a springboard for students to do something amazing. I wanted to be a part of a university that engages with education as a transformative process. 

What are your impressions of the Armenian academic environment?

The HRSJ program is in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS). It’s an engaging place to be because it’s a highly diverse college with many different disciplines: Political Science, Law, English and Communications, and so on. I think that’s also important in terms of thinking about social justice and human rights in a more multi- and interdisciplinary way as the HRSJ program develops. All of these disciplines have something to say about social justice. For example, I share an office with Dr. Santrosyan who’s supervising many Capstone Projects in English and Communications. I get to listen to those discussions, many of which are about social justice. I also find these concerns in the work of several colleagues. It’s interesting to hear how these topics play out across various fields, and it also gives me ideas for how the program could grow, the different conversations it could broach. 

What is the most important lesson you teach in the classroom? 

We should really ask my students. I hope that I’m supporting them to develop their critical thinking skills. Part of critical thinking, for me, is being able to make connections between different pieces of knowledge and to think using theory. Many students come in saying that they’ve never dealt with theory, or that they aren’t good at it. For starters, I ask them, “How can you use theory to actually analyze, pull apart an issue, and think more deeply about something in your life?” Theory offers explanatory power and shifts what you can see. It’s a practical tool that I want students to start using because, to put it into a human rights and social justice framework, you need to develop critical awareness of power relationships and be asking certain questions to address injustice. Theory helps you to do that. It supports us to be more critical, participatory, and equitable actors for justice.

What is something your students have taught you?

My students are fantastic. It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing. This is one of my favorite questions, because I truly believe in exchange as a way of learning learning as a community. The process of teaching is about listening and learning in general, about how students respond to topics, and how they apply what they’re learning to their lives. 

I appreciate the diversity of knowledge among my students. We often use our own experiences to think about privilege and oppression, their intersections, and how these axes play out in the United States, Armenia, Lebanon, or elsewhere. Our discussions are fresh and interesting. You could give the same quote or image to ten different people and it will be connected in ten ways to different knowledge and experience. I enjoy learning from these different connections and ways of applying, and indeed challenging, theory.

What do you like the most and least about teaching?

What I like the most about teaching is the students. In one sense, there is no distinction between doing research and teaching – and what I love about both. Both are about working together with people to produce knowledge. My least favorite part of teaching is grading. Even then, I think you can find ways to make it less painful for everyone. I believe in formative assessments that create space for development. I aim to give feedback that recognizes what’s done well and points to areas that can be extended or nuanced. I see my students rising to feedback and learning more as a result. 

How did you select your thesis topic? Why Russia? 

There are so many answers to this. My undergraduate degree was in French and Russian language and literature, so I had been to Russia many times. Over many summers, I volunteered there with an NGO that works in a rural residential institution for disabled kids. This sparked many questions about what NGOs can change and how. That’s one reason why I returned to university to do a master’s in social policy. I wanted to better understand what NGOs, activists, and social movements can do, their interactions with the state and other actors, and how policy, legislative, and social change occurs. I also specifically wanted to study research methods, because I wanted to learn how to do research myself. In the process of completing my Master’s project, I noticed certain gaps that weren’t being addressed. That led to orienting my Ph.D. thesis around a conversation that I thought was important and to which I could contribute: disability organizing in Russia.

What was the most surprising or compelling finding from your research? 

One interesting part of my research is thinking about how the ways in which civil society is governed actually structure intersectional inequities in terms of the recognition of disabled people. Disability is legitimized as an organizing area through its tight association with medicine, charity, and tragedy, rather than something more agentic. One way of observing this is comparing the legitimacy of disability organizing in Russia with the delegitimization of organizing around LGBTQ+ rights. If disability is medicalized and associated with charity or tragedy, requiring technical intervention by external specialists such as doctors, then being LGBTQ+ is viewed as something far more agentic and identity-based.

I argue that the way in which disability organizing is legitimized limits the claims makes and leads to exclusions. Identity is not monolithic, but intersectional. What happens if you’re disabled and gay? What happens if you’re disabled and a migrant? What happens if your position as a disabled person, which is externally legitimized via a misassociation with suffering, medicalization, and lack of agency, is then troubled by other identities? How does that affect disability organizing in Russia and the experiences of the disabled people in other organizing spaces? The most interesting part of my research was interviewing people who identify as both disabled and LGBTQ+ about their experiences, community-building, and activism, and about how they navigate the sometimes conflicting expectations people associate with these different identities. 

What attracted you specifically to study disability? 

I have dedicated pages of my thesis to this question and what it means. A lot of people conduct disability research because they are disabled or they are directly affected by disability in some way. The latter is my case. However, I believe that everyone should think about disability. When we’re not doing so, we’re perpetuating ableism – basically, the idea that to be disabled is to be less than. Thinking about disability is part of thinking about inequalities and the exclusionary ways in which the world is constructed. And that is part of working towards a more equitable world.