We are thrilled to officially announce that Dr. Michael Pifer will be joining the Department of Middle East Studies and the Center for Armenian Studies (CAS) as the Assistant Professor of Armenian Studies and Marie Manoogian Professor of Armenian Language and Literature. Michael Pifer is a specialist in Armenian cultural production with an emphasis on the development of vernacular Armenian literature during the medieval period. In 2014 he received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan, where he was awarded the ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award and three Hopwood Awards for creative non-fiction. In particular, his work focuses on how Armenian literature developed alongside neighboring literary traditions within shared spaces. His interests turn around questions of multilingualism, mixed-script writing, and the ways in which premodern poets attempted to accommodate certain forms of cultural difference within their compositions. By decentering monolingual approaches to literary history, his research aims to contribute to knowledge about cross-cultural dialogism across the literary landscapes of premodern Armenia and its adjacent regions. He is the author of Kindred Voices: A Literary History of Medieval Anatolia (Yale University Press, 2021) and a coeditor of An Armenian Mediterranean: Words and Worlds in Motion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Currently, he is a team member of Armenia Entangled: Connectivity and Cultural Encounters in Medieval Eurasia 9th - 14th Centuries (ArmEn), funded by a grant from the European Research Council. Led by Zara Pogossian, this project seeks to establish a framework for studying the Armenian plateau and the wider area around it stretching from the south of the Caucasus mountain range to Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia as a space of cultural entanglements between the ninth to fourteenth centuries.

CAS director Melanie Tanielian recently spoke with Dr. Michael Pifer about his background and his plans as Marie Manoogian Chair. Their conversation follows.

We welcome you as the new Marie Manoogian Professor of Armenian Language and Literature. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I try to wear a lot of hats, but one of my biggest passions is trying to make the rich heterogeneity of Armenian experiences, cultural production, and language accessible to anyone who wants to engage with them. I don’t think there’s any one way to do this, but there’s abundant inspiration almost anywhere one chooses to look. Just to give one example—in the last few years, thanks to living with a toddler, I’ve discovered the joy of Armenian children’s literature (past and present). It’s fascinating to see the battle to preserve Western Armenian, which is a UNESCO endangered language, being fought in the most gentle way possible: that is, by playfully nudging the imaginations of children. For this reason, aside from my regular scholarly work, I’ve been writing and illustrating my first children’s story in Western Armenian this summer as a hobby. I hope to publish it in the fall.

What are you currently working on? And what are some projects you plan to undertake in the future?

I’m a bit of an academic omnivore, and I’m currently working on two very different projects. The first is a comparative reevaluation of Middle Armenian literary culture, which lives in-between the rise of Classical Armenian and the modern Armenian dialects. Sometimes Middle Armenian is not considered a ‘literary’ language because it was never subjected to the same kinds of standardization as Classical or modern Eastern and Western Armenian. And yet, it is this unruliness of Middle Armenian—its cultural in-betweenness and resistance to the standardization—that continues to draw me in. This project is part of the research group Armenia Entangled, led by Dr. Zara Pogossian in Florence, which seeks to map new interconnections between Armenians and other peoples, cultures, and histories in the medieval era. My other project is also collaborative. Partnering with film scholar Marie-Aude Baronian, I’ve begun writing about the poetic legacies and multilingualism of the celebrated Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov, who is widely regarded as one of the founding practitioners of ‘poetic’ cinema. One thing our project does is to reconsider what is ‘poetic’ in the context of the historical literary traditions of Armenia and its adjacent regions. Both projects are united by a simple underlying question: what does the Armenian cultural production of the past—from the medieval to the early modern—have to teach us about the ways we think about Armenian culture (or ‘Armenian-ness’) in the present?

What are your plans for the Armenian Language and Literature program in the Department for Middle East Studies?

Over the last few years, everyone has become habituated to learning across great distances online. In this spirit, one thing I would like to do is find a way to offer Classical Armenian courses not only at U-M, but also at all the Big Ten schools on a more regular basis in a hybrid format. My hope is that by making Classical Armenian readily accessible, the field can serve the needs of young Armenian Studies scholars who might not have access to the kinds of training available at U-M. At the same time, in this way, we might attract specialists whose primary field is not Armenian Studies, but who might become potential contributors to the field if given the opportunity. 

I’m also very conscious of the needs of the local Armenian community in the greater Detroit area. Many—though not all—of the students at U-M come from this community, and so it’s important to think about fresh ways of serving the needs of Armenians in Michigan, whether they’re our students or not. Sometimes, this might include offering a variety of Armenian studies courses—from medieval culture to church history to contemporary cinema—that can entice students from different academic backgrounds to explore their heritage in a new way (including those who cannot major in Armenian Studies). At other times, it means bringing lectures to Detroit to give short and informative talks. Finally, I think it’s also possible to have conversations with the broader academic community and the local Armenian community at the same time. I would love to host a recurring Armenian film festival, with movies from Armenia and around the global diaspora, in Detroit in the coming years, stressing the Midwest’s role in the long history of Armenian cultural production.

Last but not least, graduate programs are vital to the continuing success of Armenian Studies in North America. It’s important to expand the department’s offering of new graduate courses. One example would be to have a translation seminar for students of Armenian—ranging from Classical to Middle to dialectical to modern Eastern or Western—as a way to think critically about how and why we translate into English, for scholarly or any other purpose. I will also incorporate Armenian materials as a central component of other department-wide courses with broad appeal. A comparative seminar on Middle Eastern poetics, for instance, gives me the opportunity to teach some of the interconnected history of Armenian poetry alongside better studied traditions, increasing the audiences of this relatively overlooked literary history. 

How do you see yourself contributing to the work of the Center for Armenian Studies?

For many years now, the Center for Armenian Studies has been broadening the comparative frames of Armenian studies—insisting that Armenian literature, culture, and history should become part of wider critical conversations across the humanities. I see my research and teaching as part of this larger project of enlarging the received horizons of the ‘Armenian.’ But perhaps an Armenian idiom says it best—martĕ martov eh—a person is with people. That is, no one is an island—we become what we think, how we speak, and who we are with. I find myself especially fortunate to be in a place that brings so many diverse and talented scholars from around the world, from postdocs to graduate students to faculty fellows. Martĕ martov eh. Is there a better affirmation in the face of the persistent flatness, the endemic monotony that is pandemic time? It is this spirit of community collaboration and enlivening conversation that I hope to bring to the center and its many interlocutors, near and far.