“I love my 301 course,” Professor Melanie Tanielian admitted with a laugh when asked what her ‘dream course’ would be to teach. “It’s my favorite! It’s a class that’s historically grounded but one that also allows students to also think about a particular topic as it affects us today.”
Professor Melanie S. Tanielian is an associate professor in the History Department at the University of Michigan and is the Director of the Center for Armenian Studies. Her research focus is on humanitarianism, war, human rights & genocide, with a special focus on World War I and the Middle East. Professor Tanielian’s most recent publication, The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East (2017) explores the impact of World War I on the Ottoman Empire, and how the government responded to subsequent famine during this period.
Professor Tanielian is originally from Germany, moving to the U.S. to complete her undergraduate degree, Master’s degree, and PhD in History at UC Berkley. “I became interested in the Middle East through language,” Tanielian described, having studied Arabic as a student. “I eventually pursued a PhD in history because as a discipline I thought it would be the most flexible space to be creative.” History as a discipline, much like international studies, is open to interdisciplinarity and may draw upon politics, art, anthropology, archeology, biology and more. At the core of her academic journey, however, Professor Tanielian described “a desire to never stop learning” which inspired her passion for teaching.
Professor Tanielian has been teaching International Studies 301: History and Practice of Human Rights for nearly as long as she has been with the Program in International and Comparative Studies –– ten years! The course explores the origins of human rights, including the impact of both world wars on international humanitarianism, the Armenian genocide, the formation of the United Nations, and more. History and Practice of Human Rights focuses not only on the history of human rights, but also draws attention to international human rights today to ask a key question: “Can human rights ever be global in scope?”
Trying to tackle complex subjects like human rights and war crimes, especially when looking back on the past from the present, can be difficult. “To ‘bring it home,’ there are multiple approaches,” Professor Tanielian said of her teaching method. “When we think of genocide, we can intellectualize it, and all of that can remove you very far from ‘the human.’” In part, Tanielian acknowledged, “that’s our job –– to understand why these things happen,” and often clarity requires a degree of abstraction. “But there is a human aspect that sometimes gets lost in the intellectual work,” Professor Tanielian added, and that’s when it’s important to “take a step back and remind ourselves that at the end of the line, there are humans who are not so different from us; that their experiences, although unimaginable for us, may be related to through a measure of empathy.”
To emphasize the real-world cost and impact of human rights violations, Tanielian finds films and media to be useful tools. “Sometimes I feel reluctant to use imagery in my courses,” the Professor remarked, “images, specifically photographs, can be yet another violation of that person’s most private moments.” The fictional narratives of films, however, can often walk the line between presenting authentic representations of history and protecting individual privacy. Survivors’ stories, too, can be useful to humanize the subject matter. Importantly, survivor or victim testimony is usually shared with consent. “We need to think about the human on the other side,” Tanielian emphasized, which means not simply acknowledging trauma, but being mindful not to perpetuate further trauma.
Intentional and mindful consumption of media is incredibly important in today’s digital society. “We’re so inundated by images today,” Tanielian observed, “while images are powerful, we also need narratives to contextualize these images.” With greater access to information comes greater viewer responsibility. “We’re consuming these images of war without asking: Who produced these images? What is their story? What is their intent?” While not a cornerstone of her research, Professor Tanielian predicted that “the discipline of history will dramatically change” in the coming years because of social media. As a teacher and historian, Tanielian identified, “I see my role not to ask [students] to stop consuming social media, but to push them to critically think about the kind of materials that one consumes.”
In a way, Professor Tanielian offers a course not simply on the past, but a class that teaches students how to navigate the modern world. “We have not really learned how to live in a digital world,” the Professor said. Today, the practice of being a mindful consumer of media has become a near-essential tool. “I do teach history, but I find it to be my primary responsibility to give students the tools to think, read, and consume critically –– both in terms of history and the contemporary world.” The traditional learning emphasis on rote memorization is not important today as it was in the past. “We live in this digital world where our access to information has dramatically changed, and that kind of memorization has become secondary. It’s more important to be able to ‘digest’ information.”
For now, Professor Tanielian is taking a sabbatical to work on several projects, including a new book, Commodifying Kindness: Humanitarian Practices in the Late Ottoman Empire (1894-1918). Building off her earlier publication, The Charity of War, this project will explore the development of humanitarianism in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ottoman Empire, with a particular emphasis on the “commodification of kindness.” One example of this is early child sponsorship programs implemented by German missionaries, specifically those involving Armenian refuges in the aftermath of violence at the end of the 19th century.
“I couldn’t think of a better job,” Professor Tanielian gushed in reflection of her decade with both the Program in International & Comparative Studies and the University of Michigan. “It’s been a great journey. [One of] the reasons I love to teach human rights is that there’s a beautiful enthusiasm among students to engage. It’s a fantastic space to be teaching in –– there’s an energy that makes PICS quite unique!”
To learn more about Melanie S. Tanielian’s work, visit her website.