Episode 2: President Mary A. Papazian

In this conversation, we learn all about Dr. Mary A. Papazian's passion for poetry, her experience as a university student, her early career choices, and how her own history translates into her work as a university administrator today.

Episode Transcript

Vincent Del Casino: Did you know that that President Papazian's passion for poetry has driven her lifelong interest in the culture and politics of the Renaissance and Reformation in England? In this conversation, we discuss how President Papazian found her way to 16th century England and to the work of the poet John Donne. President Papazian lays out the historical reasons for the importance of studying poetry, and what it says about the dynamic transitions England was facing as an emergent global power.

In addition to our discussion about poetry, President Papazian discusses her experiences as a university student, her early career choices, and how her own history translates into her own work as a university administrator today, so come along for this fascinating conversation. I'll be your host, Vincent Del Casino, and you are listening to The Accidental Geographer. So it's exciting to have you here. Thanks for much for doing this. I'm really looking forward to this conversation.

Dr. Mary A Papazian: It's great to be here, and thanks for inviting me.

Vincent Del Casino: So you've had leadership roles now in higher education for a number of years and it's always an interesting question when people ask like why? Like, what was so exciting about doing that that drove you there? What have been the exciting parts of leadership and the real challenges?

Dr. Mary A Papazian: I never thought that I was going to do this. I never planned on it. My advisor actually said in a recommendation letter for me when I was coming out of graduate school, in 25 years she'll be a university president. I asked him why the heck would he say that and why would I want to be that, and I just want to do this work, and he said well, you just wait and see but do your work and don't worry about that yet.

So I guess he put the seed in the back of my mind, but I was really involved in my academic work and my scholarship but I just want to thank you for giving me a chance to relive some of that because I feel sometimes like I've been pulled a little bit away from it and when I think about it, it's like oh, you know, I just want to go back and do that. I have like five books I never wrote because there was so many questions that are asked so it was a gradual process. I was pulled in through actually through accreditation and then into the Dean's Office as an Associate Dean and then when I was fine in each of those roles, first I discovered that I actually was a good administrator.

I had no idea I was a good administrator and one of the amazing experiences with each new role is you learn something about yourself that maybe you didn't know because how would you know if you haven't tested those muscles for example? You don't know that you have any particular talent in it and so that developed over time and what I would find is that I really found satisfaction in helping people realize what they wanted to accomplish, so when I was Associate Dean as one example, I was in charge of curriculum. I handled curriculum and there was as group of faculty who were working on a women's studies curriculum.

We didn't have a women's studies major at the time and it wasn't going anywhere. I mean, there were all sorts of problems. The language they were using in the proposal wasn't understood by others up the food chain, if you will, and so I became involved in working with this group of faculty and helping them recast the proposal and then nurture it through until it was approved and I just felt so good about it because I helped make something happen that needed to happen, that was important to people to have happen, and you started to realize that I could have an impact, and I've always loved the academic side.

I mean, I could do that tomorrow and be a very happy person, but what I discovered is that I have this ability to actually help others and to help an institution grow, whether it's in my college or at each level beyond and I would reach a point as Dean, as Provost, and ultimately as President, but certainly as Dean and Provost where I'd say, you know, I could do more and maybe it's time to think about being in a position where I could take it to the next level, and so it's always been about that. It's always been about creating an environment where others can realize their aspirations and one of my favorite things to do is to set a big vision for people so there's room for everybody to define themselves within it and then really intentionally, one by one, pull down the obstacles that are getting in people's way so that that can happen, and that's the greatest part of it.

Vincent Del Casino: And I love that because it's an intellectual project, because people could manage but management is not the end of what these jobs are. But I'm going to have to ask, so you became a President and you've done it now in two places. It's a different kind of job and when you started nationally, there are not as many women in presidencies in the country. The Cal State system is very unique in that regard. I think it's fantastic but to jump into a presidency, I mean, they're challenging jobs these days. Like when you look at what you do on a day-to-day basis, there's boards, there's the NCAA, there's these conversations with the city, what is this job like for you? And you've done it twice, so clearly, you're enjoying yourself, so maybe it's a selfish question at some level but I'm genuinely curious. Like, what drives you there and what makes it so exciting and interesting?

Dr. Mary A Papazian: You're right. There aren't enough women. It is a fantastic -- I have amazing colleagues in the Cal State system and it does change the conversation. Women, on the whole, are different kinds of leaders and when you have 50, 51, 52% women, we have amazing conversations and my male colleagues will be the first ones to say how much -- how important it is to have that intersection, and intersectionality of all kinds, so the diversity's there in all ways in the Cal State system. It's a pretty remarkable and unusual group and I just treasure that, but why?

Well, first of all, I do have fun. I mean, I don't have fun every day. Some days are really hard, but there's a satisfaction in knowing that you're making a difference for something that matters, right? -- that you're hopefully you're helping to create something better than what you found when you got there, and for me, I like the energy of it all. I do enjoy getting out there and talking to people and making things happen that are good. I still believe that we can make things better and I do think that those of us who are in a position where we can make a difference, have an obligation to try to do what we can to create the space for others also to be successful and thrive and make a difference in ways that are aligned with our values, and that's really what drives me and motivates me.

I learn from people every day. It doesn't matter who they are, right? -- or where they are. There is so much we learn from other. I meet with a lot of women, aspiring women leaders. I'm on the board for the HERS. It's the Higher Ed Resource Service which is an organization that really fosters and develops women leaders and higher education and I always say, first you have to be enjoying it and it has to be about more than just yourself, and if you're doing that, then what you're doing every day, yes, you can -- everything has hard things in it, and if you're not comfortable with that, then that's one thing, but you're all talented and able to do it and we need your voice at the table. Your voice is really critical, so and seeing that growth, I tell you, that's the most rewarding thing of all, just to work with extraordinary people. I know that sounds really -- it kind of in some ways almost corny, but it's true.

Vincent Del Casino: So I'm always curious with each of guests, literature is your passion. It's your academic field. It's your background. You've always had a penchant for looking at the written word. I'm just kind of curious. When you think back, like what drove you to think about literature as an entry point into the kinds of questions you would like to ask? Well, it wasn't a conscious decision from an early age. I'll just put it that way, but I can blame my mom. We like to blame our moms for things, so and we like to thank our moms for things, and my mom was an amazing person. She studied literature in college and she was a teacher of English and history for her career, and we were surrounded in my house. I have three brothers. We might as well all be the same age. We're less than four years apart, and there were always books around and there were always stories to be told and my dad was so much like so many of our students. He didn't complete college. He worked. He was a carpet installer. That's what he did. But he always had a book in his hand and so our house was surrounded by books and it was just the stories. I grew up on stories and I just discovered that there's so much in stories that animates, that moves, and that creates a lens through which to see so many other things. I don't think I understood that part of it until I was further along in my life and in my career.

Vincent Del Casino: Going back to your own heritage and Armenian heritage, was there also a link to sort of the storytelling about the history of your community in this literary world as well for you?

Dr. Mary A Papazian: Stories were a way to learn and so for example, my family, my parents were of modest means, and yet we did a lot. My parents exposed us to the world in some really wonderful ways and we used to hop in the old station wagon. It's kind of that classic American story of the '60s where you put the kids all in the back seat of a station wagon and you put all the camping gear at the top and you drive across the country, and we used to do that every summer and go and visit so many places and there was always a story in each of those places, and so my parents, both of whom are of Armenian background, shared those stories with us, but they weren't limited to Armenian stories. They shared the stories that were around us wherever we went, so when we traveled I remember in 1966 going up and down California and hearing the different stories of the California landscape, and then going across the country and hearing the stories in each of those places. The Armenian thread was always there and in my very early days, I almost felt like I lived in two worlds. I was in public schools. My friend were, for the most part, non-Armenian, but I went to an Armenian church and my parents were involved in Armenian activities and so it was the stories were a way of my learning, but they were also a way for me to share with my friends something about myself that they didn't know. And so it always became this vehicle to do more than just the literal story.

Vincent Del Casino: That's really interesting that you got that experience to kind of travel and connect. So when you decide to go to university and so forth, I know you ended up at UCLA, which probably thrilled your parents and so forth, but I know you talk about that experience because you didn't live on campus. It wasn't necessarily like the residential experience that some of us had, but what attracted you to UCLA and did you know you were going to study literature when you got there or was it -- was there an exploration phase for you like there are for many students?

Dr. Mary A Papazian: Well, I knew from a very young age that I was going to go to UCLA and study English. That's what I knew. I was exposed to UCLA. Both -- my parents met there, so it had a certain presence in our family. One of their closest friends was on the faculty there early on. We used to go athletic events there, you know, basketball games. I remember being at the coliseum in Los Angeles at when it was the home of UCLA football and my dad, who was born and raised in Greece and grew up on soccer, not American football, explaining to me as a very young child what the four downs were and how that worked, and it still is an image I have in my mind, so there's always something very familiar about the place. It was a great university, and to be frank, with three brothers and all of us so close in age, and again, very modest means, we couldn't afford -- I couldn't afford to go other places. I applied to UCLA and my backup was Cal State Northridge, because that was less than a mile from my house. I had done well in high school and I was accepted there and so I went and I did that. That was pretty predictable, actually. The harder question was then what? That's what I didn't know, and that's where the exploration really started.

Vincent Del Casino: So you're sitting there. You go, I know I'm doing English literature. There is an end point, right? You're going to get a degree and like every single person, what is the next step? So what were you thinking? Walk us through that little bit. I think it's really interesting.

Dr. Mary A Papazian: So I got into my major right away, right in my first year as freshman. I came in with some credits. I had taken some AP classes and so I came in with some credits and was right into that and that was great and I spent about two years not even thinking about what would come next. When people would ask me, I'd say well, I'll figure that out. Maybe I'll do teaching. Maybe I'll do journalism. I really didn't know. Maybe I'll do law.

Those were the ones that really came out, but I really -- my mom was a high school teacher at the private school I went to and I used to say it's really a strange place where you're a teenager and your mother is more popular with your friends than you are. She was that kind of teacher, but I saw what that was and I continue to have just extraordinary respect for our K-12 teachers. That is such important work and I just thought, I didn't think I had the personality to do that well. I had to be honest with myself. I said, you know, I just don't see myself doing that. You can sit there every day on the couch. I can still see it, grading the papers, preparing for the next day and I didn't see that I wanted to do that, and I thought journalism, that interested me because again, it's a way to learn stories but I wasn't sure.

Law did intrigue me. Everybody said you should think about law, you love to argue, you love to -- I mean, all the things. My dad used to say that. And I thought about it actually and I really narrowed it down. By the time I got midway through my undergraduate career, I had really connected with the English department there and had a small group of friends who were in the department. We took a lot of classes together. The faculty were just really amazing. They -- these were very distinguished faculty and but they were very committed to students and I think it was part of being in a California state university, not a CSU, but a part of the master plan, and so they spent a lot of time with me. I spent a lot of time with them, and I was really beginning to be excited about what that could look like, so I was ready as a fall semester of my senior year -- or fall quarter, and I'd put off the one class that I thought would be awful.

At the time, UCLA had in their English major a requirement that you take two quarters of Shakespeare, one of Chaucer who's a late medieval 14th century/15th century writer and then one of Milton from the 17th century, and that just sounded awful to me. Chaucer was fantastic, very urbane, very genteel, real sense of sort of humanity's foibles and once you got through the language you could really enjoy it and of course Shakespeare, you know, everybody's encountered Shakespeare in various ways, but I thought Milton would be deadly. Paradise Lost, I couldn't imagine that. I'm imagining this long turgid piece and so I avoided it until the fall of my senior year and I took it and I was ready to apply to both graduate school in English, thinking I'd do 19th century or something a little bit later, and law school, and I was preparing, thinking of taking the LSATs and the GMATs and I had to take that Milton class and I took it and I think about this.

One faculty member can change the trajectory of your life. I had this amazing faculty member who was just really intense, really engaged, passionate about his work and brought Milton to life in a way I never could have imagined, and I still remember sitting at the north campus on an outdoor table with the two different stacks of applications, looking at one and going towards Paradise Lost. I said I think I'd rather do Paradise Lost and I through all the law school applications away. When I told my dad that later, he was a little stunned because he couldn't figure out how I'd ever make a living as a graduate student and a professor, but that's what happened and it was the best decision I could have made.

Vincent Del Casino: Tell me a little bit about your field then, where it sits within the wider literature and where you went to on to study and what within the context of literary studies and criticism, what you were trying to do and what work you were kind of in.

Dr. Mary A Papazian: After that experience, I realized I wanted to study Donne, study Milton, the late Renaissance because I came to understand the incredible dynamism of the period. Certainly this is the Western world. I mean, when you think globally, there's a bit of a narrow perspective here, but there was a lot changing. I mean, this was the time of the breakup of Catholic Europe, the rise of nationalism, the intersection between the arts and politics and religion, the transformation in scientific thinking, I mean, all of this happening at once. People like Shakespeare and Donne and Milton tried to make sense of that world and help us understand it and they didn't even understand it themselves, but they were struggling with that, and so these were some of the questions that I was really interested in and it was really about this sense of trying to create some order in a time of chaos, and I think that continues to be a theme, and in a lot of the work that I've done, somehow if you go into the center of it, that interplay between order and chaos is always present, and I feel like we're living through that today.

Vincent Del Casino: I found something really interesting in the edited volume The Sacred and Profane in English Literature Renaissance Literature and you argue or state the sacred and profane worlds do not live parallel or separate. They are, it is argued, intimately connected and can only be understood in relationship to each other, and I think there's a theme throughout your scholarship about these binaries and the tensions they produce. The sacred and the profane, predestiny and free will, religiosity and secular life, so how do you think about that and how do you make sense of it in the context of doing this work, reading these authors like Donne?

Dr. Mary A Papazian: I'll tell you, when I was going through graduate school, it was a time when literary criticism was dominated by New Historicism and deconstruction, Derrida, Paul de Man on the deconstruction side, of course, Jonathan Goldberg and others on the New Historicist side, and the big question you got as a graduate student as you were developing your work was what was your critical framework going to be? And when you were getting ready to do interviews for faculty positions, how are you going to define yourself? And it was always against one of these critical frameworks.

I think one of the healthy things in the profession is that we had moved away from that. My work doesn't fit into any of these critical frameworks, because it seemed to me then that the critical framework would lead to the interpretation rather than the interpretation coming out of the analysis itself, and it was always a question of what questions do you want to ask, and then you bring the framework to it that makes sense, that really helps you answer that question. For me, it was really always that interplay. It's trying to move beyond binaries, because I was acutely aware that life is far more complicated than that and how do we get from one to the other?

There's not a sharp break. It's always a transition, and understanding the interplay helps us define what that looks like and ultimately what the values are that animate not just individuals but societies to do the work they do and then the final piece is how we can use -- and this is the other piece that's always been interesting to me -- how we can create in language a certain, if you will, ideal or rationalization of what we're doing. When you actually look under the surface and it's a lot less pristine than we've defined it, and I think that's part of what we're uncovering today is what's really under the surface. Each era has, as you say, there are often struggles, but certain elements have more power over others, and we have to acknowledge what that is.

When I say that, it's not saying I personally agree or disagree. It's saying this is how the world was framed, or at least this particular part of the world that I'm focused on, and yes, there's a struggle between the sacred and the profane, the body and the spirit, if you will. You can use any pairing that you'd like of the language, but ultimately, you're not going to be in power if you put the body over the spirit in that period of the Renaissance, okay? And that is used actually to do things that frankly, aren't very spiritual, and this is the origins, if you will, of a lot of colonialism that emerged later coming out of the same culture in Britain, which was we have this belief that somehow we are superior but it comes out of this interpretation of the spiritual above it, but it's the spiritual meaning God's chosen, which then empowers you and justifies behaviors that are not always very attractive, and you can trace that actually, I think, and that's not work I've done, but others have and I think there is a real legacy here that needs more unpacking if we're really going to overturn those kinds of views.

Vincent Del Casino: I definitely see the legacies of colonial thinking here --

Dr. Mary A Papazian: Yes.

Vincent Del Casino: Which is what you're intimating at one level, and the aspirations of things. And what's so interesting, again, about this work that I see is there is this history and then there's this geography, which is the Reformation hits England, Renaissance hits England and it becomes Englicized, Anglicized some might say, and there's an Anglo-Catholic sort of milieu and then the Protestant Reformation. You talk about that struggle and over time and in comes Donne, so I want to tie all this in because Donne is like your entry point into this conversation. Why, and what is he doing in relation to all this stuff going on?

Dr. Mary A Papazian: Well, let me just start that my love of Donne really started with poetry itself. I mean, the language, it's not just words on a page. It's floral. It's rhythmic. It's metaphor. It's surprise. I mean, and if you delight in language, there's just a lot there. Just on that level, it's pretty incredible, but I will say this. What became really interesting to me as I learned more about the period and more about Donne as a writer and thinker and more about the impact of the Reformation on Donne's thinking is something that I think is really important.

We're living kind of post-the British Empire, if you will, right? The sun never sets on the British Empire, colonial traditions, and this was the time where there was great exploration. They were an outpost. The continent was where a lot of the ideas really were and you started to see the shift from the southern part of the continent, from Italy for example. You start to play out the Reformation, the break of Catholicism in central Europe. You know, you saw the ideas coming out of The Netherlands, and Donne was completely in tune with all of that, and so were many others, it's just that scholarship had been born out of that post-colonial mindset and so it limited the people saw it, so part of what I was interested in was really reconnecting and rebalancing that and getting out of that privileged perspective that it's England as the center.

Vincent Del Casino: So I want to go back to the paper now that you wrote on Artem Harutyunyan. So he's an Armenian poet, a modern-day Armenian poet, and you bring him into conversation with Milton, and you do so because, and I quote you, their poetry is born of war, suffering, and ultimately faith, and what's interesting about this in your reading of his Letter to Noah, right? -- Noah's ark, and other poems, that you're working back and forth and thinking about what he's saying in this modern context about these violences and what poetry can do for us but also the critical role that faith plays into some of this, so why did you get interested in this work and how did you think -- when did it go oh yeah, there's Milton there, you know, I could say something. Because you even acknowledge like well, I don't know, do you think the Milton comparison's really going to fly here? But there's something powerful there.

Dr. Mary A Papazian: My life grew up sort of on these two paths, what I would call my American kid path, being born, going to public schools, being interested in English, all of those kinds of things, but there was always from my earliest memories my Armenian path and I really didn't understand how they intersected. It's a lot more natural for my kids somehow, but for me in those days, I mean, this was the United States in the '60s and it really didn't understand ethnicity and it didn't really understand how one could come out of a tradition and culture and a history that wasn't the traditional U.S. melting pot, the sort of Anglo culture that was here, but it was always a part of me. It was how I grew up and it was complicated by the tragedy of Armenians.

My grandparents were on my father's side were survivors of the genocide. I cannot remember not being aware of the Armenian genocide. This was 1915 where 75% of the Armenian population in Ottoman Turkey was destroyed. The stories are gruesome. I grew up hearing those, seeing those. My parents were very involved in the Armenian monument council. I mean, I have so many memories of my childhood this way, but interestingly, because of my mother's side -- she's third-generation Armenian, third-generation Californian, actually. Her grandparents came to California, so they came a little bit earlier and she grew up in a family where her father spoke some Armenian. Her mother stopped speaking Armenian when she was five, and so she wasn't fluent. My dad of course grew up speaking Armenian. This is relevant to this.

And so he came to the United States as an 18 year old and he met my mom in college and she didn't really speak Armenian and understand it and in those days, they didn't believe you could teach a child more than one language, which is of course, nonsense, but that was America in the early '60s, right? And so we didn't learn it growing up. I learned it later as a second language from people who didn't know how to teach second languages, so I'd feel, you know, the culture and spirit of it, but I don't really have the language. There's always this tension. I was of it but not in it and as I matured in my profession, gaining my footing in my profession, it opened up the space to start to explore some of American literature and then Armenian literature in translation, and so part of the hesitancy there was Milton is just such a extraordinary and well-known poet. One should be humble in comparing anyone to Milton, but the vein that Harutyunyan was really tapping into was a similar vein. It was a very human dynamic. He's from Nagorno-Karabakh which is a place where we just actually had a follow-up war just earlier this year and they're still struggling with the aftermath of that, and so what I saw though was the same kind of dynamic, the same grasping. Milton had gone through war himself. He had struggled with faith, and if there was a way that one could help inform the other and help me interpret it and perhaps would tell that story to a broader audience, it seemed like something worth exploring.

Vincent Del Casino: We've been discussing historical trauma on our campus amongst our students, 400 years of oppression and so forth, and that's clearly articulated in the Armenian experience, and so when you think about historical trauma and what the kind of conversations we're having as communities today and our communities of color, how do you reflect on that back and forth? I imagine that's an interesting tension for you.

Dr. Mary A Papazian: I would say it this way. I'm very first empathetic about it. I understand it to be something real because I've experienced it in my own community and in my own life. I didn't use to understand it and I remember having this conversation with my husband about it and saying we have to remember that everybody of my parents' generation, people were always yelling at each other. I mean, there was a lot of fighting. There was a lot of emotion, emotional dysfunctional that was buried and that would cause people to act in ways that you think why are they doing this? I never really understood it really as a child, and as I got older, I started to understand this concept of intergenerational trauma. I began to realize that what we were seeing is a community's post traumatic stress. You simply can't have seen the things they saw and experienced the things they experienced, and you see this in any community that suffered trauma.

Same in the Jewish community in the post-holocaust era. You see it in, you know, Cambodian community or the South Asian community following those experiences. We certainly see it in our black community following the 400 years of intergenerational trauma. These are all real. They're palpable. They impact us in ways we don't even fully understand, and so when I see our students -- I mean, I think it's one of the reasons that I so appreciate being on a campus like ours, because know that context is there and we also understand that we need to surface it. We need to talk about it. We can't pretend it's not there, and we can't pretend that you can just say that was then, let's just look forward to the future. You can't look forward to the future without understanding the impact of the past, and this -- we can engage those conversations for our students in each of our communities and between all of our communities, I think we help each other think about how to move forward and to process some of these experiences.

Vincent Del Casino: So let me just say thank you for taking time. I must admit, I really enjoyed this conversation. I love the engagement you have with the scholarship that you've been interested in. It speaks to me to a lot of who you are and I can see it just how you think as an administrator is intimately tied to how you've thought as an academic your whole career so I really appreciate you taking the time out to sit and chat with me about this stuff.

Dr. Mary A Papazian: Thank you and I'm just so lucky to be here and to work with so many amazing people. It's a privilege and I'm really honored and thank you for reading the work. It's always nice to see the work resonate with someone.

Vincent Del Casino: Well, thanks for sharing it and again, I really appreciate the opportunity, so thanks so much.