Professor Khachig Tölölyan immigrated to the US with his entire family from Beirut, Lebanon when he was 16 years old. A member of the Armenian Diaspora, Tölölyan is connected with communities throughout the world, one of them being the community at Wesleyan, where Tölölyan has worked for 34 years since finishing graduate school in 1974. Tölölyan’s tenure at the University has given him a panoramic view of the University and of the way it has changed over time.
The child of Armenian refugees from Turkey, Tölölyan comes from a history of persecution. His parents fled Turkey to northern Syria, where Tölölyan was born. He continued to move with his family, first to Cairo, Egypt and then to Lebanon, Beirut, and finally to Watertown, Massachusetts. Despite having lived and worked in the US for the entirety of his adult life, Tölölyan keeps in close contact with the other scattered Armenian communities throughout the world. He visits the Armenian community in Paris annually, for example, and has connections with the intellectual and professorial class in Armenia, along with some political ties.
Despite Tölölyan’s strong connection to the Armenian Diaspora, he has no desire to return to the Middle East.
“The Middle East I knew no longer exists,” he explained. “There have been so many problems, changes, wars, revolutions—that world changed very fast. Frankly, I have no interest in going back.”
Tölölyan explains that places of his childhood like Beirut have changed unrecognizably, and he does not feel optimistic about the fate of the Middle East in the days to come.
“The Middle East is first of all not a place that can decide its own fate,” Tölölyan said. “What happens in the Middle East is decided as much in places like the United States as it is in the Middle East itself. There are too many cooks, and too many cooks who are trying to cook different dishes.”
Tölölyan’s experience throughout the Middle East and as a member of the Armenian Diaspora has attracted him to the study of diasporas in general, which his personal research and preoccupations center around. Although he received his undergraduate degree in molecular biology from Harvard, Tölölyan’s focus is comparative literature. Initially hired at Wesleyan through the English Department, Tölölyan three years ago transferred to the College of Letters, where he teaches courses that are more specifically focused on his area of training. He has taught subjects ranging from Homer and the Old Testament to Virgil and the New Testament.
Over the years, he has also held visiting professorships at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and at the University of Johns Hopkins. He has also taken sabbaticals at Brown University.
“My experience as a member of the Armenian Diaspora has prepared me not just intellectually, but in a gut way to know what it’s like to live in one place but to care about two places at once,” Tölölyan said.
Despite commonly held perceptions, Tölölyan believes that in many crucial ways, the University has stayed the same. He feels that aspects in which the University has changed are largely due to national trends manifested across the elite schools of the country and are not necessarily specific to Wesleyan alone.
“I think Wesleyan still selectively attracts kids from certain parts of the country with certain shared convictions about life, that hasn’t changed very much,” Tölölyan said. “It’s true that there’s a little more anxiety than there used to be, but that’s probably the case across most of America.”
He also addressed the University’s past reputations, noting that drug use, for example, was no different here than at any other University.
“People think of Wesleyan as the drug capital of America or something,” Tölölyan said.
“I’d always find it very strange that the drug lure was heavy here—are there no other campuses across the United States where there are drugs?”
Tölölyan did, however, mention two specific changes in the student body that he’s noticed over time. First, he remembers a world before laptops and cell phones from when he began teaching. Second, he remembers the political climate on campus, and how it has changed.
“Wesleyan above all has had left wing politics of a serious sort, of a really serious sort, and that’s largely disappeared.”
As for the University’s students, Tölölyan explained that over the years, he has noticed that the excitement freshmen feel as they enter their first year often mirrors the excitement and privilege they feel as they leave the University their senior year. He also addressed, however, the positive and negative qualities of student work ethic.
“[Students], in good and bad ways, tend to be less neurotically intense about competition than their peers elsewhere,” Tölölyan said. “The bad part of that is that characteristically Wesleyan students who are clearly smart and able have the tendency to flake out when the work gets difficult. Many of my good students have more ambition than a willingness to work really hard.”
He explained that from his own experience, the balance between work and “partying” is often difficult to negotiate, even for Wesleyan students.
“I have many students who are smart and ambitious but who start partying too hard on Thursdays. On the other hand, they don’t have the neurotic, Nazi-like intensity you find in some places. What the perfect balance is, that’s very hard to say. It’s not like there are whole colleges where that can be determined, it’s up to an individual.”
Tölölyan also has specific opinions about the nature of the University today. He tries to take advantage of what he considers to be an expansive and unique art scene on campus. He explains that the opportunities offered by the University in theater, photography, the visual arts, music and creative writing are extremely valuable, and urges students to take advantage of them.
“There are places like Oberlin, for example, where music is king, but the richness and span of the arts in those places is not the same as it is at Wesleyan,” Tölölyan said.
“There is more richness here than there is in many otherwise similar undergraduate campuses.”