In conversation with Hakob Barseghyan

The well-accomplished HPS professor speaks of his teaching manners and values
TA's Nick Overgaard, Felix Walpole, Greg Rupik, join Professor Hakob at the ASSU Annual Awards. PHOTO COURTESY OF GAVIN NOWLAN
TA's Nick Overgaard, Felix Walpole, Greg Rupik, join Professor Hakob at the ASSU Annual Awards. PHOTO COURTESY OF GAVIN NOWLAN

Hakob Barseghyan is the University of Toronto’s most recent recipient of the Rini Ghosh Excellence in Teaching Award, a prestigious accolade given out annually to a faculty member by the Arts & Science Students’ Union. He is an intellectual, thoughtful, and caring assistant professor, who is passionately involved in one of the University’s most unique departments: the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IPHST).

Barseghyan completed a BA, an MA, and a PhD in Philosophy at Yerevan State University (YSU) in Armenia. In addition to those degrees, he holds a BS in Computer Science from Northern University, Armenia, plus another MA in Philosophy and a PhD in Philosophy of Science from U of T.

He currently instructs three undergraduate courses — including Introduction History and Philosophy of Science, the largest online course offered at UTSG — and one graduate course. In our interview with the star prof, Barseghyan touched on his principles as a professor, provided background of the IPHST, and reflected on the life of U of T students in general.

The Varsity: How did you begin your involvement in studying and working for the IHPST?

Hakob Barseghyan: As a freshman, I hated philosophy: I found the concepts too vacuous and the discussions too abstract to be of any practical value. It all changed in my third year when I took a course on German Idealism with professor Levon-Harutyun Abrahamyan, who could make Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel seem easy to digest! He used simple diagrams to explain complex debates, and my programmer’s brain couldn’t fail to like that.

By my final year, I was convinced that philosophy was the most interesting subject of all. I then began applying the same technique of diagrams to all philosophical problems and soon discovered that I genuinely enjoyed teaching. After I taught my first course at the age of 22, I knew it was for life.

I completed my first PhD at YSU, Armenia and taught there for five years before moving to Canada in 2006… I got my current contract with the IHPST in 2012.

Many people helped me on this path, but I simply wouldn’t be here if not for Brian Baigrie, Jim Brown, Paul Thompson, Chris Doyle, as well as my fantastic family whose support has been unparalleled.

TV: Where can a major/minor in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (HPS) take students?  Why should students consider studying HPS? 

HB: People don’t always realize this, but there are many crucial positions in today’s society that can be properly filled only by those who know their HPS. Consider a person in a grant agency who needs to decide whether a project is scientific and, if it is, whether it is promising enough to deserve funding. I cannot imagine how she could even begin to approach this task, without a proper knowledge of what science is and how it changes through time.

[pullquote-default]Let us agree that riding a bicycle is one thing, knowing what makes it stay erect is quite another.
The same goes for education policy makers, encyclopaedia editors, science journalists, and popularizers, science lobbyists, and research ethics advisors. In many cases, these positions are occupied by actual scientists, but they shouldn’t be. Let us agree that riding a bicycle is one thing, knowing what makes it stay erect is quite another. Similarly, being a great scientist doesn’t necessarily imply the knowledge of how science works and how it evolves through time. After all, birds themselves are usually not the best experts on ornithology, are they?

TV: You are very highly regarded in the HPS department and have been acknowledged as such by winning the Rini Ghosh award. How do you approach teaching in the university setting?

HB: I came to appreciate very early on that, in teaching, no detail is too small to be neglected. The quality of your slideshows, the focus of your tutorial activities, the ambience of the auditorium where you teach, and even the colour of the shirts you wear — nothing can be left to chance. You may think I am crazy, but when I see two textboxes on the screen that are differently shaped, are not properly aligned, or use different fonts, I simply cannot focus on the content of the presentation; all I want to do is to stop the speaker, open that PowerPoint file and fix the slide!

Also, as a former computer programmer, I cannot help but think in diagrams and charts. Some people think in text, but for me text is only a means of explicating a diagram. My students know that there are three things that they need to understand concerning any topic: the question at issue, the ‘problem’; the possible solutions, ‘conceptions’; and the main reasons for and against these conceptions. That is why my lectures are full of problem-conceptions-reasons diagrams. Crucially, these diagrams are not secondary to the text.

Quite the opposite: everything I say in my lectures is ultimately an explanation of one diagram or another. Students love this approach for — unlike a more traditional wall-of-text approach — this gives them a sense of accomplishment, and they genuinely feel that they have learnt something. This ensures both clarity of thinking and clarity of teaching. In my book, the two are intrinsically linked: if you cannot explain an idea to a smart undergrad, then perhaps you don’t quite understand that idea yourself. Yes, there are exceptions, but this should be the general rule.

TV: As a professor in U of T’s IHPST, can you comment on the department’s strengths and areas for future growth?

HB: One clear benefit is our flexibility as a team and our mutual support. Thus, a few years ago we decided to expand our undergraduate presence by increasing the course caps and offering new HPS courses; as a result of our collective effort, we’ve doubled our enrolment in only four years! And this is when most humanities departments are struggling to maintain their current enrolment levels. Similarly, when it was decided that the IHPST needs an online course, my team and I received all the support one could ask for.

But large projects require large resources, and recently we have been stretching ourselves very thin. To give you an example, at one point, a colleague of mine had to simultaneously supervise seven PhD dissertations! While there might be other departments with such heroics, I believe this should not become the normal practice. I very much hope that our progress will be noted and we will be given additional resources — human and otherwise — so we can do well what we’re now in a prime position to do.

TV: What are some of the challenges facing the field of HPS today?

HB: Strictly speaking, these days HPS is mostly an umbrella term: history of science and philosophy of science inhabit quite different worlds. A vast majority of all projects sold as HPS are either HS or PS. This separation has a long and sad history. Unfortunately, there is little agreement among historians and philosophers as to how and even why HPS should be reunited.

One possible recipe is the general descriptive theory of scientific change developed at the IHPST. Based on the findings of the history of science, this theory explains how theories and methods change through time in a lawful fashion. Simultaneously, it provides the historians with a unified taxonomy, necessary explanatory tools, and guidance in historical research.

This can be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between historians and theoreticians of science. I hope that eventually it will lead to the creation of a unified historical database, which will collect the data on different epistemic communities, their theories, and methods.

[pullquote-features]Try not to confine yourself within the narrow box of your specific field, but learn to think systematically and critically about the big picture.
TV: Regardless of academic discipline, what advice can you give to U of T students today?

HB: Working with the U of T students has been a true blessing. A vast majority of our students are very smart and diligent, so they don’t need extensive guidance. There is only one thing I would advise: try not to confine yourself within the narrow box of your specific field, but learn to think systematically and critically about the big picture.

Why is this important? You see, we are meant to be citizens first and professionals second. To be a proper citizen, one cannot live in a timeless bubble with no history or morality, in which income is the only criterion of success; one needs some knowledge of the history of humanity and its current global issues. To gain that vital knowledge, one should take courses in general history, ethics, social philosophy, and, of course, HPS.

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