Remembering Haig Bosmajian, 35-year professor of speech communication
While colleagues may describe Haig Bosmajian (1928-2014) as one who mostly kept to himself, his former students expressed that he was engaging, approachable, and “the best teacher I ever had.”
Bosmajian lost his battle to prostate cancer on June 17, 2014. He was a Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Washington for 35 years from 1964 to 1999. Receiving his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, Bosmajian went on to earn his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1960, aided by the GI Bill after his tour of duty in Korea. Born into an Armenian family who owned a vineyard in Fresno, California, Haig was the first family member to graduate from college.
It was the University of California’s speech and rhetoric program at the time that introduced Bosmajian to the uses and abuses of rhetoric in the art of persuasion, especially in the context of social movements in a mass society.
Although members of his family had been victims of the genocidal pogroms and policies against Armenians from the late 19th century to 1915, family members did not talk about them. This is most likely the reason Haig became aware of universal ways used to attack groups labeled as “the Other,” said Hamida Bosmajian, Haig’s wife of 57 years and Professor Emerita at Seattle University’s Department of English.
Haig’s doctoral dissertation focused on the uses of rhetoric and propaganda in the Nazi speaker system in Germany. This work put him at the forefront of scholars who recognized that the use of dehumanizing language can have life destroying results – a topic that stayed with him throughout his whole career in one way or another.
In one of his most popular classes, the Rhetoric of Social Movements, Bosmajian taught how rhetoric and propaganda strategies are used, for worse or better. The course included Nazism, but also analyzed the strategies used by the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s movement.
Not knowing what he wanted to major in or do after college, Kevin Coe (B.A., 2002; M.A., 2004), now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, stumbled upon Haig’s class as a sophomore. He said the class helped solidify in his mind that he wanted to go to grad school and study public discourse, which is exactly what he did.
“I just thought the title sounded interesting, but I ended up learning a ton about the role that speeches and other forms of communication played in major social movements – for good (civil rights) and ill (Nazism),” Coe said. “I realized then that I loved thinking about and trying to understand the power of words; I still do. I ended up reading Dr. Bosmajian’s book ‘The Language of Oppression’ just for fun and still cite it in my own scholarship to this day.”
As a testament to Bosmajian’s long career, Coe added that his mother (B.A., 1969) also took a class from Bosmajian. While some may have shied away from teaching about movements in the rebellious era of the 60s, Hamida said it was “an amazing time to begin his career because of the social unrest.”
“Red Square was a meadow back then and the grass behind Parrington Hall was called ‘Hippie Hill’,” she said. “Vietnam demonstrators would come down the quad and then there was Stephanie Coontz blocking the freeway. That was our dinnertime conversation and our son grew up listening to those stories.”
Although Haig’s classes always filled up quickly, one year in the 60s students protested his “Parliamentary Procedure” class by burning the textbook on the steps of Parrington Hall. He didn’t teach it that year, but it remained a favorite for many years.
“If a teacher can make parliamentary procedure interesting, he is a star. Professor Bosmajian made parliamentary procedure fascinating,” said Maggie Fimia (B.A., 1989), a member of the Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame who worked in government for many years following graduation. “He gave me a grounding for what I was going to be doing next in my life.”
Fimia said, as an older undergraduate student it was crucial for her to take classes that were relevant and she could see that what Bosmajian was telling her connected to the problems in society. As an engaging, prepared, and never dominating teacher, Fimia said that Bosmajian may have been serious, but that was because he saw the damage that evil rhetoric can do.
“He was passionate, but polite. He was serious, but also could be light,” she said. “He was a teacher, but he allowed us to learn the material. He didn’t just try to fill our brains with information; he wanted us to discover it by showing us, not telling us.”
Fimia said she would not have had the courage, knowledge, or skills to do any of what she did after college without Bosmajian’s classes. His teachings also transcended multiple interests. Evelyn Ho (B.A., 1997), now an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Francisco, said that although she didn’t become a professional parliamentarian, she learned the power of turning a class over to the whims of the students while maintaining learning goals.
“Professor Bosmajian stood out to me as a professor because he was very smart, extremely justice oriented, and honestly a bit difficult to get to know,” Ho said. “In the Speech Communication Department as it was then, he was definitely not the touchiest-feeliest of the faculty, however, his classes were top notch and I made it my goal to learn everything I could from him.”
Ho took all of the classes Bosmajian offered and even managed to convince him to advise an independent study. She found that if students showed dedication and interest in the topic, he was more willing to share his wealth of knowledge and generosity.
“I’m very sad to hear of his passing, but thankful for the many thousands of students who now know more about free speech, the law, and communication,” Ho said.
Beyond students, Bosmajian touched the lives of professors he worked with as well. Professor Leah Ceccarelli always felt a certain affinity to Bosmajian as a fellow rhetorician of Armenian decent and also born in the Central Valley of California. She said his greatest influence on her was the way he modeled productive scholarship.
“Long after he retired, I would experience Haig sightings in the library or on the way to the library, as he continued to work on his writing projects,” she said. “Driven to contribute to the scholarly record, he saw one of his books published the year he retired, and two more after retirement. Most of us would be proud to publish that many books in a whole career. That he would do so at a stage of life when most people slow down and relax is remarkable.”
His last book, “Anita Whitney, Louis Brandeis, and the First Amendment,” bears witness to his life-long commitment to our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Though Bosmajian was pleased to receive many professional recognitions for his published scholarship, his need for privacy was deep. According to Hamida, he never expressed any wish for ceremony or memorial service to celebrate his life. Respecting this and wanting to make a statement, nevertheless, Hamida and son Harlan Bosmajian decided that it would be best to celebrate the memory of Haig with a bench.
Two days after Haig’s death, Hamida and Harlan, who teaches cinematography at Emerson College in Boston, were walking around the UW campus to revisit Haig’s old stomping grounds. Raitt Hall was the main spot, where Haig had an office for 25 years with a view of the quad.
“He loved it – it was his space,” she said. “Especially during cherry blossom time and watching the joy people had under the cherry trees, the various events, and the relation of humanity in spring.”
While continuing their stroll, they noticed that the walkway lined with three benches had a big empty space for another – one that would have been in Haig’s direct visual line from his office.
“The idea there is that, first of all, it’s in his favorite spot. Secondly, for a man that I would say was not too social and was in many ways a loner, this bench is an invitation to come and enjoy the scene. Have grandparents watch grandchildren, have lovers sit together, and students study on the bench to display the flow of humanity,” Hamida said with tears in her eyes. “And I think the bench, in terms of ‘for the people,’ would be the most meaningful gift we can give him.”
To read Haig’s obituary in the Seattle Times, click here.