Faculty & Staff News

Classical studies professor stirs the airwaves, UH community


Armstrong’s academic upbringing has set the tone for his career. | Ajani Stewart/ The Cougar

Richard Armstrong was in Virginia, sitting in his car, listening to the radio when he heard a five-minute segment on National Public Radio called “The Engines of Our Ingenuity.”

The feature caught Armstrong’s attention. He wondered about the broadcasting location. Then John Lienhard, the engineering professor running the show, said the University of Houston. 

That was the first time Armstrong had heard about UH. Now a professor and staple figure in the Honors College, his voice airs on the same program he heard years ago on NPR. 

“I think part of the work that we do as a university is to act like a sort of memory cell to allow this dialogue for the human species to continue,” Armstrong said.

During his childhoood in Michigan, Armstrong never visited Texas. He followed his passion for humanities to the University of Chicago, where most of his classmates were studying the sciences. He earned his master’s and doctorate at Yale University.

Armstrong recalled his experience at the University of Chicago was demanding but integrated. Undergraduates there were required to spend a year in each division including the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

The requirement helped Armstrong build a sense of how those fields are interconnected.

“During discussion sections, he effectively combined humor, audacious commentary and personal narratives to draw the class even deeper into antiquity and encourage us to formulate our own views of the world around us,” said Victor Yau, Armstrong’s former student.

Armstrong followed his passion for antiquity and translation studies when he became a professor of classical studies and classical and modern languages at UH in 1995.  Throughout his academic career, he has learned to speak Latin, Greek, Biblical Hebrew, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Provencal, Catalan and a few more languages.

“I’m a third-generation academic, so it’s the family business,” Armstrong said. “My grandfather was a professor of speech and dean at Northwestern University, and my father was a professor of education at Western Michigan University.”

Outstanding mentor

After 21 years of teaching, Armstrong has taken on other responsibilities. He recently became the coordinator of international studies, which works to get students in study abroad programs through competitive scholarships.

Armstrong said that the administrative role came with the territory of working in the classical department for so long because of all the study abroad opportunities the department offers.

“Dr. Armstrong’s encouragement and personal mentorship culminated in me winning three fully-funded intensive language study abroad opportunities through the Critical Language Scholarship, Houston Scholars Fellowship and Boren Scholarship during my first two undergraduate years,” Yau said.

Aside from his administrative duties, Armstrong values his role as a mentor for both students and new professors. He said he relies on his past experience to look at both sides of an argument and has no trouble relating to their pains.

For this reason, Armstrong does a lot of mentoring.

“I’ve been at different levels of the faculty, which is one of the reasons why I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for what it’s like to be non-tenured track faculty,” Armstrong said.

Jonathan Zecher, a professor in the Honors College, said Armstrong was his favorite colleague. Armstrong mentored Zecher when he started teaching at UH and still continues to.

“Something that stands out about Richard Armstrong is his integrity,” Zecher said. “As a colleague, when he promises that he’ll do something he does it and he brings a lot of creativity to projects.”

Armstrong also shares his knowledge of antiquity with the rest of the Houston community and other communities in the nation by working on “The Engines of Our Ingenuity.”

Armstrong laughed as he recalls how he first heard about UH. In 2006, John Lienhard had a few questions for one of the program’s episodes and got referred to Armstrong. Lienhard liked what he contributed, Armstrong said, and asked him to be a guest contributor.

Armstrong still broadcasts and said that, as someone who is impressed with the program, he is honored to be involved with “The Engines of Our Ingenuity.”

A ‘joy’ on air

“The Engines of Our Ingenuity” airs on News 88.7, which is licensed by UH and is produced by Houston Public Media. Lienhard created the program in 1988 with the purpose of educating by having guest contributors discuss their fields of study.

The program is syndicated nationally on NPR and “tells the story of how our culture is formed by human creativity.”

“Each episode is the work of the person you hear voicing it on the radio,” said Paul Pendergraft, the former producer for “The Engines of Our Ingenuity.” “They determine the subject and create the essay.”

Each essayist who is writing for the program creates and edits their own piece. Lienhard also wanted the writer to voice the feature to give the essay a more organic feel and keep the intent genuine.

Lienhard is retired, but “The Engines of Our Ingenuity” now has more than 3,000 broadcasts. Armstrong has contributed more than 40 radio features, and the latest one was aired in August.

“John (Lienhard) once told me, ‘You’ll get sick of it before it gets sick of you,’” Armstrong said. “You’ll have to decide when enough is enough because there is a sort of endless need for that content.”

Pendergraft said that Armstorng’s essays blended his knowledge with his gifted writing style, which gives them the feel of a personal story rather than a simple essay. The majority of Armstrong’s features tie classics and modernity with topics about antiquity, history and architecture.

“I must say it was a total joy working with him,” Pendergraft said.  “His scripts were always cleverly written and well-supported with interesting and factual details.”

Pendergraft said that Armstrong does a flawless job at using his academic credentials and life experience to highlight culture and creativity, which is the purpose of the broadcast.

Armstrong chalked up his love for his career to his quality interactions with students and colleagues.

“At every level of my job, I have quality interactions with people,” Armstrong said. “If you’re simply very, very happy with your interaction with people, that really does color the quality of the rest of your days.”

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