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IN THE STASIS CHAMBER: The terminal decline of Modern Greek Studies

In the building hopefully accompanying these words, over the course of three years, Anna Chatzinikolaou, lecturer in Modern Greek Studies at Melbourne University, changed my life and that of all my classmates, forever.

Through her, we learned that Modern Greek was not just the conjugation of verbs in a plethora of tenses, nor was it an arcane field of study with little relevance to the modern world, but rather, a singular stance and perspective on life itself and we were infused and enthused with her devotion to it.

Entering her bolt-hole of an office, crammed with stacks of books that appeared as if they were ready to topple over her and us, enveloping us with their words, we could not tell whether she or those tomes, formed the underlying, fundamental state or substance that supported all of her reality.

Anna Chatzinikolaou taught us to accept nothing, think critically, engage in microscopically close reading with the precision of a demented Nordic surgeon but to embrace everything, «για εύλογους λόγους», as she used to quip with an enigmatic grin. This is the reason why instead of indulging in the usual pursuits that absorb the attention of newly emancipated university students, we could be found huddled together between lectures, deconstructing Eggonopoulos’ surrealist masterpiece “Bolivar,” and trying to make sense of his cryptic expostulation: «Μπολιβάρ, είσαι ωραίος σαν Έλληνας», reciting Ritsos’ “Moonlight Sonata” in the most stentorian tones possible or attempting to write an absurd play in the style of Giorgos Skourtis’ «Οι Νταντάδες».

Always animated, always ready to give of herself and share her knowledge, Anna was and remains, the guardian angel of Greek letters in Melbourne. When non-Greek students studying Greek who had won scholarships to study in Greece could not afford the airfare, she would pay those fares out of her own pocket. Unlike some other Greek “academics” who viewed their vocation as a source of profit, Anna’s approach to her profession was imbued with conviction and she gave selflessly of herself.

Some of her students reciprocated by singing songs under her window seeking lyrical extensions for assignments. Others, by inducting her into their homes and hearts. The fact remains that at least two generations of Modern Greek tertiary students emerged from her capable hands, ready and able to engage with the Hellenic World. Many of those have made lasting contributions to the Greek community and the broader Greek world.

In a society that worships the new and makes a cult of the now, in a Greek-Melbournian community that has effectively abandoned its erstwhile conviction in the principal of quality Greek language tertiary education, in favour of gimmicks, stunts and slogans, it is easy to forget people like Anna.

But we should not. Without people like Anna, our community, even in its decline, would undoubtedly not be a tenth of what it is. Nor would we, her many students. It is the height of folly that we have living among us, such gifted individuals and, in the self-satisfied torpidity of our community’s winter, are unable, unwilling or indifferent to harnessing their powers for our benefit.

In the Deisis Iconostasis of Greek tertiary education, on the left-hand side, sits Anna Chatzinikolaou, holding in her arms, her students. On the right, sits Professor Vrasidas Karalis, wearing a hair shirt and yelling: «Μετανοείτε», to the ingrates who have forgοtten or do not appreciate their invaluable contributions to our life and learning. This is because, for all of my effusiveness, I did not go on to engage in post-graduate studies in Modern Greek. Granted, I poured all my love and passion into the study of the subject, even attending lectures after the completion of my degree, but I did so from having the privilege of studying a double degree, and I commenced my professional career in the law immediately after my graduation.

For all their genuine love for Modern Greek, none of my classmates went on to higher studies in the field, except for the stalwart Steffie Nikoloudis who is now charged with steering the LaTrobe Modern Greek Language Programme through troubled waters with singular success. While some went on to become distinguished academics in other fields, the general consensus was that while life-changing, one could not make a viable living as a scholar of Modern Greek, all the tertiary teaching positions being largely taken with limited scope for further study. There existed no scholarships or bursaries or foundations (except for one whose collapse was spectacular) which could support a new graduate while undertaking research and within our own community, one which prided itself when I first entered university on having Modern Greek taught at five of the state’s tertiary institutions, there seemed to have been little thought given to the viability of the programmes it had fought so hard in the seventies to introduce, or indeed their relevance to Greek-Australians in general.

Considering that most of us do not have the luxury of engaging in tertiary study purely for pleasure, it is not unreasonable to assume that students will choose a field of study that will actually facilitate earning them a decent living, rather than occupying the deepest darkest recesses of the Retreat, pining over the demise of Apodimi Kompania and the manner in which the Athens Polytechnic Generation sold out, while seeking a life partner whose father was a successful builder and owned a number of investment properties in Malvern East.

When I first entered university in the mid-nineties, like many other Greek-Melbournians, I had previously chosen to study Modern Greek in years 11 and 12. The work was challenging, as it was assumed that we had a proficiency in the language but many who would otherwise not have chosen the subject did so because it was widely known that credits existed for the language that would enabled one to boost their tertiary entrance rank. These incentives no longer confer advantage to such extent, and most community secondary education facilities have by and large failed in the task of having their students achieve a standard of Modern Greek sufficient for them to undertake academic studies in the field, even if a future for them existed in it. Thus, there is limited opportunity for secondary educational institutions to feed students into Modern Greek studies programmes to any meaningful extent, especially considering that less than two hundred students studied the language at VCE level in Victoria in 2023.

For reasons pertinent or not, we as a community, have turned our backs on the Modern Greek language and for all our bluff and bluster, can conceive no practical use in its academic study. is axiomatic that administrators of tertiary institutions would eventually realise this and in a field where education is business, seek opportunities for profit elsewhere. If anything, we should marvel that we lasted this long, in no small part due to the superhuman efforts of visionaries such as Anna Chatzinikolaou and others like her.

Dr Patricia Koromvokis, Lecturer in the Modern Greek Studies Program at Macquarie University is another such visionary. One can read with interest about her work in developing and implementing impactful initiatives and international collaborations that showcase innovation in the field of humanities, teamwork, critical thinking, and effective communication skills with various stakeholders to promote the role of the Greek language in the diaspora and to build long-lasting academic bridges between Greece and Australia. Or one can feel, in the timbre of her voice and her intense gaze when she talks about her students just how passionately, how fervently she loves the Modern Greek Language. Dr Koromvokis’ work up until now, especially her superhuman efforts to stop the inevitable and to make lasting contributions to the development of her students has been supported by a community Foundation, but even that has not been sufficient to deter Macquarie University from announcing that the programme, along with the teaching of Italian, Russian (the language of a world power) and Croatian will be discontinued.

There is no point lamenting over the demise of something we have no use for. Our modus operandi in this regard is pitifully always the same: Rally around each other, engage in intense lobbying in order to save any given Modern Greek Studies programme, and then, having achieved a temporary stay of execution, publish a photo of the main protagonists in the local media, and promptly forget all about it, until the next crisis. As successful capitalists, some of us may even turn our hand at funding the maintenance of collections of archives, holy relics of Greek programmes long gone, and which no one ever studies, for the prestige this confers upon us. What we seem to desire then, is not a vibrant, dynamic academic component to our community, but rather a form of stasis, with Modern Greek studies arrested just before the point of death, in the hope that at some time in the future, the knowledge will exist to thaw it out and cure it of its ills, whilst we wear its existence, after Brezhnev, as a medal upon a moribund uniform and promote it as an community achievement.

Let us honour and remember the contributions of our academic luminaries who raised our expectations and excited our aspirations. Let us lament the demise of Modern Greek from Macquarie and wherever else it is scheduled to expire. The certainties of the world in which it was possible to entrench Modern Greek within the Australian tertiary sphere no longer exist. Instead, considering that the generations that will come after us will possibly not have the opportunities that we foolishly took for granted, let us engage in true debate and soul-searching as we explore collaborations and seek alternate ways to support students passionate about the Modern Greek language and culture in Australia.

If, at least, that is what we truly want.

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