Celebrating 50 years of Modern Greek at Sydney University

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Current and former academics, students, and friends and supporters of the Department of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies of the University of Sydney gathered on 14 April 2024 to celebrate a truly momentous occasion, the 50th anniversary of the faculty.

The reception, held at the modernist Chau Chak Wing Museum under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney, was both entertaining and informative as the audience heard from a number of distinguished speakers about the history of the discipline department, its past and present achievements in teaching and research, as well as what the future holds for Modern Greek language studies.

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Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney (image credit: TimeOut)

The Chair of the Greek Festival of Sydney, Nia Karteris, opened the proceedings by reiterating that the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW is committed to the promotion of the Greek language and its culture and will continue to encourage students to take up the study of Modern Greek.

The Greek Consul-General to Sydney, Ioannis Mallikourtis, a passionate advocate for the teaching of the Greek language in the diaspora, acknowledged the immense contribution of the Department of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies as a centre of excellence which has placed the University of Sydney in the elite of tertiary institutions around the world.

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Greek Consul-General in Sydney, Ioannis Mallikourtis (image credit: Vasilis Vasilas)

Mr Mallikourtis noted that department was established by a prominent Kytherian benefactor, Sir Nicholas Laurantus, after he first floated a proposal in 1968 for the establishment of an endowed chair for Modern Greek at the University of Sydney.

Nicholas Laurantus, was a poor immigrant who made good through sheer hard work and determination.  Later knighted for his benevolent work, Laurantus was concerned that unless steps were taken second and third generation Greeks would lose the language and not recognise their own culture.

As his biographer, Jean Michaelides, wrote:

“It was essential, he felt, that a love of the Greek language and Greek history should be fostered in the children of migrants who, being themselves almost totally absorbed in the struggle for survival, barely remembered it. British Australians, he had noticed, had little interest in any other language or culture. Modern Greek, he said emphatically, will die out completely unless we do something about it in this country.”

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Sir Nicholas Laurantus (image credit: Kythera Family Net)

To that end, Laurantus decided to work towards establishing a Chair of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney which would not only raise the status of the Greek language in the eyes of Australians but will also result in a continuing supply of teachers of Modern Greek so that the state education authorities would have no excuse but to include Modern Greek in the school curriculum.

He ended up gifting $100,000 directly to the University.  By 1976 the combined donations of Sir Nicholas and the Greek community had produced over $280,000, considerably more than the $250,000 required to establish the chair.

The next speaker, Dr Alfred Vincent, described how the position of Professor of  Modern Greek was advertised overseas hoping to entice a Greek academic to apply but the response was discouraging.  Eventually the University  decided to appoint a lecturer and, in his words, Dr Vincent, then a young English linguist and Greek scholar, was “lucky” to be appointed after applying for the post.  He arrived in Sydney in 1973 and commenced the course in 1974.

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Dr Alfred Vincent

Dr Alfred Vincent, who led the Department of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney before retirement, started with an anecdote about “Uncle Nick” (as Sir Nicholas Laurantus was affectionately known).  The reclusive millionaire was once asked why he was funding Modern Greek and not Ancient  Greek to which he promptly replied that Classical is out of the question because it was “too damn difficult”.

It would appear Sir Nicholas Laurantus was initially cautious about the appointment of a non-Greek to head the department but came to appreciate Alfred Vincent’s work and acknowledged that it was important to have a good Greek scholar.  And how right he was.

Dr Vincent explained that the language course was supplemented by themes including Greek literature, Modern Greek history, Greek music, the history of migration, shadow puppet theatre and modern Greek art.  There were other classes held in Byzantine Art and Byzantine civilisation.

Dr Alfred Vincent has written and lectured on a wide-ranging array of topics, including the glories of Byzantium, Crete during the Venetian occupation, Greek verse, Greek theatre and much more.  His intellectual versatility and engaging style, even after his retirement, is a mark of his incredible scholarship.

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However, Dr Vincent also took the opportunity to make some salient points about the future of language teaching in Australia which he described as being in a “state of crisis”.

Modern Greek enrolments at High School certificate level have plummeted and other University programs are under threat.  Unfortunately, Australian society is not convinced of the value of a second or third language.  To arrest this decline, he urged that language teaching and learning must be supported.

At the same time, new ideas are required to enhance the Greek language experience, such as encouraging interest in Greek theatre and Greek arts and crafts.  Dr Vincent also lauded cultural events such as the Greek Festival of Sydney which, in his words, has an important role to play in any future revival of Modern Greek.

And finally, the revered academic reminded his audience that in order to ensure the supply of high-quality teachers we also need scholarships for students to study abroad in Greek institutions.

Dr Panayota Nazou taught Greek language and culture, Greek film and sociolinguistics studies in the Greek diaspora for more than 40 years at the University of Sydney and is the longest serving member of the Modern Greek Studies Department.

Now an Honorary Research Associate at the University, Dr Nazou stressed the importance of the Greek language and based on her experiences pointedly remarked that any analysis needs to consider where we were; where we are now, and, most importantly, where are we going?

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Dr Panayota Nazou

She explained with a sly grin that when she first arrived at Sydney University to study mathematics and computer science, her lecturer in Modern Greek was an Englishman!  As events transpired, Dr Nazou excelled in Greek and the rest is history.

Dr Nazou reflected on developments at Sydney University and lamented the fact that there was no formal documentation of the establishment of the Chair of Modern Greek and that doubts had emerged over funding of Modern Greek and the bequest by the reclusive Sir Nicholas.

A former president of the Sydney University Greek Society (SUGS), Andrew Thanos, started by offering a cautionary tale that we should all be alarmed because of changes in attitude to the teaching of languages.

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Andrew Thanos

For Andrew, Modern Greek is our language.  It had enriched his university experience and a huge debt of gratitude is owed to the academic staff for challenging their students to make them engage in critical thinking and to expand their intellectual horizons.

In fact, the introduction of Modern Greek at the University had “ignited a cultural renaissance”

In conclusion, Andrew Thanos took aim at the rise of artificial intelligence and online translation apps and in posing the question whether learning a language may now be redundant because of AI, Andrew was emphatic: there is a beauty in language – a “dreamscape” - which artificial intelligence can never replicate.

These sentiments were echoed by another alumni, Joyce Kolevris, who declared that choosing modern Greek was one of the best choices she had ever made because, as she put it, “it challenges our own identity”.

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Joyce Kolevris

Ms Kolevris recounted the intellectual stimulation of debating feminism and other topics in Tony Drakopoulos’ classes, or how classes with “Vras” (as Dr Karalis is referred to by his students) were always creative because “he lectures ... he performs”.  In learning about Greek cinema, for example, students found that Greek language and culture are interwoven and offer values for the past, the present and the future.

Joyce also praised Dr Nazou, a trusted lecturer, who taught her students how to translate Modern Greek text with precise cultural concepts in mind.

Associate Professor Anthony Dracopoulos, the Chair of the Discipline of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, gave an impassioned speech about the discipline of Modern Greek at Sydney University and the challenges it faces.   Over the last decade it has had to deal with reduced student demand, loss of staffing and a hostile scaling in the HSC which is punitive for community languages.

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Assoc. Professor Anthony Dracopoulos

But, according to Professor Dracopoulos, it is also a rapidly changing landscape.  Language learning is in essence the beginning of a journey of understanding the other, of understanding our own being and developing empathy towards others.

We need to connect with our roots, our heritage and our background since "language constructs reality".   In asking how have Greeks constructed their own reality, Anthony reminded his audience of the famous line by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley that “we are all Greeks” because Greek writers inform our understanding of the human condition.

Professor Dracopolous also observed that Modern Greek at Sydney University is the only language department in Australia with an endowed Chair.  It may be a small discipline but it offers a “lean but smart curriculum” that is cost-effective but has not been compromised.

The faculty has broadened the range of topics, including modern Greek, poetry, history, cinema, politics, arts, Byzantium and memories in the diaspora.  It incorporates cultural studies and in 2025 it is hoped to start a summer school in Greece in cooperation with the University of Crete.

In conclusion, Professor Dracopoulos defiantly proclaimed:

“I’m confident that the Nicholas would be very proud of what we have achieved so far but we need to think of the future and there is no other way but to work hard as a community to make modern Greek discipline self-sufficient.  We need more Laurantuses.  And we need more support from the Greek government if we are to have sustainable language classes into the future.”

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Dr Vrasidas Karalis at the lectern

And finally, Dr. Vrasidas Karalis, the  Sir Nicholas Laurantus Professor of Modern Greek, took to the lectern.

Professor Vrasidas Karalis was emphatic about the significant impact of the Sydney University Modern Greek course: “we brought Greek students out of the ghetto of the Greek community and Greek language teaching into a proper multicultural setting”.

Dr Karalis praised the academic output of the faculty and in particular paid tribute to the major work by Dr Nazou on Nifes (Proxy Brides) as a major work in diaspora studies from a sociological (although, in his words, an “admittedly leftist”) perspective.

In terms of his own predilection for the history of Greek cinema, Dr Karalis – who is a recognized world authority of the cinematography of the late Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos – indicated that he just wanted to start a conversation.

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Indeed, the Department of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies has so much to offer in terms of teaching, research, publications and more.  As the faculty's own webpage states:

“From late antiquity to Byzantium and modern Greece our discipline encourages an innovative reconsideration of the Greek tradition. We focus on the polytropic character of Greek culture, the confusing history, the obscure religion, the cheerful folk tradition, the euphoric music, the enchanting literature, the magnificent art, the prolific cinema, the ambiguous Diasporic identity and many other areas of research.”

Dr Karalis then turned to the Consul-General sitting in the front row of the audience and in a typical 'Vras-like' flourish, declared that we should expect a lot more from the Greek Government now that the Greek economy is booming.  Mr Mallikourtis had in fact earlier undertaken to explore the possibilities of reviving the support of the Greek government for Greek language teaching at a tertiary level, noting graciously that the Greek authorities take immense pride in the fact that there is a Modern Greek faculty in one of the most prominent universities in the world.

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Although Dr Karalis plans to retire in 2025, he triumphantly declared:

“Our love for Greek has united as all. We will survive, we will abide, we will continue. After 3000 years the chains will never be cut.”

May Modern Greek Studies continue to thrive at Sydney University for generations to come.

George Vardas is the Arts and Culture Editor and is a proud alumni (BA; LLB) of the University of Sydney.  He is also a member of the Multicultural NSW Advisory Board.

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