Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Empowering Greek American Studies

Empowering Greek American Studies

“Not to act to remedy our bleak
under-representation is to squander a wonderful
set of opportunities and resources.” 
–Artemis Leontis 

“Power is the ability to take one’s place in
whatever discourse is essential to action and
the right to have one’s part matter.” 
–Carolyn Heilbrun 

“Why study Greek America”? “Who studies Greek America? “What is the scope of Greek American Studies?” We keep returning to these questions, inevitably, in an ever-changing academy. Calls to sharpen and explain our subject matter keep knocking at our door. “Establish scholarly relevance,” we are startled by the volume of the cries, “or else…”

The style in which these questions are asked matters. The probing may signal a hostile or skeptical predisposition, interrogating the value of the field, demanding its defense. Alternatively, it may assert a profound faith in the inherent value of this enterprise; a posture of “let me tell you” why this subject matters. One style questions, the other affirms.

But matter to whom? Context is crucial. It is no longer possible to celebrate Greek American Studies independently from the scrutiny of the institution that enables its practice. In this relationship, the question, “Why Greek America,” performs power. A “minor” field of knowledge is summoned to explain itself to the dominant, to demonstrate relevance; to apologize for its mere claim of existence.

The implication of this questioning goes beyond intellectual concern. Directed firmly to junior scholars and Ph.D. students intended to research Greek issues in U.S. immigration and ethnicity, it also carries ideological, material and psychological weight. It may erect roadblocks to a dissertation. It may abort a book project. It may deny a young scholar’s creativity, vision, and politics. It may weigh negatively in a publisher’s decision. All in all, it may compromise the field’s position in discussions about ethnicity, diaspora, and the transnational.

The violence imminent in this disciplining is felt viscerally among practitioners. It represents an alarming reality, and an ominous future for the field. How to continue a critical tradition without a vibrant new generation of academic researchers? How does a young scholar garner the courage to propose a research project when this project is to be subjected to a harsh trial, its title alone making it a dubious enterprise? Or when – to momentarily enter the loaded terrain of the academy’s multicultural identity politics – a scholar’s Greek heritage is seen as a liability to the critical study of Greek America?

There is too much at stake here to neglect the issue; we cannot simply wish the problem to walk away on its own. It won’t. New testimonies of researchers add to the urgency to intervene. Faculty in various disciplines advise graduate students against Greek American topics. The reasons are not always evident, though recurrent questions are by now familiar to us: “what could the Greek case possibly tell us about immigration that the Italian, or the Jewish cases have not already told us?” There is also outright dismissal. Isn’t it true that “European America [is already] dead?”

Greek America is neither exotic nor culturally thick enough for anthropology; it is too cultureless or anti-minority for ethnic studies; not multilayered enough for literary studies (unless a Pulitzer prize turns it into American literature); not textured enough for Film Studies; not adequately victimized for academic multiculturalism. For these reasons it has only been allotted a narrow space within the University, endangered now in an environment of fiscal constraints.

Greek American Studies is not an exception in facing this challenge. Colleagues in Italian American Studies also confront interrogation. This, let’s note, despite a record of impressive scholarly output. In 2001, writing against the “death of European Americans” thesis, Josephine Gattuso Hendin, brought attention to the “explosion of interest in Italian Americana,” appreciating Italian American Studies “as an important current in contemporary literature and criticism.” If Italian American studies – which enjoys high visibility in departments of anthropology, history, folklore, diaspora, and English in major American Universities – faces opposition, what then of Greek American Studies – which claims a much smaller academic and demographic share?

Engaging these questions requires, ironically, a dissertation, or a book-length analysis. It takes us to the loaded question of how disciplines circumscribe their subject matter. At the heart of this construction is the notion of European Americans as people without culture, even without historical specificity, as in the questioning of Greek America’s value to immigration studies. We are witnessing a brand of academic colonialism, which triggers the voluble dismay, anger, and – one of the weapons of the “weak” – irony, in the writings of scholars working on marginalized ethnicities. As early as 1973, Michael Novak registered a wry complaint about the ethnographic neglect of “white ethnics”: “Our anthropologists know more about some tribes in New Guinea than about the Poles in Warren or Lackawanna.”

And my own recent reaction to the “end of white ethnic culture” proclaimed in ethnic and racial studies: “In Greek America, for instance, diaspora attachments currently inspire novels, poetry, popular ethnographies, and literary societies, activities that necessarily require in-depth, and long-term commitments. The insistence on the superficiality of ethnic identities – the “minimal impact” identities – mutes artists, researchers, and those sectors of the public whose social imagination is nurtured by diaspora. Relegating meaningful lives to a footnote exercises epistemic violence.”

It is necessary to situate this crisis in the context of the abysmal academic market for European Americanists. Seen from this angle, the motivation of an advisor steering a graduate student away from Greek American topics may register realism and professional ethics. A recent article in the New York Times goads the University to alert graduate students about the stark realities of the marketplace in the Humanities, and restructure the curriculum to train for non-academic careers.

In some academic quarters, an open discussion of these matters is seen – by otherwise well-intended colleagues – as self-defeating. “It is to the best interest of graduate students not to dwell on the problem,” they insist; “it is nerve wracking and demoralizing; paralysis may lead to a massive exodus from the profession.”

But no longer is it possible, or desirable, to hide from graduate students the tribulations that wait out there for them just around the post-graduation corner. The crushing reality is here to stay. We already bear witness to the flight of talented young scholars with dissertations on Greek America, both in Europe and North America. Confronted with the lack of academic positions and fellowships, they make a decisive turn to marketable topics (i.e. theories of transnationalism, globalization, American studies, or non-European American ethnicities).

How to prevent this exodus? How to avoid Greek American Studies dropouts? A dialogue is long overdue to empower – both professionally and psychologically – graduate students interested in Greek American or Greek diaspora topics. Dissuading them is not an option. Developing strategies to navigate the challenge is urgent.

For one, we can turn the academy’s question(ing) on its head. Instead of lamenting its colonial ethos, we practice scholarship that interrogates and defamiliarizes dominant paradigms; that introduces new knowledge that troubles its assumptions and disciplinary boundaries. In this respect, the challenge, “Why Greek American Studies?” calls for intervention, a strategy practiced by critical Modern Greek Studies facing comparable challenges.

From this perspective, the questioning of Greek American Studies is productive: it comes as a wake up call against insular, self-referential scholarship. It calls for self-reflection and critique. I join here recent discussions in Greek Film Studies to reiterate that without the aspiration to bring the Greek subject into a scholarly conversation in current intellectual and theoretical issues rather than ethnic concerns, we will be relegated to a very tiny research territory; we will remain irrelevant beyond a narrow ethnic audience. Let’s face it. We cannot possibly chart twenty-first-century Greek America with mid twentieth-century methodologies.

Let me elaborate on the notion of scholarship as critical intervention. My own experience convinces me that one solution to the academy’s devaluation of Greek American Studies lies squarely in a specific kind of scholarly performance: Practice scholarship that demonstrates the intellectual relevance of the Greek case. In this mode, the question, why “Greek diaspora,” can be effectively engaged with the answer, “because X and Y books, because Z and A articles have made the case convincingly.” This strategy turns our ec-centric position into an asset. From this location we intervene to problematize the center, interrogate its assumptions, offer alternative angles of inquiry, even open the space for paradigm shifts. This engagement skirts away from slavishly reproducing the dominant, to question it instead. This orientation may have in store some pleasant surprises, including dialogue with unexpected interlocutors.

But intervention may not be possible for (or even permissible to) a young scholar operating within a dominant discipline (American studies, anthropology, film, literature, sociology). A junior scholar can rock the boat only so much without jeopardizing academic survival. One’s position is immersed in power relations, as we all know very well after cultural studies.

This is precisely the juncture where senior scholars in Modern Greek Studies can make a difference. If they make themselves command cutting edge scholarship; if they are adept and powerful agents in the academic game, they are in a position to steer academic debates. And even if Greek America is not their specialty, they can still produce an essay, a position paper, an article, a book review, even a blog entry that demonstrates the value of Greek America in their respective disciplines. The idea is to perform critical engagement to speak to academic power.

Of course there is even greater potential for linking Greek American and Modern Greek Studies. Gregory Jusdanis, for instance, brings together the necessity of practicing “scholarship and engagement with current theoretical discussions” and expanding the boundaries of Modern Greek Studies. He proposes to reframe the study of Greece “as a transnational community.”

This makes us pause and reflect on the scope and subject matter of Greek American Studies. What is it? “Greek America” – as I have discussed elsewhere – points to a transnational field of cultural, material and political relations; a field of exchanges and circulations; of cross-cultural contacts and fertilizations. In this respect, Greek America is not an identity; it is not an ethnicity; it is neither a diaspora nor a community. Seen as a field of exchanges, Greek America raises scholarly questions at the heart of Modern Greek Studies, if the latter imagines its practice in a transnational and not in a nation-centric framework. “Greek American Studies” brings in conversation the “Greek” and the “American,” making it a transnational project. Archaeologists, historians, and cultural studies scholars working on Greek subjects – among others – are increasingly casting a transnational net and keep illustrating the research prospects of Greek–American Transnational Studies. If it continues, this practice stands to empower Greek American Studies in the latter’s interest to investigate ethnicity, “community,” immigration, and diaspora.

What to Do Next? 

How to promote Greek American Studies in the University? How to empower the field? What are some methodological and institutional priorities? I outline below several prospects, some ongoing, some emergent:

• Create vibrant critical communities. A recent initiative, the MGSA Greek–American Transnational Caucus, speaks to this need. It aims to foster intellectual exchange and promote this subject matter; to reflect about strategies of placing the field in an ever shifting academic context; to establish dialogue across disciplines; to bring together senior and junior scholars; and to provide a support network to animate the intellectual valence of Greek American Studies.

• Practice sophisticated Comparative Studies that incorporates Greek America as a vital component. Enter in conversation with European Americanists, Asian Americanists, etc.

• Bring insights from and cross-fertilize with Ethnicity, Diaspora, and Transnational Studies, among others. Draw a lesson from Italian American Studies, for instance, whose growth “was sparked by the recovery and organization of a wealth of writing through the publication of major anthologies.” (Josephine Gattuso Hendin)

• Situate research within contemporary academic discussions; engage with emergent questions in one’s discipline; question dominant assumptions with methodological and empirical rigor.

• Cultivate strong disciplinary identities (Americanists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, literary scholars); engage with and publish on cutting edge questions in one’s field. Explore the interdisciplinary potential of Greek–American Transnational Studies.

• Produce scholarship which demonstrates how dominant research has excluded, marginalized, or co-opted Greek American texts which in alternative readings could have troubled conventional categories and epistemologies. (For an early example of this sort of intervention see Yiorgos Kalogeras’ “Greek-American Literature: Who Needs it?). Extend this approach to U.S. and/or Canadian media and popular representations of Greece and Greek America.

• Reach out to establish endowments and fellowships specifically supporting the field.

Additional Work 

Identifying neglected or underrepresented topics is a common practice in Greek American Studies – not surprisingly, given the field’s marginalization in the Profession. More than twenty years since Dan Georgakas and Charles Moskos listed a host of research projects and “new directions” needing attention, we witness, more than ever, a vast cultural production leaving us behind. “We find ourselves, frankly,” I wrote elsewhere, “in a position of frantically chasing the very end of its dusty trail.”

I share below ideas and insights from internal discussions I had with colleagues about the state of the field. By no means comprehensive, the list offers a map to generate further interest and discussion (credits to specific contributors in parenthesis):

• Analyze Greek American cultural production in Greece (the state, the academy, translations, journalists, artists, intellectuals, everyday encounters between Greeks and Greek Americans, reception of Greek American authors, artists, and celebrities, etc.). Related to the above is the topic of Greek American Studies in Greek Universities: Discuss contributions, and identify ongoing research projects. (Kostis Karpozilos)

• The internationalization of Greek American Studies calls for a comparable inquiry in Europe and elsewhere; situating this production within a critical network of exchanges and debate seems paramount for cross-fertilization of findings and ideas.

• Follow travel routes and cultural cross-fertilization between Greece and “America.” (Martha Klironomos, Artemis Leontis)

• Identify Greek American artistic and cultural achievements that do not fit the prescriptions of the American Dream. (Peter Jeffreys)

• Encourage the writing of new biographies in the field; or even revisiting aspects of well-known figures’ lives in the area of their ethnicity and cultural affiliations, which has not been researched very well (e.g., see existing biographies of Elia Kazan or John Cassavetes, etc.). What about encouraging the writing and researching of new biographies of well-known political figures? Spiro Agnew, George Christopher (former mayor of San Francisco), Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis, Paul Sarbanes, Olympia Snowe, George (Andreas) Papandreou, etc.? Also literary biographies on writers such as Harry Mark Petrakis, Helen Zeese Papanikolas and others, etc. (Martha Klironomos)

• Reflect upon the role of North American Modern Greek Studies in reaching out to Greek America and Greek Canada to establish bridges with non-academic publics.

• Continue documenting Greek American testimonies; transcribe oral histories and make them available to the public; analyze the existing ethnographic archive.

• Dialogue with non-academic audience; issue of the intellectual autonomy of those we interact with: “It seems ‘we’ academics and intellectuals (do we know who *we* are?) find ourselves trying to walk many tightropes, such as between funding and maintaining relative critical autonomy. Between encouraging intellectual pluralism in the academy and staying committed to an agenda like ‘reconfiguring a narrative’ that is meant to rectify or improve upon other narratives which academics have had a hand in along the way. I frequently find myself wondering to what extent we are afforded, and to what extent we afford to others (such as our students, the groups we ‘study’, etc.) real opportunities to raise and to address questions like these. So there’s also this tightrope between our own critical autonomy, and the intellectual autonomy of those we interact with. I guess for me, an important question is how these ‘interactions’ can become dialogues (yes, of course power-laden, never innocent of politics or complicity). Also, how can ‘we’ academics continue to exercise the craft of not missing important opportunities for such dialogue when (remarkably enough) they are still afforded to ‘us’ on occasion?” (Anonymous)

• Reflect on pedagogies – how do we teach Greek America and why? How do we bring Greek American examples and situations into other subjects, including Greek language instruction. (Collective)

• Create public venues to disseminate reflections and ideas about the transnational field “Greek America,” and reach out to both English- and Greek-speaking audiences. Besides ethnicity/diaspora, include the wider political and cultural interconnections between Greece, the U.S., Canada, and beyond. (Yiorgos Anagnostou, Kostis Karpozilos)

• Given the proliferation of Greek American cultural expressions, undertake “small scale” projects, in addition to long-term ones (reviews of museum exhibits, selective interviews, book reviews, etc.).

• Prospect of collaborative projects? How viable is this practice?

• Bring Greek America into bilingual fora (translations, bilingual blogs, etc.).

• Enter into conservation with Greek-affiliated scholars outside Modern Greek Studies who write about transnational systems of difference (ethnicity, diaspora, racism, globalities, educational pedagogies, gender, racial constructions, etc); their position vis-a-vis Greek American Studies?

• Continue the collective discussion on how to inject rigor and vitality in Greek–American Transnational Studies.

I welcome your thoughts and comments; your ideas to further reflect on and expand this Project.

Yiorgos Anagnostou
Modern Greek Program
Ohio State University

November–December 2013 


  1. This position paper - almost eerily - mirrors my thoughts about Greek American Studies and experiences as a young scholar of American Studies who decided to work on/with/about Greek America. The first thing I always need to do is explain why I chose this 'niche'-group and topic to study. In the beginning, I justified it with numbers, then with the importance of white ethnicities in the US and lastly with current debates on transnationalism and diaspora. I somehow made my way through, but am faced now with the decision whether pursuing Greek American Studies (in Europe or the US) will interfere with my academic career; I am advised by professors and advisors to reorient myself.
    I believe we can learn a lot from how Italian American Studies is structured and 'survives.'
    As a scholar and teacher of American Studies in Germany, I also turn to my students and try to introduce them to Greek American texts. The reactions have been rewarding, especially by students who trace their roots back to Greece and Turkey. In the academic classroom in Germany, they are underrepresented and I have had excited students come up to me and say: "This responds to me and my transnational life." (In different words, but the same message.) I will pursue this, because I see a lack in German culture to address these groups and their identity politics and if I can change that, even in the small cosmos of my classroom, then I know why Greek American Studies can matter in Germany.
    This was more anecdotal than intended.
    I appreciate your contribution here, Yiorgo.

  2. I wonder just how committed American (of Greek background or otherwise) scholars working on Greek subjects (in any field) are to the notion of "Greek America?" I understand that the focus here is on the survival of Greek America as an Academic discipline, particularly in light of the general hostility towards "minor" subjects that are on the margins of marginal fields like the Humanities. I say this not to also be hostile to the positions taken here: but I am afraid that Greek Studies in general are being threatened and need to constantly "legitimize" themselves within the academy. I like the notion of incorporating GA subject within other fields (and in mine, which is literature, I believe this can be done I think rather easily). The question is "Who is listening?" Who is our audience? Is it purely academic, or is it community based as well? I think an aspect that is missing here is the engagement of the Greek American community itself. To misquote Cavafy, "Where are the Greeks...?"
    I would like to consider this paper more deeply, but these are some initial responses.
    G. Katsan

  3. Kudos to Prof Anagnostou for his insightful and thoughtful comments on the future of Greek American Studies. I fear, however, that the comment of G. Katsan "where are the Greeks" is most appropriate. Those of us non-academics who have devoted great chunks of their lives to the study of our people in America and who are not constrained by the difficulties of navigating Academia's turbulent waters - how to make a career and yet hone in on one's own scholaraly interests--still are deeply affected by that key question: do the Greeks care what we do or say? Who will buy these books, who will come to our lecture series, who will read the reviews? Who, even, will publish them? And leave us not discount the importance of funding. Do our wealthy patrons in Greek America and in Greece really want to know about the soft underbelly of Greek America? Are they interested in a biography of Olympia Dukakis? or her brother? Would any biography of Elia Kazan or John Cassavetes been published had he not achieved his worth outside of Greek America? Has the coveted assimilation into America worked against any deep dives into the turbulent waters of Greek American history, which is rife with bootleggers, slot machines in candy stores, and all of the not-so-desirable facts of "making it" it America? Greek America is largely a "don't ask, don't tell" community. Shhhhhhh. Ti tha pi o kosmos?

  4. Thank you Yiorgos for articulating the issues many of us have been thinking about. I can only frame my comments within the confines of my own experiences in academia but perhaps they will be useful to some. As an anthropologist working on both Greek American and Greek Canadian topics I have experienced the "crisis of academia" more as the norm than as the exception. Although my dissertation advisor at UC Santa Barbara did in no way try to dissuade me from studying the Greek diaspora I did sometimes feel as if my topic and interests were not "anthropological" or "exotic" enough. In hindsight I think this was more of a personal perception than that of the discipline as I continued to work on Greek diaspora topics that interested me (first transnational marriage strategies then technology and later gender and romance) and was able to publish within scholarly journals. I have never had a reviewer tell me that my work wasn't relevant. I have always tried to situate my work within some broader theoretical context and to compare the Greek case to other diasporas but perhaps this is because I always felt as if I was in "crisis mode" regarding my work and its relevancy. Perhaps the idea of Greek American studies has a perception problem as well. Why must we label ourselves Greek Americanists at all? Many of your suggestions, which I find valid and relevant, entreat us to reach beyond traditional scholarly boundaries to other disciplines and groups and to rethink critical engagement. By eroding these boundaries aren't we also due for a change in how we construct ourselves as scholars of Greek American topics? While I can understand the distress of fledgling academics to pursue the research of their choice and to receive funding I also believe these same fledgling academics are key to the redefinition (and survival) of Greek American studies and must step up as they negotiate the grad school process. To survive in academia means to expect nothing but obstacles and disappointment and potential scholars should realize this from the moment they decide to pursue graduate work. I have never considered myself a "Greek Americanist" and perhaps this was key to my success. I had no expectations that such a designation would get me a job in academia and instead focused my attention on other interests such as teaching. Although I still enjoy research and engaging with Greek colleagues I also am satisfied with teaching at a community college and the rewards of such a position. I hope others will share their experiences here - as I said, my perspective is quite limited. I am grateful to you for getting the conversation started and wish everyone καλή χρονιά!