“Not to act to remedy our bleak
under-representation is to squander a wonderful
set of opportunities and resources.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
Modern Greek Program
Ohio State University