The International Summer University (ISU) is an important institution in an era in which the Humanities are under pressure as criteria of economic and commercial competitiveness are increasingly applied, even in the sphere of academic research and knowledge. The ISU revolves around three main axes: the Greek language, media, and culture. This year will see the initiative’s tenth iteration (and the first outside Greece). This year’s ISU will be held at the Maliotis Cultural Center in Boston from 28/5/2024 to 2/6/2024, and address “The dissemination and teaching of the Greek language in America’s Greek Diaspora.”

The ISU is the brain child of Nikoletta Tsitsanoudis-Mallidis, a Professor of Linguistics and the Greek Language in the Department of Early Childhood Education at the University of Ioannina and a Special Associate of the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University, who is both its founder and academic director. The heart and soul of the institution, she speaks to To Vima about the importance of academic initiatives and actions of this sort in an era of “successive tyrannical crises” that render the “greatest possible diffusion of knowledge beyond the lecture halls” more critical than ever. In 2023, the drive to take knowledge “beyond the lecture halls” took on a powerful symbolism when the Juvenile Prison in Avlona, Attica, was chosen to host the 9th annual ISU and the program was attended exclusively by inmates at the institution.

The ISU has evolved into a place where members of the academic community, professionals and artists can meet to highlight issues that “touch upon” matters of concern to society, but also the relevance of the Humanities to our here and now in an era in which “we are all are under pressure from the onslaught of commercialization and the technological explosion.”

It is the first time the International Summer University will be held abroad. How did Boston come to be chosen?

Since its inception, the International Summer University has served to take ideas out on tour. After Andros, it traveled to Syros, Crete, Hydra and Kastellorizo. In 2022, we attempted to shake things up and move from sun-kissed isles to the cells of the Avlona Juvenile Prison in what was perhaps the program’s most startling move to date. Then, it was decided that it would be beneficial, since the institution had now matured organizationally, to move beyond the borders of Greece. We made an initial effort to do so back in 2020, when we decided to take the International Summer University to Istanbul and stage our activities at the Great School of the Nation in cooperation with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But the restrictions introduced in the light of the pandemic put paid to those plans. More specifically, it had been decided that the institution should move permanently abroad in the light of its primary goals, which are disseminating the Greek language and strengthening the Greek community.

“Society needs to apply the knowledge produced in universities, and in the Humanities in particular, which are under pressure from the onslaught of commercialization and the technological explosion”.

Boston qualified for many reasons. First of all, because it has a worldwide reputation as a university town, being home to Harvard , Tufts, MIT, Boston University and many other powerful and influential academic institutions. We had already formed partnerships with programs at some of these universities, such as the Greek language program at Boston University, but also with the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University and, in the past, with the Circle of Hellenic Academics in Boston. So, everything was in place for us to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the “summer of our hearts”, as our students call the ISU, in America’s leading cultural and academic center: the “Athens of America,” as Boston has been dubbed.

So, from Avlona Prison to Boston. Which raises questions concerning the physical and symbolic limits of an academic organization. Where are your limits?

I don’t believe academic events have limits; they shouldn’t have, at least. The truth, of course, is that the decision to take the institution into the prison was a difficult one, given that summer schools tend to take place in places associated with what we call the “Greek summer”. However, the initiative was enthusiastically received by students and faculty alike. I believe that in our current era of successive tyrannical crises in particular, we have to disseminate knowledge as much and as broadly as we can, beyond the lecture halls. “Society needs to apply the knowledge produced in universities, and in the Humanities in particular, which are under pressure from the onslaught of commercialization and the technological explosion”. So an institution like ours is probably under an obligation to take its dynamic to places that are not always clearly delimited and predictable, and the International Summer University will be taking on the challenge of more… surprises like these in the future.

The new year finds the academic community in Greece on tenterhooks ahead of the presentation of a Higher Education Bill which would allow non-state universities to be set up in Greece. How does this backdrop, and the new reality in particular that seems to be taking root in higher education, impact the work of a university teacher?

The difficulties are compounded, especially when we are dealing with the rules of the marketplace and intense competition in the labor market. As much as these parameters seem inexorable, or seem likely to cast the role of the university teacher into disarray, they are still challenges that need, in my view, to be met with resourcefulness and persistence and not just state support, if they are to attract and appeal to young people. Let me side with the “positive propaganda” and continue to feel doomed to optimism, since I work in education, and specifically in a Greek public university, which are institutions that have contributed a great deal to Greek education and culture.

The theme of this year’s ISU is teaching Greek in the expatriate community. What are the challenges and urgent issues in this area?

First of all, we have to lay out precisely what we mean by teaching Greek abroad, so we can see what is involved in teaching in diaspora schools. And by “diaspora” or “expatriate community”, we don’t mean something general and standard. Every cell, every individual within the expatriate community has its own unique characteristics. Beyond that, we are interested in finding and designing effective practices for raising interest in Greek language and culture among second- and third-generation Greek students abroad, as well as promoting partnerships between Greek schools in the US diaspora and Greek universities. The aim is to enrich and develop the partnership programs and offer Greek language courses taught by university professors and holders of Ph.Ds. in Greek language and culture.

But the Boston event will also address more specific challenges, such as how teachers should handle language errors, help learners freshen up their Greek, fast-track training for refreshing and enriching vocabulary, and improving the communicative approach and presence of teachers in both the classroom and society.

“Greek, like every language, is subject today to pressures that are to a certain extent generalized and global”.

Alarmist discourses about language are as common as they are popular. Greece is not an exception in this regard—how could it be? As far as the issues concerning the teaching of Greek are concerned, where would you place the red line separating genuine dangers from scaremongering?

Alarmism is not always the way to go, and neither is telling people there’s nothing to worry about. “Greek, like every language, is subject today to pressures that are to a certain extent generalized and global”. The challenges are relentless: the hegemony and apotheosis of the image, our growing used to the speed of change, omnipresent distractions and an inability to concentrate—we could even perhaps speak of an anthropology of attention disorders. For example, we are unfamiliar with the street beside ours, we use a satellite to locate it… I won’t repeat things we all already know. This can unsettle, and even on occasions unpick, the teacher’s role; it’s like David taking on Goliath, but if we surrender to defeatism, as teachers we’ve lost before we’ve even begun. I recently wrote that it takes a good deal of obstinacy to teach, because for me teaching is first and foremost resistance. As far as the Greek language is concerned, I’m no longer talking simply about dissemination; in fact, preservation is the main goal now. And that requires hard and systematic work, international collaborations, dedication, ingenuity—to come up with things that will attract people—and imagination.

The presence of university departments of Modern Greek Studies abroad is an issue closely related to teaching. What is the current situation in this regard?

The International Summer University’s goals include raising awareness of the role Greek language chairs and programs in the US play in disseminating the Greek language. We recently learned that the Modern Greek Studies Program run by the Department of Media, Communication, Fine Arts, Languages and Literature at Macquarie University in Australia is facing closure. This is alarming news. Obviously there is a need for constant vigilance as well as support measures put in place by the Greek state. For our part, we are doing everything we can to support these programs with our own resources.

Do you think that the developments you have described above are consequences of neoliberal market policies being applied to the field of university studies?

Obviously the economy imposes its rules. Many things are treated as though they are susceptible to common metrics when they are not, and vision of any sort—let alone educational vision—is often markedly absent. The Humanities are under severe pressure, with concerns about the market and finding a job after graduation often dissuading young people from pursuing studies in subjects they may love. In addition, factors such as artificial intelligence can sometimes make the present and immediate future seem both nebulous and intimidating. In fact, if we factor in the successive crises, too (the memorandum, refugee crisis, pandemic, wars, rising cost of living, etc.), the landscape becomes positively dystopian. This fluidity, and the anxiety to which the young in particular fall prey, must not leave us older generations unmoved or content in the little world we have built or possibly acquired for ourselves.

What are the biggest difficulties you have faced in the light of the state’s consistent underfunding of higher education?

First of all, we have faced all the difficulties one can face when planning for the medium and long term in today’s world. Suffice it to say that the 1st Summer University coincided with the imposition of capital controls in Greece, the 6th ,7th and 8th with the pandemic, and that many of our interim actions have had to contend with adversity in various forms. If you survive those, the financial difficulties are considerable, and you really need to throw yourself into the work. We have mobilized from time to time and appealed to the private sector as well as to our friends, and everyone is invited to lend a hand. I must also mention the selfless participation of the artists who perform in our TV ads every year for free, while also delivering and arranging master classes of various sorts for our students. Giorgos Kimoulis, Tasos Nousias, Yannis Stankoglou, Maria Nafpliotou, Emilios Chilakis and Athina Maximou, Dimitris Katalifos, but also Lakis Lazopoulos, who is from my home town, and this year Nikos Aliagas have starred pro bono in the International Summer University’s TV productions, and we thank them warmly for all their support.

“I would say an institution like this is under an obligation to take its dynamic to places that are not always clearly delimited and predictable”, Mrs. Tsitsanoudis-Mallidis told To Vima. Photograph of ISU activities in the Avlona Juvenile Prison.

The ISU has developed other initiatives, like the Alumni Club, over the last decade. What is its role?

I simply cannot say enough about the young people, and in particular the ISU’s online alumni group which staged its highly successful 4th “Small Summer University” in 2023, convincing us that the initiative have a long life and bright future ahead of it. The alumni group will be celebrating its fifth dynamic year in operation in 2024, as it prepares for the 5th Small Summer University. We have always argued that young people will never become more beautiful, if we don’t involve them in beautiful things. Which is precisely why we communicate and co-publish with them on a regular basis.

Do you view this year’s 10th anniversary as a milestone for the International Summer University? Can you explain why?

As the ISU enters its tenth year as an acknowledged success, the “tradition” of cultivating extroversion and partnerships with prominent international education, culture and media institutions continues. It is worth recalling that the ISU has been supported in the past by inter alia the Ecumenical Patriarchate; Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece; the Greek Delegation to the European Parliament; the Union of European Journalists (Greek section); the Orthodox Academy of Crete; the French Section of the Club de la Presse Européenne, Paris; the Center Culturel Hellénique, Paris; the Instituto De Letras, Rio De Janeiro University; the Modern Greek Studies Program at Macquarie University and the Macquarie Greek Studies Foundation in Sydney, Australia; the Circle of Hellenic Academics in Boston; the Greek delegation on the Cámara Internacional de Escritores & Artistas CIESART, Greece, an international chamber of writers and artists based in Barcelona.

Within and behind all these partnerships are people who believed in our work and encouraged us to continue. We are grateful to each and every one of them. We work for a full year to prepare a few days’ summer tuition in Greek culture, the Greek language, and contemporary Greek and foreign media. I would like to add at this point that the proceedings of the previous summer universities are published in Greece in very elegant volumes by Gutenberg (Hellenic Language, Culture and Media), and Pedio (Language, Ethics and Ideology in the Media), but also in Brazil in Ελληνικό Βλέμμα [Hellenic Gaze] magazine, to which we provide the texts of the two volumes as guest editors.

In the summer of 2022, the proceedings of the 7th International Summer University were published in Australia in collaboration with the Modern Greek Studies Program at Macquarie University and the Macquarie Greek Studies Foundation in Sydney. And the proceedings from Kastellorizo are due for publication any day in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. We are fully aware of the magnitude of the responsibility that comes with organizing an event like this, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that the 10th International Summer University in Boston provides our Greek expatriates and students with a beneficial and exciting experience worthy of a top-flight academic institution.

2024 is a very important year for us all. The “summer of our heart” is turning 10 years old! We will be extending an invitation to all our students and fellow travelers to join us in its celebration. Because our anchor is weighed and our sails are set!