Research, Hellenic Studies

Research Profile: Eirini Kotsovili, Hellenic Studies

April 25, 2017

Eirini Kotsovili, Lecturer in Hellenic Studies, says that through literature we can find valuable and candid reflections on different cultural contexts and historical periods marked by conflicts. Kotsovili, who also teaches in World Literature and Humanities, explains, “I strongly believe that literature can expose and examine – in depth – facets of human experiences and challenges, which otherwise would not be accessible to a wider audience.”

Kotsovili studied History and Hispanic Studies at McGill, and Literature and Languages at Oxford before joining the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies in 2013. She has always had an interest in Hellenic Studies, considering it an interdisciplinary field: “When I was an undergraduate student, I often took courses, read about, and wrote papers on topics that were about Ancient and Modern Greek culture, giving me the opportunity to reflect on a variety of topics and writers, ranging from the works of Homer to those of Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis and their successors. I recall reading about SFU and the Hellenic Studies team as a PhD student and setting a goal for myself to become a member of this vibrant community.”

In addition to teaching courses in Hellenic Studies, Kotsovili is the Centre's current Undergraduate Chair, and former Co-ordinator of its Greek Language Program. According to Kotsovili the interdisciplinary nature of the Centre (which also houses the SNF New Media Lab) allows for creativity: “I find that it is quite rewarding to explore different themes, bringing together different approaches, while highlighting the contributions and importance of these disciplines; the ways they overlap and enrich our understanding of the past and present.”

Dr. Eirini Kotsovili presents with Mr. Costa Dedegikas (SNF New Media Lab).

Sometimes Hellenic Studies is misunderstood as concerned entirely with the past, with ancient civilizations, but there are significant connections between the field of study and current world events.  In her research, Kotsovili examines autobiographical and historical references in 20th century literature to explore how themes of gender, memory, and identity are presented in a transnational context, focusing on identity and on conflict by comparing those elements in literary texts to the lived experiences of individuals in politically turbulent periods.

In her teaching, most recently in a spring 2017 course on identity, Kotsovili points out to students the importance of remembering and understanding the past: “Not sentimentalizing it, but genuinely making an effort to understand it; the successes, the sacrifices and failures of humankind, so as to also make sense of the present.”

In that sense, Hellenic studies “serves as a bridge between past and present; an ongoing narration of people and their culture, not existing in a vacuum, but connected to others, across time and space.” She cites Homer’s The Odyssey as an example, “the premise of which is the journey of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) to his home (the island of Ithaca), and the obstacles, and the challenges he encounters, which make him a hero. We are presented with a lasting heroic archetype and symbolic narrative, explored in film and literature to this day. Once again, past and present are connected.”

Most importantly, and significant to her own research, Kotsovili points out that “It is in this Homeric epic poem where we first encounter the Greek word nostalgia/‘νοσταλγία’ for a home (on a literal and metaphorical level), which has since been widely used to describe what we most, if not all of us, experience in our own lives.” This, she says, can serve as an example of the types of connections that exist between previous and current human experiences, “making us feel consoled that we are not alone, as we go through them.”

Collaboration has proven to be similarly important in her professional life. In 2016 she co-edited – together with historians Dr. Kostis Kornetis and Dr. Nikoloas Papadogiannis – the volume Consumption and Gender in Southern Europe since the Long 1960s. The idea, she says, was to examine southern European countries from a time-period of political instability and dictatorships, to that of the re-instatement of democracy. The collaborative nature of the project was vital to its success: “it allowed for fascinating discussions amongst contributors and editors who were in different parts of Europe and North America. Most importantly, the volume became the first transnational analysis of consumer cultures and gender in contemporary Spain, Portugal and Greece, placing the Southern European region in a wider European, a transatlantic, context.”

This reflects what Kotsovili says motivates and excites her: “the endless possibilities that literature offers us to understand ourselves and others, establishing new links between individuals from all over the world…I am thinking of celebrated authors, past and present: for instance, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and their exploration of dystopian futures, to the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood. My main objective is to re-introduce important works to students and to showcase their relevance in today’s society; to open their minds to new interpretations, to challenge them, and to offer opportunities for critical reflection, and independent thinking.”

This reciprocal relationship of past and present is integral to how Kotsovili prepares students, who are what Kotsovili terms “the future we all invest in, and make a priority.” She says that seeing students develop their skills,  their critical thinking, celebrate their achievements, their efforts in acquiring knowledge from different disciplines, which serve as foundations for becoming well-rounded individuals, is rewarding: “One should not forget how fortunate it is to be in this country and academic institution, for there are extraordinary challenges that students and colleagues face in different parts of the world, raising concerns about the future, but also reminding us all, of our roles and responsibilities when it comes to higher education.”