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A happenstance of opportunities: A passionate teacher believes in the continuing relevance of the Classics

Professor Elizabeth Minchin is one of only a handful of Classics professors in Australia and, with chairs at the University of Queensland and at Macquarie currently being filled, she is presently the only woman holding a Classics chair.

Together with about 30 or so other classicists in Australian universities she battles to lead the way in what is an inexplicably shrinking field. She ticks off the dwindling numbers of Classics staff Australia-wide, stalling only in the case of Sydney. “A big endowment came their way a few years ago. Now they are like Olympians,” with around 10 staff.

Elizabeth calls herself a Homerist and her choice of the word “Olympian” is entirely natural. There is a sense in which Minchin swims in a sea of words, precisely aware of the measure of each of them. Language for her is acutely tiered and she knows exactly how to count the loss should the teaching of Classics disappear from Universities entirely.

“Just about every word we use has roots down into the past,” she says. “And much of our cultural knowledge also has its roots in the ancient Mediterranean world. How else would people make sense of English poetry that refers to the myths and legends of Greece and Rome, that casually refers to Achilles or Troy or Oedipus? We’d lose so much cultural awareness by not studying the ancient world in our curriculum.”

Her own love of language and evolving career path did not come through ruthless, single-minded pursuit but a happenstance of opportunities and a passionate savouring of what fell her way.

Coming to Canberra from Sydney to teach secondary school she arrived at Narrabundah High School, as it then was, and “the principal said to me, ah, the new Indonesian teacher!” With that she augmented her one-year of Indonesian language at Sydney University with a further three years at ANU.

Tiring of that she was encouraged by a colleague at Narrabundah to deepen her love of languages with a master’s degree in Latin. Back on campus again, “I talked to an elderly man in a cardigan who said: ‘Oh, yes, before you do a master’s degree in Latin, you have to do a year of Ancient Greek.’”

That sparked in her a new passion resulting in another arts degree, a master’s qualifying, a master’s degree in Ancient Greek on Homer and, after a gap, a PhD also on Homer but on a different topic.

“So it was really just a kind of accident, it was an accident that I came to Narrabundah… and then just on a whim wanting to do more Latin… and then being set onto the Ancient Greek pathway.”

But not really surprising to a Homerist, it was an accident with a backstory, with Elizabeth’s love of language evident since childhood and encouraged by a mother who read to her and a path-breaking grandmother who gave her books – Grimm’s Fairy Tales “when I was three”, Pride and Prejudice “when I was probably 11 or 12” – and who believed in her.

“I was her first grandchild and, for a long time, all the others were boys so I was the girl. She regarded me as special and I think that’s good just to have someone in your life who thinks that you’ve got something to offer, “ she reflects.

Just as important was her grandmother’s example as someone who broke moulds and blazed her own path. “She was full of energy,” explains Elizabeth, “Although she grew up on a small farm on the Murray River, she gained admission to the conservatorium in Melbourne in the early 1900s. She became a pianist and taught piano and voice.”

Her father, too, while reserved, was encouraging. “Dad was quite ambitious for me to do well,” she says. “He was at Fort Street High School and he had to leave at the end of his second last year because of the Depression. But he thought education was very important, and because I did quite well at school, he was constantly pushing me to do better.”

While her mother valued books and reading and was influential in that way, she could also be discouraging. “My mother had always told me that I wasn’t really good at English, that I had no imagination… Then I realised in my last two years in high school that I actually loved analysing text – unpicking a text and talking about what’s really going on.”

Not surprisingly, it was at Sydney’s selective St George Girls High School in the southern suburb of Kogarah that an English teacher fired her enthusiasm and that of the other girls. “Her name was Eula Guthrie. She is still alive; I see her every couple of years. She was brilliant! Everyone who had her as a teacher respects her.”

“I went to a class reunion in 2011 and Eula more or less held court while one after another of my former classmates went and, as it were, sat at her feet and talked to her. She was amazing. It’s really important, I think, to have had a great teacher.”

Elizabeth’s own history no doubt figures in the emphasis that she herself places on teaching. She has won a slew of awards for teaching and research supervision, beginning with the ANU Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching 1998.

“I think teaching is really important,” she says. “Our University currently, and our Government, I think, are not supporting teaching as much as they’re supporting research and that is a real pity. Teaching is what keeps us academics going, as we encounter in our classes bright young students keen to learn.”

The Vice-Chancellor’s award was an important breakthrough for Minchin as, combined with other developments, it helped her obtain a continuing position at the ANU.

Prior to that time, life had been a juggle of part-time teaching and study with young children at home. She was caught in a cycle of contract teaching for seven or eight years until 1997 and 1998.

“These were really bad years on the campus – cuts everywhere, people’s contracts weren’t being renewed and it was really miserable,” she recalls. “My senior colleague, Beryl Rawson, to keep me in a job went half-time for a year. I had the other half of her position and in that year I was nominated for a Vice-Chancellor’s teaching award, which I won.”

At that time too, the NTEU won a big national case arguing that people who had been on contracts for seven years or more and who were to be offered another contract should be offered a continuing position.

“I was one of the beneficiaries of that judgment,” she says, noting also the irony that would have resulted from winning an ANU teaching award but failing to gain further employment at her home institution.

Since that time Elizabeth’s continued mining of her discipline and interests has continued her upward incline in a field of increasingly curtailed opportunities.

In 2001 came the first of her books Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey, followed by Homeric Voices: Discourse, Memory, Gender in 2007, both Oxford University Press publications.

With these she was well and truly liberated from the contract teaching of her early days and the second-class citizenship of being a great teacher without the research follow-up. On being made Professor of Classics in 2010, “the books had been tremendously important,” she reflects.

Another research project helped too: “I think that one thing that was extraordinarily fortunate was that the day before the interview for the Level E position the ARC (Australian Research Council) grants were announced and our group had won one,” she says.

Elizabeth was a chief investigator on the grant, a Discovery Project headed ‘The silent wilderness speaks: the long history of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles’ along with Dr Peter Londey (ANU) and their team of Associate Professor Chris Mackie (University of Melbourne), Dr Mehdi Ilhan (ANU), Dr Tamar Lewit (University of Melbourne) and Professor Joan Beaumont (ANU). The project has brought her full circle with elements of her own background (her great-uncle fought at Gallipoli) and is a striking assertion of the relevance of her ancient discipline to the contemporary national argument about place and identity.

“Australians think of the Gallipoli peninsula as being terra nullius until 1915; then, suddenly, Australians moved in. But that peninsula and the Hellespont and the Troad just opposite had already played vital roles in history for a couple of thousand years.”

“We have evidence that Xerxes crossed the Hellespont, that Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont. We have the location of Troy, or what we believe to be the location of Troy, just close by. We have various myths and legends attached to that stretch of water.

“I’ve just been working on the myth of Hero and Leander and the way it has been received through time. This makes a very interesting story, arising from our interest in mythological associations, and the way landscape and myth are intertwined on the Hellespont.”

All of the italicised words in the three paragraphs above are a demonstration of Elizabeth’s argument that we all walk around on ancient legs, speaking a language that has a long history.

Written by Garry Sturgess and published with the kind permission of the Australian National University’s Gender Institute. Since this profile was written in 2012, Elizabeth has now moved to be an Emeritus Professor at ANU.