I am a writer and former teacher in Somerville, Massachusetts. My writing has been featured on the Another Mother Runner website, and in various academic outlets (see my highlight reel a.k.a. curriculum vitae). I write about literature, parenting and running.
I hold an A.M. and a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University, and a B.A. from Middlebury College. I was appointed at Harvard as College Fellow in Italian from 2016-2018. I created and taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Italian literature during that time, some highly specialized (a seminar on Boccaccio and Petrarch, and another on modern and contemporary Italian poetry) and some more broadly imagined (a survey of Italian literature from 1200-present, as well a seminar on migration in literature, and another on humor). Every course was meant to address what I saw as the fundamental questions we should all be asking ourselves: why college students should study Italian, what they might hope to get out of it, how literature can contribute to a better world, and most importantly to me, how to make the field of Italian Studies more inclusive.
The long version: an academic apologia
I do not mean to make of myself an academic martyr; deciding to leave the academic job market was neither heroic or selfless, nor was it a principled stand. I took a long view of the field and tried to be a solution to what I saw as its most pressing challenges in part because I hoped it would get me a stable job. In retrospect, I lived and worked in a vision of academia as I hoped it could be rather than the reality of academia as it currently is. I do not regret this, nor do I applaud myself for it. I think, however, that both the larger trends and my own relationship to them are worth reflecting on, as they are what brought me here.
There are many reasons for the well-documented decline in numbers of college students across the country choosing to major in Italian (and a corresponding amount of panic among non-tenured Italian faculty whose careers are at stake as hiring in the field stagnates). The two that always seemed clearest to me were the lack of a clear career path stemming from the Italian major on the one hand, and the blinding whiteness of the vast majority of Italian authors taught in college programs. I spent two years on the Harvard faculty - dictated by the term limits of my specific type of post-doc - and I saw every course I created and every student collaboration I undertook as an opportunity to consider both of these issues and imagine a better version of Italian Studies that would address them.
That the number of students majoring in Romance Languages is in decline makes sense to me. Of course college students are going to choose a major that claims to set them up for a career that will help them pay off their loans; this is both logical and prudent. I happen to believe, though, that if you are fortunate enough and intelligent enough to end up in college, you will be well served by learning a foreign language while there. I also believe that you should work with that language for longer than the bare-minimum requirement (usually two semesters or so); you should inhabit that language in the classroom, then take it abroad. Even if you ultimately want to work in tech or medicine, the neurological and intellectual process of language-learning will make you more versatile, more adaptable, and ultimately better at whatever you decide to do after college. At Harvard, it was exciting to me that so many students majored in STEM or in economics and still wanted to take Italian, and I wanted my courses to welcome those students and prove worthy of their time and investment.
When I interviewed for jobs at various liberal arts colleges around the country, I was often asked to reflect on the "changing of the student body" and what that meant for Italian studies. In other words (as I interpreted it) we have more first-generation college students now, more students of color, and for any number of highly valid reasons, students are less likely to consider Italian than they used to be. Of course students are going to look askance at a program whose course syllabi are overwhelmingly populated with white male authors, artists, filmmakers and historical figures - as they should. My subfield particularly, Medieval Italian Literature, gives a disproportionate amount of space to exactly three guys: Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. The inevitability of the Dante course at every college with Italian in the curriculum has long been a given, and by no means do I want people to stop studying Dante. I want people to want to study Dante (I want them to want to study Boccaccio, too) because The Divine Comedy is both beautiful and hugely influential, and I think that it is possible to both revere that foundational text while also insisting that there be space for those who have dared to be different from the version of Italianness it has created. I believe that we can have our canon and interrogate it, too.
There is a worthwhile conversation to be had about why "Italian Literature," a discipline invented in the 19th century is the way it is, and why it privileges the works that we know and love and disregards so very many others. I once gave a lecture at Middlebury College titled "Dante on Every Syllabus" in which I talked about how if we read Dante non-canonically, embracing his poetry and his craft while rejecting his hegemony and his inevitability, he only gets better. I don't want to stop reading Dante, but I also want to make space for more voices in what we think of when we think of Italian literature, lest we lose our ability to see and appreciate difference. Among those writing in Italian today, women and people of color are becoming ever more prominent. The channels through which works of art might reach an audience are still more limited for these emerging authors than for the already-established literary class, but this is changing and will continue to change. Italian Studies in the United States has space to receive 21st-century Italy with all its complexities, and it does not have to give up Dante and Boccaccio to do so.
Talking with other Italian professors struggling to maintain enrollment numbers in their Italian literature courses, I have sometimes had the sense that we are fighting for the salvation of our students' souls. We want them to come to our classes, to learn with us, think with us, and play with us during these highly formative years of theirs. We want the literary texts that we love so well to play a part in their formation as thoughtful, compassionate, and critical people. In my years as a teacher and a scholar of language and literature, my most inspiring discovery has been that this is the real work to be done. Reading fiction does not happen in a vacuum; provoking discussions about works of art is at the core of what literature scholars do, and it has the potential to shape important, world-altering discourse, however indirectly. Putting down the existential need to impress hiring committees above all, I find myself free to keep doing this work, but as my whole self. As an academic I hid a great many of my struggles, my joys and my core convictions, ostensibly to preserve some veneer of the professional. You cannot claim to save students' souls when you yourself feel that you are to some extent pretending. I recognize after several years of striving to fit into the academic mold that the work that I feel I am good at - or have the potential to someday be good at - might yet belong somewhere else. If I am right, then some of what I write on this site will find its way to an audience that will consider it, interrogate it, challenge it, and make it better.