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Teagle Promotes Collaborative Humanities Learning at Stanford

06/16/2014 05:07 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2014

Stanford University humanities courses offer such a rich banquet of aesthetic and historical fare, students struggle to decide which course to choose. What about a course with an irresistible title, delicious film and cultural content that also meets two separate general education requirements: Professor David Lummus's "Italy: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," a new "Gateways to the World" course aimed at students interested in studying abroad in Italy.

"Italy: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" meets both Stanford's Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry and in Engaging Diversity requirements. Introducing students to primary materials in translation, this course helps students strengthen their interpretive tools for art, literature, film, and other forms of cultural production while also examining some of the major trials and challenges faced by Italy in the 20th century and today: emigration/immigration, terrorism, organized crime, corruption, and political crisis. Reading a broad historical spectrum of authors including Boccaccio, Petrarch, Bruni, Machiavelli, Vasari, Leopardi, Scego, Mazzucco, Sciascia, and Saviano, as well as contemporary journalistic, historical, and sociological works, the course examines the cultural and historical origins of today's particularly delicate moment in Italian politics. During the final week of class, Lummus and his co-instructors, PhD students Nicole Gounalis and Nicole DeBenedictis, held a roundtable on the current state of Italy after the European Parliamentary elections and Italy's promise for the future.

Lummus remarks: "It was an interesting and lively discussion. The students were very optimistic. I'm curious to see if they will be right!"

"Italy: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" is part of Stanford University's "Graduate Student and Faculty Collaborative Teaching in the Humanities," a special humanities program for undergraduates and graduates that also trains PhD students to become teachers of the liberal arts. With a $125,000 grant from the New York-based Teagle Foundation, this program supports faculty-graduate student course development, team-teaching, and provides a plenum forum for collaborators to discuss humanities research and their teaching experiences.

For this interview David Lummus, Nicole Gounalis and Nicole DeBenedictis answered questions about their collaborative and teaching experiences in the Teagle Initiative:

How did you organize your collaborative teaching and what were the results from this quarter?

David Lummus:
Each graduate student co-instructor led three of the 1.5-hour classes during the quarter and participated as an informal interlocutor during the class discussions, intervening at will. In mid-term evaluations, the students reported an appreciation of the variety of expertise, teaching style, and input from the team of instructors. Each also participated early on in the creation of the syllabus and reading list, as well as in the grading and course planning throughout the quarter. We met periodically to speak about the progress of the course, changes to the program, and the results of the mid-term evaluations, but most of the collaboration outside of class took place via email in the sharing of lesson plans and evaluations of student work. The collaboration led to us sharing our diverse teaching experiences and methods with each other for mutual benefit. Next year I will have to teach this course alone, but I greatly appreciate the work of both graduate students this year in creating and implementing the course for the first time. I definitely profited from their collective insights and creativity.

Nicole Gounalis:
Our collaborative teaching consisted of each graduate student leading 3 of the total class sessions, with intervention into the class discussions during the other lessons taught by Prof. Lummus. The results from this quarter were largely positive, I think, both from the students' perspective and from my own as a graduate student. It was very helpful for me to teach two classes about material I know very well, which is Italian Futurism, and then a class on material I know less well, which is the current wave of immigration into Italy. The students' feedback has been positive, and they seem to have enjoyed getting diverse perspectives from the three instructors.

What were your most successful projects and assignments?

David Lummus:
As both Nicole G and Nicole D mention below, our most successful assignments asked for a creative production of knowledge from the students: a life of an important contemporary Italian figure in the mixed myth-history style of Renaissance biography and a letter home from study abroad during a critical moment in post-1945 Italian history. Both assignments asked students to represent their understanding of the course material using a different register than that used in class, assessing their ability to absorb historical information, perform an analysis of style, and repurpose that information for a new audience. Students were also required to submit a critical reflection of their own choices and methods of communication in the creative piece. The other assignments asked them, first, to compare attitudes towards historical change in Italy with those in another country, and second, to juxtapose the representation of historical Italian emigration with either that of immigrants into Italy today or that of current Italian "brain drain."

The comparative-analytical and the creative-reflective assignments worked well in tandem with each other, since they required students to produce different kinds of thought in diverse forms of writing. We also asked students to keep a journal in which they investigated a contemporary issue or major figure in Italian culture not addressed in the class. The final class meeting was dedicated to oral presentations on their topics, which varied from physics to food to politics to religion. All of us were greatly impressed by the students' enthusiasm for their subjects and by the quality of their independent research. One additional, though originally unplanned, project was a surprise visit, around mid-term, by Italian journalist Beppe Severgini, who spoke to the class about Italian society and generously took questions from the students on Italian politics. It was a great opportunity for them to hear about Italy straight from the source and to engage directly with his ideas, since they had read some of his articles for the New York Times. We were very impressed with how they participated, asking him hard questions!

Nicole Gounalis
:
The most successful assignments have been those that were more creative. I think, in particular, the very first written assignment, which was to write a short biography of an Italian 'icon' in the style of Boccaccio's or Bruni's biographies of Dante and then justify the reasoning behind the chosen interpretation, was very successful because it allowed the students to apply the concepts they'd learned in a direct and more playful fashion, while still making sure they were able to formally articulate what those concepts were.

Nicole DeBenedictis:
The most successful assignments were those that required the greatest degree of creativity from the students. The first assignment (which required the students to write a biography of a contemporary Italian icon) as well as the fourth assignment (which required the students to compose a letter to a friend or family member in which they had to explain a significant social issue or critical historical moment) were a pleasure to read. Different from the other two papers, which were more researched-oriented and comparative in nature, these two papers allowed us, the instructors, to read about the issues and individuals that most inspired or intrigued the students. I especially enjoyed reading the last section of the papers in which the students explained their reasoning behind their particular approach to the assignment as well as to the selection of the specific details that they elected to highlight. Reading these critical reflections helped me understand how the students were interpreting and digesting the readings and discussions. I also believe that the students were more critical and careful about their selections, knowing that they would have to justify or explain them in the reflection.


What's next for the graduate students? New projects? Courses?

Nicole Gounalis:
I am currently working on my dissertation prospectus, which is somewhat related to the topics of our course (it is an intellectual history of the rapport between leftist political ideology and the historical avant-gardes in early 20th century Italy). As of right now I am not slated to teach any more courses in the near future, but I would love to teach a course like this again, either in collaboration or on my own. I think that the relationship between different historical periods of Italian culture is under-studied and not as frequently taught as it could be, and so I think a course like ours fills in an important gap for the students.

Nicole DeBenedictis:
I am working on my dissertation prospectus and am also looking forward to teaching Italian 21 in the upcoming Autumn Quarter. Italian 21 is the first quarter class of the second-year series of Italian. The course aims to bring the students to a higher linguistic register via reading and writing exercises, audio-visual aids, and, especially, advanced in-class discussions on culture, literature, and current events. I will teach the course in Italian. The strategies and tools that I learned by participating in the Teagle Initiative will help to inform my approach to every class session, particularly when reflecting on how each exercise, assignment, and in-class activity plays a strategic role in the overall narrative and learning objective of the course.

Such collaborative training of graduate students with hands-on experience in the classroom hopes to produce the next generation of liberal arts educators. In "Italy: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" Stanford's PhD students in Italian prepared for their future careers while equipping undergraduates with critical tools for further cultural exploration abroad and beyond the university.