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Italian Studies Department Goals and Objectives

We study Italian culture from the Middle Ages to the present, with a particular emphasis on its literary culture, history, and cinema. Because culture is inseparable from language, nearly all courses are taught in Italian. We encourage students to study in Italy, and many do so in our summer program in Siena, as well as in the year-long program in Bologna for which we share responsibility with two other colleges. We emphasize teaching the culture through the language and helping students achieve fluency as readers, writers, and speakers of Italian. From the beginning, we ask questions akin to those frequently asked in cultural studies, film, and literature classes: questions that refer to the need for multiple contextualizations that pertain to culture in relation to human agency. We teach students to answer those in Italian and to establish connections with other fields of study at Vassar (such as Music, Women's Studies, and ancient and modern literatures) with which they are often familiar. All courses require students to analyze a wide variety of cultural texts.

Given Italy's central historical and geographical position, the study of its culture serves to integrate disparate fields of study. Consequently, many majors also concentrate in another field. In addition, we have a significant number of correlate students. The very diversity of our students, therefore, reinforces the inherent "cross culturality" of our field.Our goals for non-majors and majors are not significantly different. With the former we emphasize the links with their own fields of concentration (where appropriate), as well as courses in which they are currently enrolled. For example, we connect the analysis of Petrarch's sonnets to subsequent developments in European and particularly English poetry. Similarly, the study of Italian film in its cultural and historical context furthers students' understanding of cinematic language beyond its aesthetic dimension (and vice-versa), so that  post-war Neorealism is linked to the socio-economic factors that generated specific formal practices in modern European cinema. Throughout our courses, the great and, at times, insuperable problems of translation enact dramatically the complexities and perils of intercultural understanding and misunderstanding.

To evaluate students' progress in acquiring mastery of Italian, we employ an articulated structure of oral and written exams and in-class presentations during the first four semesters of study. All department members share in the teaching and organizing of language courses and in devising assessments. Oral exams, at the semester's end, for example, are conducted by faculty other than the designated instructor.

At the intermediate level, we offer Italian 270 and 280 which, in their advanced practices of oral and written expression and the study of dialects and the Italian Holocaust, serve as introductions to upper-level courses and seminars. We then offer two courses (Italian 220 and 222) which provide in-depth overviews of two key periods: the twentieth century and the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. We have designed these courses to help students acquire cultural literacy, master literary and other codes, and develop a broad sense of historical developments.

Study in Italy at the University of Bologna (or other Italian universities) constitutes a key component of our program. For one and sometimes two semesters, students enroll in courses offered within our own program by local university instructors; they may also choose from the rich offerings of the University itself. As a result, they return to Vassar with first-hand experience of different methodologies and critical assumptions.Our disciplinary goals, set in relation to graduate programs in Italian Studies in North America, include fluency in spoken and written Italian; a broad knowledge of Italian culture of the past six centuries, with a deeper knowledge of one or two specific areas; and the ability to interpret complex cultural texts, verbal and otherwise.

Senior majors enroll in two or three seminars in which they analyze in depth major texts and themes. Topics of these seminars have ranged from the literature and ideology of the Italian Renaissance to modernity in Italy and gender in Italian cinema. At this point we expect students to follow complex lectures in Italian, to participate actively in such discussions, and to make both oral and written presentations in Italian. A required senior seminar in the spring explores topics such as Petrarch’s Letters and youth culture and the culture of youth in twentieth-century Italy.

The diverse interests, methodologies, and approaches of graduating majors is evident in the recent senior projects. These have examined topics ranging from the poetry of Italian immigrants to Arcangela Tarabotti's 17th-centrury "L'inferno monacale" and a translation of essays with presentation and performance of a traditional southern-Italian dance. Recently some of these projects were included in the Learning and Teaching Center annual Senior Research Symposium.