Students often talk about the exciting prospect of “spending a semester abroad.” I am happy to say a “semester abroad” can happen to faculty as well.
For Spring semester 2014, I found myself teaching early American Literature to fifteen graduate students at the University of Rome, in Rome. For the entire semester, I was a Fulbright Visiting Professor to Rome. That would be Rome, Italy. Needless to say, I had the time of my life.
Named for Missouri Senator William J. Fulbright, the Fulbright Program was established by Congress in 1947 as a post-war effort to generate cultural exchanges of scholars in all fields between America and most other nations. Even before WWII, and despite fascist era resistance to things American, Italian intellectuals celebrated American literature and promoted the study of American culture in Italy. By 1950 departments in Italian universities devoted to “studi Americani” were flourishing at a time when American studies in the US was itself just becoming a legitimate academic field. At about the same time, Fulbright visiting professorships in American literature were established in Rome, Venice, and Naples. For over six decades, Fulbright has also brought hundreds of foreign professors and students to universities and colleges throughout the United States.
With the modest Fulbright stipend, my wife Ginny and I found an affordable, 1920s vintage two-bedroom apartment, with tall shuttered windows, and two small balconies in the Trieste section of the city, just outside Rome’s massive imperial walls. The department of Anglo-American Languages and Literatures, located at the University’s Villa Mirafiori campus—the former residence of King Vittorio Emmanuele II’s mistress—was only a ten-minute walk away. However, my graduate seminar on the literature of the American Renaissance—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Douglass, Melville, and others—met near Sapienza’s main campus in the San Lorenzo district, amidst student bars and shabby-trendy shops. To meet my seminar required either a brisk twenty-five minute walk from my office or a bus then a tram. I love trams.
The University of Rome, founded in 1303, is the largest in Europe with over 120,000 students. It is said that if Rome’s students all decided to go to class, not only would parents and faculty go into shock, but also the entire system would have to shut down. Happily, attendance in my fifteen-student seminar was nearly perfect. In 1993, the government split off two institutions—Roma Due and Roma Tre—from the original Rome Uno, which retains the institution’s nickname “La Sapienza,” or “Wisdom.”
In the newly imposed Italian graduate curriculum, PhD students are given three years to complete their courses and, theoretically, complete their dissertation projects. The task is daunting, and no one, faculty and students alike, sees much benefit in moving so quickly. Added to this is that that unemployment is at 12% in Italy, and worse, 40% of the unemployed are under thirty. But my graduate students, who were evenly distributed throughout the three-year curriculum, were not depressed by Europe’s depression but eager to read and discuss.
I spread out the reading of Moby-Dick over the entire semester, about thirty pages a week, and each week we read an additional shorter work by another writer: some familiar such as Emerson and Douglass; others unknown, such as playwright Dion Boucicault, who wrote The Octoroon, a melodrama I have been teaching at Hofstra for over ten years. Students were mostly Italians, though with the European Union and its Erasmus exchange programs, students from France, Russia, and China also attended. The course was conducted entirely in English, but I was there to learn, too, and students always graciously helped me with my barely passable Italian, especially when I took them out for a drink.
Ginny and I arrived on February 14, and with a couple weeks to get settled before classes began, we set about returning to favorite sights we had known from previous visits, but from the start we were committed to discovering parts of Rome we had never known. Yes, one must pay homage to the Coliseum, Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Piazza Navona.
But with almost five months ahead of us and with the chance to live, not just tour, Rome, we enjoyed just wandering and allowing ourselves to discover famous places by accident. We searched for out of the way places, reached by train, bus, and on foot. Rome is not just ancient; it is levels of ancient. But it also has its many layerings of the new. Everywhere you see the seams where old and new come together, so that the intersection of a glass hotel and a decaying wall just off an unexpected piazza where boys are playing calcio contributes to an aesthetic hard to explain but a thrill to experience.
Ginny and I decided beforehand that we would write blogs of our experiences. As part of my Fulbright project, I had proposed to follow Melville’s itinerary when he toured Rome for a month in 1857, and I thought it would be interesting to use a blog format to explore Rome through Melville’s eyes. Ginny wanted to record daily life, today, as we lived it walking the cobbled hills, strolling the Tiber, drinking fresh orange juice in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, or heading out by train to Ostia, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Orvieto, and Naples. Our five months in Italy was not just about Rome, but then again, it mostly was. I do love the trams.
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John L. Bryant