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Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the Italian studies program

The co-chairs of Brandeis University’s Italian Studies program, Professor Paola Servino and Professor Ramie Targoff, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the Italian studies program, its future and themselves. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Why did you choose Brandeis?


Professor Servino: So I graduated in foreign language instruction in Italy and I moved to Boston and started to teach languages immediately at Tufts and Brandeis. Then, eventually, it grew into a very interesting position and it became my “American dream”. I wanted to teach Italian in a foreign country, and I had this opportunity here and Brandeis has welcomed me tremendously since the very beginning. I started as a language instructor, and I moved up [to] a very interesting position where now, I am a co-chair … of Italian studies and basically the representative of faculty for Italian [studies] and [I] take care of all aspects of the curriculum and event coordination. This is my 32nd year at Brandeis. I found it immediately an environment that culturally and intellectually really embraced the passion for Italian culture and literature. … For me, this really is the right place where I can cultivate my interest to teach the language and the culture. 


Professor Targoff: I came as an assistant professor teaching Renaissance literature in the English department. It was a great place for me to be at, [and] it’s been a wonderful intellectual environment for me in English, which is what my PhD is in. In recent years I’ve been working more in Italian, which is my second language. Paola welcomed me into the Italian studies program around 10 years ago when we had a sort of transition at Brandeis. So that’s been just a second home for me in the last eight or so years.


How do you feel that you complement each other’s strengths to run the department effectively? 


Professor Targoff: This is not a compliment, this is just a statement of fact: Paula [Servino] runs this department. I help her in ways that I can, but my primary affiliation is actually in English and until May or June, I was the director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities. For the last decade I’ve been running the Humanities Center and I’m a full professor in English. So my relationship to Italian is really to support the program as much as I can, as a little bit of an outsider. … Paula [Servino] is … the visionary, she really runs the program. So the extent to which our strengths complement each other is really that I am there to help Paula [Servino] when she needs me, but Paula [Servino] is really the life force of the Italian studies program. 


Professor Servino: It’s important to say that Ramie [Targoff] has taught for me one semester while I was on sabbatical. This course … Italian Jewish culture, we are very proud of [it, and] we both taught [it] in Italian. We are one of the very few, if not the only ones that can teach upper level students Italian Jewish representation in the Italian language. That speaks a lot to what we try to do here. And she’s definitely supportive in many aspects of [the program’s] visibility in the university.


What do you think that the Italian studies program does right? 


Professor Targoff: As head of the Humanities Center, I’ve had exposure to a lot of different programs at Brandeis. I think one of the real strengths of this program … is its extraordinary outreach to the students. [Since] long before the pandemic … the Italian studies program has been really hands-on with the students. Professor Servino will know every single student in the program and she would be able to tell you something about that student. And that’s true for everyone teaching in the program; there are very deep personal relationships and a lot of informal advising [and] informal mentoring. It’s a program that really thrives on the liberal arts college community of getting to know your students, [of] getting to know your faculty and of real conversation. So I think that’s something that really distinguishes the program from other units and from other departments on campus.


Professor Servino: We make sure that students can see that even if they’re studying something that’s so completely “unpopular”… they truly get affected by [an] appreciation of culture and literature. … And I think what we all have been doing here both with Raime [Targoff] and the other Italian teacher [Silvia Monteleone] and I is also being extremely present in the curriculum and being sure that the latest changes are applied. We are following [up] not just because we have to check boxes, but because we do believe that a true world … [includes] an understanding and appreciation of other cultures.


Is there anything that you think the Italian studies program could do better?


Professor Servino:, I think implementing the message [of] how important it is to study Italian. And I think the reason [to study Italian] is not just because of the classic traditional romanticized idea of Italy, a beautiful life, the food, the culture, the music, those are all strengths. The geographic position, [and] how important it is nowadays because of migration from North Africa, … and the contribution that Black Italians, for example, are giving to literature. … There are so many ways the [world’s] cultures intersect with Italian culture. … It’s really intertwined in ancient and current history of the world. So there are many reasons to revitalize that view of Italy as a country and as a culture.


Professor Targoff: The extent that we can bring a bigger picture of the complex and rich, not just beautiful, [but] messy and combative current history, 20th century history [and] 21st century reality of Italy to complement what you … are already inclined to love about Italy. The extent to which we can bring a greater awareness of what one can learn about the world in its current moment from studying Italy, that’s a challenge for the program that I think would bring more students into the program and just bring a greater awareness of how important it is to the campus. 


What is your favorite class to teach?


Professor Targoff: My current favorite class to teach is my Witchcraft and Magic in the Renaissance class, which is probably a third Italian material. It’s also about Scotland and England and France and Germany, and also Salem, Massachusetts. … In recent years I’ve been finding it more and more satisfying as a way to think about gender and inequality and the legal position of women and of people who are on the outside of society through amazing works of literature. … So I’ve been loving that. And, this is true for a bunch of us who teach in the Italian studies program: we might not be teaching strictly Italian classes, but interdisciplinary classes that include Italian. So I teach a course … called Gods and Humans in the Renaissance, which I team teach with an art historian, Jonathan Unglaub, a professor of art history [here at Brandeis]. There we pair literary texts with paintings. And again, it’s probably a third or maybe half [in] Italian, but the course is about … how we think about gods in the plural and God in the singular during the Renaissance through different kinds of art. 


Professor Servino: And for me, [my favorites are] two classes that I’ve created in Brandeis in the last few years. One is Italian Jewish Culture, Cinema and Literature and the other one is Mapping Italian Culture. [Teaching] Italian Jewish Culture has been a wonderful challenge for me … [and] passing that to students at Brandeis, … [ because many of them] really love the appreciation of what it means to be Italian-Jewish people and writers. Mapping Italian Culture really draws on the key questions that also come from political struggle. Like we said, it’s not always, like Ramie said, a fantastic mandolin view and Vesuvio and the food of Italy, but it really taps on political challenges. I love particularly the ’70s to teach about internal terrorism, the division and the eternal quest about North and South Italy and what generates the diversity and division in that. I also love to teach, in the same course, about Blackness in the Italian curriculum. I specifically teach short stories from current Italian black writers that are very popular in the Italian curriculum all over the country. Also, Italian-American representation, because one thing that’s very important is also to appreciate some scholars and writers and movies that have to deal with Italian-American culture, which breaks the stereotypes. So one of the goals of Mapping Italian Culture is to encounter the stereotypes, to make some sense of them historically and break them. … So to put those pieces together is a wonderful opportunity for me to stay connected with what’s going on in the current Italy, but also to cherish what has been happening here in the Italian-American world.


Professor Targoff, you’re part of many different departments. How do you feel that these departments intersect? 


Professor Targoff: So the basic relationship between the Italian studies program and my home department, which is English, has to do with overlapping texts and topics. … And I’ve actually just published the first translation into English of the first book of Italian poetry ever written by a woman. The work that I do is mostly sonnets and love poetry, which is something I teach a lot in English, [and it] has been spilling over into my work in the Italian program. Now that I’ve stepped down after a 10 year period of running the Humanities Center, I’m really looking forward to bringing some of that research … into my Italian studies teaching. So hopefully in the next couple years, I’ll be doing that. The shared literary interests of the two fields are how I personally manage to … [bridge] that divide. 


Professor Servino, how do you feel that your time in Italy has affected the way that you teach classes here in the United States? 

Professor Servino: I was born in Naples and I came here after my graduation. … The approaches [to teaching] are completely different. What has changed me tremendously, and this is my primary research interest, is [the] pedagogy of language and literature. … Americans in general and Brandeis [students specifically] are really strong in addressing pedagogical developments. This is really unique because when I confront myself with Italian colleagues, although so many wonderful things are happening on the other side [of the ocean], there is still some sort of teacher-centered approach. … It’s really [important] to implement this interactiveness, this practical side of teaching that brings projects and presentations in a very concrete way. So I do like that aspect that I learned here. I mean, if I didn’t come here, I probably wouldn’t have been approaching my teaching in such a pragmatic way. Language, culture and literature have to be practiced and also have to be retained. If you don’t have the right pedagogy, things just become information that goes over your head.

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