The chair of Brandeis University’s Romance studies department, Professor Fernando Rosenberg, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the Romance Studies department, its future and himself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.
Why doesn’t the Italian studies department have a major, while the other Romance language programs do?
The Italian studies faculty had been reduced and the only tenured professor there retired a few years ago and that’s [left] the department without a tenured faculty, so it’s unsustainable. So that’s the reason that Paula Servino has been at Brandeis for more than 20 years. She’s the main spirit of the Italian program. She, along with Sylvia Monteleone, decided to do a program that is not a major, but is an independent major (IIM). That’s something particular to very small programs at Brandeis, is that [they] have independent interdisciplinary majors. … So it does have a major, but it’s not under the Romance Studies umbrella. French and Francophone studies and Hispanic studies have a more consistent and diverse faculty that can offer a diversity of classes and a curriculum in lower level [learning] and upper level [learning] every year.
What do you think that the Romance Studies department does right?
We have a common sense of purpose from the very beginning of the language instruction you take when you come to Brandeis. [For example,] you don’t know any Spanish, and you start taking Spanish classes, and you can go through the sequence and graduate having read Dante, or having explored Italian culture, Latin American culture or French culture. … So there is a development that goes from the very early stages of language to an immersion [in] the cultures that this language encompasses. In Hispanic studies, for example, many students come from high school with a good level of Spanish and they can, they can hit on the last semester of language instruction and then take literature [and] … film classes in the language. So that kind of a connection between the language learning and the cultural experience and getting to know the authors and the filmmakers and the popular culture of different places. … We are proud of doing that.
What do you wish that students knew about the Romance Studies department?
It’s not only the great authors of the literary traditions that we want to force down students’ throats. It’s where we study those. In the context of popular culture and important debates that have to do with class and race and gender that touch our contemporaries in a very powerful way. I would like students to know better [that that is] what we do. There are things that really matter. I can see how even if I’m teaching something that is from the 19th century, I want to ask questions that are relevant for us today so that it’s not something removed [from the modern world].
What is your favorite class to teach?
There is a class on the short story that I call “El Cuentero” which is “The Storyteller” [in English]. That’s a class that is a lot of fun because we just read short stories and it’s a kind of a common experience of reading together. [Sometimes we] read aloud, and it’s recreating this experience of stories. … It’s an interesting dynamic that I try to create in the class, of telling stories and reading stories and sharing stories. That’s a class that I enjoy a lot. Another class is my “Literature, Film, and Human Rights in Latin America” class. … We study the history of human rights and we see things that are also relevant for understanding today’s world.
What role do you think the Romance Studies department fills in a Brandeis education?
I think it opens horizons. Brandeis declares itself a global [institution that is] trying to educate citizens of the world. I think that sensitivity and openness to intercultural communication is something that we try to foster.
How do you think that your time in Argentina informed how you teach about Latin American culture?
I was born and raised in Argentina until the age of 28, which is when I came here. … I came here at a [later age] when compared to other immigrants that come early on. I came here when I was at the PhD level. So I never stopped comparing [the two cultures]. … The experience of having been brought up in Argentina [and] the educational system are very different. But … how does it inform my teaching? Let’s say in Argentina [that] cultural production and artistic production are very alive. That’s something that I think is very interesting in Latin America: culture happens in the streets. It’s not only artists, it’s people creating things, people making do with what they have and creating something great out of that. You walk on any street in Mexico and you see something that is very different because people are very invested in creating and recreating and exploring and re-imagining their culture. That’s something that is … very much part of people’s daily existence. I think it’s not something [that] … students call … “academic.” And they use the term “academic” as something that is separate from real life. That’s the border that I try to cross, because I think what happens in terms of cultural creation is part of people’s daily existence and reality. It’s not something that happens only in museums, only in theaters, only in libraries, kind of enclosed spaces that are just to visit for one night. It happens everywhere.
Is there anything that you wish the students knew about you?
I’ve got my education all in public schools and I’m proud of that. My primary school, high school and university in Argentina were all public schools and I got a great education. I’m a first generation university student, … the first in my family who had a doctorate. … Many students at Brandeis are also first generation and I want to connect to that.