An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
When, in the middle of last January, some of the most important deadlines for funding applications (mostly AHRC) closed, a clear indication of what is happening in the field and, more importantly, of how it is happening was given to us in a rather unequivocal and quantifiable fashion. On the one hand, it is certainly a lively picture that we saw: there were many applications coming in – both from Italy and the UK – but on the other the available funding opportunities were fewer and fewer. More significantly, however, how the competition for funding is structured and organised across the new, ambitious, interdisciplinary school of languages (arts, cultures and so on) as well as what is it required from ‘smaller’ disciplines to be successful in funding bids are changing rapidly too. In fairness, one could simply argue that this transition follows the rules of the ‘normal science’, but it is of fundamental importance to be ready to react and adjust to ‘revolutions’ of any sort, and to do it quickly and wisely.
If I were to identify some of the main traits of the Italian Studies doctorate in the UK, I would say flexibility in terms of methodological approach and the need to reach beyond the so-perceived national dimension. Having said that, I suppose that the next important question to ask in order to make sense of the whole process would be: what is it distinctive about a doctorate in Italian Studies in the UK, or indeed about a doctorate which is not in Italy? My broad, and to some extent generic, answer would be that it is imperative to think about PG research not in terms of canons or even anti-canons, but rather of interconnecting maps across a landscape, which is not exclusively Italian but that has Italy at its core. My more detailed reply would be to design projects that have both a strong and clear methodological perspective and take advantage of the theoretical challenges and opportunities that a non-historicist tradition presents. These two things put together provide an appealing justification for carrying out a doctorate in the UK. In short, it is a strong analytical drive that provides any PhD student with symbolic capital and intellectual distinction, assets which in the current climate are required if we are to think productively across disciplines and national traditions.
PhD students have power and play a fundamental role in academia – and this is not a cliché. Supervisors, and I am here citing my own personal experience, learn a lot from discussing research matters with their PhD students. Conversely, PhD students have the right to demand leadership and advice from them. But being a PhD student does not only boil down to research anymore: networking, being a reliable administrator, being punctual and responsive are increasingly important characteristics of junior academics in the making. When applying for jobs, as well as the candidate’s research potential, the search committee will consider teaching and administration experience of those they see as putative colleagues. Thus you need to think about your own distinctive methodology as a teacher as well as a research, and develop it. Similarly, it is important to have a publishing trajectory: you need to know where you would like to publish your work and by when. PhD students can therefore play a part in academia, because they can bring new ideas and create fora for discussion. This should be happening in conjunction with more senior academics. Teaching should be encouraged, although I know is it not always easy to be able to find opportunities for PhD students to do so.
The SIS is supporting all of this through conferences and workshops. In this respect, the PG Reading conference addressed an important theme and welcomed the growing and lively community I mentioned at the beginning. The theme, power, was also an incisive reflection on the changing landscape I have been describing so far. We are planning the next conference in Scotland towards October 2014 and we are still considering the theme. We will certainly be inclusive and make sure we will allow plenty of time for debate and peer-responses. Aware of the demands placed on PG students, we are also very much prepared to listen to any other ideas for smaller workshops elsewhere and, if we can, to support them. To conclude, my entirely personal view is that a small, yet established, discipline like Italian Studies can at this moment in time respond to the ‘crisis’ primarily with innovation and, may be, a bit less than usual with tradition.
On this note, please do not forget to check the Facebook page of the SIS Postgraduate community for updates.
Francesca Billiani is Senior Lecturer in Italian at the University of Manchester and the SIS Delegate for Postgraduate Matters. Her research focuses on the fascist period, the late nineteenth-century Italian novel, translation theory, censorship, literary journals, Modernism, history of publishing, intellectual history and contemporary writing. She is the author of Culture nazionali e narrazioni straniere. Italia, 1903-1943 (Florence: Le Lettere, 2007), which investigates the reception of, and responses to, translations of foreign literary texts in Italy in the inter-war period. She has published several journal articles and book contributions, and is the editor of Modes of Censorship and Translations. National Contexts and Diverse Media (Manchester: St Jerome, 2007) and of (with Gigliola Sulis) The Italian Gothic and Fantastic. Encounters and Re-writings of Narrative Traditions (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007). She is co-investigator (with Daniela La Penna, University of Reading) of the large AHRC-funded project ‘Mapping Literary Space: Literary Journals, Publishing Firms and Intellectuals in Italy, 1940-1960’, which researches patterns of organization, cultural activity, and aesthetic programme of literary intellectual networks in Italy in a period of Italian history (1940-1960).