Barbara Zecchi, director of the Spanish and Portuguese program in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, discusses her latest projects, why teaching is so important to her and why every student should learn another language.
- Where are you from originally? How many languages do you speak?
I was born in London to Italian parents. I grew up in Venice – with an amazing view of St. Mark’s Square that still fascinates me when I visit my family – and lived my adult life between Spain (Madrid and Granada) and the U.S. (California, Maryland and Massachusetts). I speak Italian, Spanish and English.
- Tell us a bit about your academic background, and how you came to UMass Amherst.
Thanks to a competitive grant from the Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia to study at the University of California, I came to the U.S. bringing with me a European background in Classical and Humanistic Studies, a “Laurea cum Laude” in Spanish Medieval Literature and my political concerns with women’s issues. Because of my interest in gender politics and feminist theories I chose UCSD (University of California at San Diego) to work with well-known scholars in women’s studies. Within the University of California system, I completed two MA degrees – one in Spanish with an emphasis in 20th century literature and women’s studies (UCSD), and one in Italian with a focus on gender and film studies (at UCLA). Finally, I received a Ph.D. in Romance Literatures from UCLA with a dissertation on the relationship between rape and writing in Spain and Italy.
After several faculty appointments in the U.S. (at Saint Mary’s College of California, at Cal State San Bernardino, and at Johns Hopkins) and visiting positions abroad (at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, at the Universidad de Cádiz, and at the Universitat de València), I joined UMass Amherst in the Fall of 2005. Since then, my work here has been constantly challenging and extremely rewarding. I am happy to say that I feel integrated into the UMass community, well respected by my students and colleagues, and well established in the profession. I strongly believe that I have finally found at UMass the necessary stability and a fertile environment to develop my deep commitments to teaching and research.
- Why do you feel that it is important for students to learn a new language?
The knowledge of a foreign language/culture is a central component of education. I strongly believe that even in a context where English has acquired a “universal value,” a knowledge of another language combined with an understanding of a different culture is an increasingly necessary component of most, if not all, social, political, artistic, and economic relations throughout the world. From tourism to management, from the culture industry to the leisure industry, from law to medicine and so forth, the advantages of being a credited professional in another language/culture can be very substantial. I’m not surprised that the most common profile of a student majoring in our program is becoming a student with a double major (in Spanish and in another discipline).
- Tell us about your involvement with study abroad?
It is clear to me that international education is not only a desirable component of any degree in higher education, but also a necessity to provide a competitive edge to graduating students. The role of international and overseas education, and its integration into the “internal” offerings of our Spanish and Portuguese undergraduate and graduate programs cannot be underestimated, especially when the society at large is facing the processes of globalization which is rapidly changing the nature of social, political, cultural and economic relations around the world. Before coming to UMass, I participated, directed and created several study abroad programs with different profiles both in Spain and in Italy. At UMass, I have been very active working with the International Programs Office to improve the quality of our offerings and explore new options for our programs in Spain. My unit is currently sponsoring three programs in Spain (Granada, Oviedo and Salamanca) and a forthcoming program in Argentina (Buenos Aires). We are also thinking of creating a new program in Brazil.
- What do you like most about teaching at UMass, and what is your teaching philosophy?
In many aspects, at UMass I have finally found an ideal student population, one with which I can identify ideologically and socially. In my classes I always try to apply what I consider the important ingredients of good teaching: preparation (my syllabi are carefully developed; my classes well organized); effective communication skills (I often challenge students with provocative questions, and I try to present the material in an engaging way); respect for any point of view (I encourage students to express their views in an open, unthreatening environment); patience (I maintain an assertive but nurturing and non-intimidating attitude towards them); and passion (I never stop saying to my students how much I love what I am doing). In my graduate courses I always address the institutional implications of my theoretical and ideological approach to the study of literature and film, to the extent that these may shape the students’ future place in the labor market. I teach with the goal of helping graduate students make more informed decisions about their literary and professional practices.
- What do you hope your students gain from taking a film studies course?
As I argue in my book La pantalla sexuada (The Gendered Screen), cinema is one of the most powerful tools of propaganda even within a democratic system. My goal is to make students aware of what I call the “violence of representation”: the language of film creates an illusion of reality that has strong persuasive effects. For instance, commercial male-authored cinema has constructed –both diegetically and iconographically-- female characters according to parameters that do not necessarily correspond to reality and has contributed to the perpetuation of patriarchal stereotypes. I want my students to learn how to “read” movies and be critical.
- What projects are you currently working on?
Currently I am working on a new book project on the first generation of female film directors in Spain that will recover proof of a female cinematic tradition systematically silenced by the Franco regime and consequently forgotten. It will be the first comprehensive study of the history of Spanish cinema by women filmmakers from its origins to the end of the Franco regime. Furthermore, I am planning to complement my book with a free open access online website that will disseminate my primary sources. I am already working on the digital aspect of this project thanks to a Digital Humanities Initiative seed grant that I have recently received from the University of Massachusetts. For this project I’m also currently seeking external support through different fellowships.
Furthermore, this semester, I’m organizing my second International Conference on Spanish Film. The first one (“Gynocine: Mujeres, Dones and Cinema”) was entirely dedicated to women’s production. This year it’s on “Spanish Cinema Today” and it will feature guest speakers from the UK, from Spain and from Morocco. It will cover different issues such as Film and Intermediation, Film and Digital Cultures, and Film and Journalism, among others. Moreover, thanks to a grant that I have been receiving from the Catalan Government since 2006 for instruction of Catalan Language and Culture at UMass, I have been curating a Spring Semester Catalan Film Festival, with the collaboration of our lecturers (in particular Júlia Llompart and Jordi Dosaiguas) and graduate students. The topic of Spring 2013 will be New Catalan Cinema.
- Outside of academia, what hobbies or interests do you have?
Even though I virtually have no free time (especially now that I have taken up the directorship of the Spanish and Portuguese Program), I have many hobbies that are all related in a way or another with my academic interest in the visual arts. So it is impossible for me to draw a clear line between what is work and what is fun (and for this reason I consider myself a very lucky human being). I consider myself an inveterate cinephile and whenever I can I go to the movies or watch films at home. In the last couple of years I started to make videos that I hope will eventually become an interdisciplinary (digital) project about the imaginaries of women and the politics of representation. The background of my videos are often my abstract paintings and photographs. I also love to cook. I learned many recipes from my amazing Italian grandmother (her father owned a trattoria, a successful family run restaurant in Ferrara) and I like to experiment with food. Combining textures and flavors on a plate is not very different from mixing textures and colors on a canvas or planning the composition of a film shot. I enjoy having many friends over for dinner, and I love when my son, my 2 step-sons and my 4 step-daughters come to visit. They always find something new to try, and they always pretend they love it.
- What do you hope to accomplish in the coming years- any plans for the future?
Many projects. First of all I am very happy I accepted the directorship of the Spanish and Portuguese Program this year. I get along very well with my team of colleagues, students and staff and my primary goal is to create a productive working environment fertile for collaboration, confidence and sharing. I am proud to say that this semester we have already grown dramatically in that direction. Thanks to the competence and efficiency of Leah Dodson, our new Office Manager, our program is now functioning in a very organized way. The Undergraduate Program Committee members have been very active in advertising our Majors in Spanish and Portuguese and I am confident we will see results soon. Luiz Amaral, our new GPD, with the support of the Graduate Program Committee, has restructured exams and graduate offerings in a coherent and intelligent way. We have a new online newsletter to publicize our many activities and our program outside the boundaries of UMass. In the future, I am planning to take advantage of the resources offered by the Five Colleges and start new collaborations with the departments of Spanish at Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke Colleges. Just in the area of Spanish Peninsular Studies, my field of expertise, forming a coalition of all Five College faculty would produce the largest and most diverse program in the entire country.
As for my own development, I see myself getting more and more involved in video and filmmaking and in the Digital Humanities. I am planning to spend a summer – or my next sabbatical – taking courses in film production and documentary in the two most prestigious film schools in the Spanish speaking world: in the Escola Superior de Cinema I Audiovisual de Catalunya (la ESCAC) in Sitges, Catalonia, and in the Escuela Internacional de Cine and Televisión (EICTV) in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.
Furthermore, if I receive more funding (through an NEH start-up grant in the Digital Humanities), I would like to continue with my website and database on women pioneers of the camera. While currently the database only comprises materials primarily on female directors from Spain, I believe it could be expanded, at a later stage of my project, to include women in all aspects of film production, such as movie stars, scriptwriters and producers. And with the collaboration of other scholars in the field of gender and film studies in the US and abroad, it could go beyond the boundaries of the Spanish peninsula. I am confident my project will be a great candidate for an NEH Collaborative Research Grant.