Dr Charles Leavitt
An inspirational and passionate lecturer, together with a fascinating subject matter, can spark a life-long interest. Dr Charles Leavitt, a lecturer in Italian Studies, shares his enthusiasm for Italian Neorealism with his students.
Dr Charles Leavitt, a lecturer in Italian studies, specialises in modern and contemporary Italian literature, and Italian cinema and history. His central research focuses on Italian Neorealism, for Charles it is the most fascinating period in modern Italian history, and possibly the last couple of centuries.
"My research focuses on the period in Italian history that immediately followed the Second World War. For Italians, this was the one moment where for a few years it seemed like the entire world was to be rebuilt. Italians at the time spoke of this period as a frattura tra due culture - a fracture between two cultures."
After the Second World War, it looked to many as if western civilisation was over. After the bombing, the Holocaust, Fascism and Nazism, Italians thought they were going to have to construct a New World.
"This opened up a world of historical possibility: for the most part we tend to understand that we're always part of a tradition, always part of history, always inheriting the past. But after the war, it felt to many as if that inheritance, that tradition, could be transformed, that the world could be radically re-made. There was a wide-ranging cultural conversation about how the world could be, how the future could look. For those first few years it seemed like whatever you were doing - art, literature, cinema, politics - was crucial to shaping that future. Everyone whatever your background, whatever your job was, you felt like you were part of a broad effort, across culture, across society to reimagine the world."
This fascinating and highly creative period is the focus of one of Charles' undergraduate modules, "After the Flood - Post-War Italy".
Research INSPIRED teaching
The module "After the Flood - Post-War Italy" prompts students to carry out a research project on Italian culture and society after 1945.
"I would never have been able to offer this module if it weren't for my research. In part it's because of the texts that we read - some of which I found in libraries and archives across Italy. But it's also because of the passion for the subject I've developed as I've pursued this project.
Charles instructs his students to "imagine you are in a café in Rome in 1945, you've just picked up a journal from a news stand. Sit down with it, browse, see what catches your eye." The students invariably find articles that draw them in to topics they'd never considered, topics that develop upon but always go beyond what is covered in lecture, and they come back even more enthusiastic about their studies.
"Students on this module follow a reading list that I think is unique. Some of the texts we study are rarely part of the curriculum, particularly outside of Italy. I think that gives Reading students a different, a broader, a more challenging understanding of what the post-war period in Italy was really like."
One of Charles' students found an article in an Italian journal called Il Politecnico, about how they draw Disney cartoons. At first the student was drawn to the article because of her childhood memories of the Disney cartoons, but when she started researching further she discovered something more: a fascinating history of the reception of Disney and Mickey Mouse under Fascism. What she realised was that this seemingly straightforward article about the techniques of making cartoons was actually representative of a profound change in the way Italians thought about educating children after the war, it was part of the Italian reaction against Fascism
"Students really enjoy this research project as it can take them anywhere and into any field. They can focus on their own areas of interest but within the context of this particular historical period, and they are not constrained by what we are doing in the classroom.
"I have had students carry out research that goes well beyond what we cover in lectures. When they look into topics like Italian fashion after the war, for example, I can help guide them and the students invariably take the topics we've discussed and bring them in an entirely new direction.
"My research has helped in two senses. One is that I have designed a module that tries to give the most accurate and the most holistic sense of what this post-war moment actually felt like, what it was like to live in Italy after 1945. Then I give the students the support and freedom to do their own research within that context."
The changing focus of research
The focus of Charles' research has developed over the years, and he explains how his teaching at the University and his students have influenced the direction of his research.
"My research has developed in part because of the teaching opportunities here at Reading. When I was asked to teach on Italian cinema, for instance, I began to broaden the work I had done in my PhD, which focused primarily on Italian literature. So, a project that had been 'Theories of literature in an age of Neorealism' became instead 'A cultural history of Italian Neorealism,' which considers the post-war period from a number of different angles and tries to look at the whole of Italian culture.
"I'm now working on a new project, one that examines the cultural relations between Italians and African Americans from the 1800s to the present day. This project, too, reflects the breadth of our curriculum here Reading. Because we focus on research-based teaching, we are able to provide our students with an innovative curriculum, one that truly works to capture the fascinating complexities of Italian culture and history."
Charles feels that the Department maintains the vision for Italian Studies that the University of Reading pioneered when the programme was first created.
"We believe it's important to study more than Italian Language and Literature. We want our students to experience everything that Italian culture has to offer. This has helped me to broaden not only as a teacher but also as a researcher."
Charles talks about his proudest moments and where he feels his teaching has had most impact.
"There are a number of students who have continued into postgraduate study, taking forward projects that they developed in my final-year module on Post War Italy; and in a field like ours that is where the impact is really felt - developing interest and a critical mass on a topic."
"I have supervised PhD students and I have publications, but it seems to me that working with undergraduate students is where I have found that people become passionate about what they are studying and then they can take it forward and begin master's or PhD programmes. Several have gone to N. American universities, several have gone to Italy, several stay here or go to other UK universities. To me this shows that they are getting something out of their undergraduate education and something out of my module that sparks a life-long interest. I guess that's what I'm most proud of."