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Chance Visit Leads to Faculty Exchange Program

A visit five years ago by an Italian professor to Evanston has led to a burgeoning faculty exchange program and academic relationship between Northwestern and Italy's University of Pisa.

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June 3, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- A fortuitous visit five years ago by an Italian professor to Evanston on Rotary International business has led to a burgeoning faculty exchange program and academic relationship between Northwestern University and Italy's University of Pisa.

That's when Umberto Laffi, a world-renowned scholar of ancient Rome, walked onto Northwestern's campus, found the classics department and, without announcement, knocked on the door of Robert Wallace, professor and chair of classics here.

Laffi introduced himself and said that the Pisa ancient history department was interested in collaborating with Northwestern's classics department. The rest, as they say, is history.

As luck would have it, the classics department was seeking a visiting professor in ancient Rome, and hired Laffi for a quarter. The same year, it sent a Northwestern undergraduate student majoring in classics to Pisa for a semester of study.

The classics department also welcomed Francesca Tataranni, a Pisa PhD, as a visiting Rotary Club fellow in 2003 and the following year hired her as a lecturer in Latin language and literature, a post she still holds. Tataranni was awarded a teaching prize on the Associated Student Government Honor Roll.

It didn't take long before Wallace and Laffi decided their collaborations would benefit from increased faculty participation.

Laffi suggested bringing a "terrific scholar named Adriano Fabris and another named Stefano Perfetti to Northwestern," says Wallace. Since both were philosophers, Wallace contacted Kenneth Seeskin, professor of philosophy, and – to his great delight – "learned that Seeskin, like me, is a serious Italophile."

The Pisa/Northwestern faculty exchange officially began in the fall of 2006, when Wallace and Seeskin participated in a two-day conference at the University of Pisa on "Democracies, Belonging and Values." As early as 2003, Wallace served as a visiting professor at Pisa.

Since then, Seeskin has taught a seminar in Pisa, Northwestern English faculty member Regina Schwartz has taught a seminar in Pisa, and this academic year, Northwestern hosted a conference here jointly sponsored by the two universities and involving three faculty members from Pisa.

Today the Northwestern/Pisa exchange is broadening its disciplinary reach. The April conference on "Violence: Political and Sacred" included presentations by Northwestern faculty not only in classics and philosophy but also in the departments of English, religion, political science and art history.

In Spring 2009, the two universities will co-present a conference in Pisa tentatively titled "Love: Sacred and Secular." Seeskin expects the interdisciplinary topic will attract presenters from both Pisa and Northwestern in an even broader array of disciplines.

Also in Spring 2009, Wallace and Margherita Facella, a Pisa historian of ancient Rome, will take part in another faculty exchange between Northwestern and the University of Pisa, which is one of Italy's top-ranked research universities.

"It's going to be a true exchange," says Wallace. "I'm going to go to Pisa, where I will live in Margherita's apartment, ride her bicycle and teach a course for her while she lives in my apartment, rides my bicycle and does the same here for me."

One requirement for the exchange is that the exchange professors speak the native language when teaching at the undergraduate level. That's not a problem for Wallace, who learned Italian as a teenager when, from 1962 to 1966, his father was posted in Rome as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

While the Pisa/Northwestern connection is relatively new and primarily confined to classics and philosophy, Seeskin says there already is talk of bringing art historians from Pisa to teach classical and Renaissance art at Northwestern.

"These exchanges bring our students into contact with people they wouldn't ordinarily meet and open them to internationally renowned scholars," says Seeskin. "I expect that this growing exchange will become an even greater gem and hope it eventually leads to the exchange of students as well as faculty."

If it does, Northwestern may add to its growing roster of Italophiles. "From the moment I set foot on Italian soil, I felt at home," says Seeskin. "Cappuccino in the morning. Great art. Great music. Fabulous food and wine. Slow meals. Animated conversations. As Giuseppe Verdi put it: 'You can have the universe if I can have Italy.'"