Numerous are the references to Italian Americans as bigots, buffoons, palookas, womanizers, and the like, all of which, obviously, are gross misjudgments in human characterization.
Another example of such insensitivity by a non-Italian American rose its ugly head once again today with Michael Kinsley’s op. ed. for the Washington Post, “Bailing Out Organized Crime, The Treasury Has a Gun to Its Head.” There is, to underscore the bigotry of the article, a photograph of James Gandolfini in a Sopranoseque pose (as seen above). To consider this over the top with its highly calumnious stereotypes is an understatement: “William P. ‘Billy the Bailout’ Baritone?”; “And don’ you fugget it.”; “We would borrow one of these cars, open the trunk and stuff someone inside. Then we would call his family and demand, say, a million dollars to open the trunk and let him out.”; “’Dat’s right,’ said the soon-to-be assistant secretary. ‘Too big to fail. And then they have the friggin’ cojones [sic; this is Spanish!] to accuse us of going legit just because we want a small rescue package of $10 to $15 billion, at least in the first tranche’.”; “Mr. Baritone amplified: ‘We only slam a window on people’s fingers when they don't pay up’.” These are some of the samples from Mr. Kinglsey’s piece. Need we say more? I don’t think so.
Such mindless, insensitive gibberish comes from a supposedly enlightened liberal, sensitive to the socially acceptable, and now I have to assume those he considers, party-line affirmative action groups. Yet, he proves to be a non-Italian American who obviously revels in mocking, as some would put it, one of the last ethnic groups acceptable to deride openly and publicly in the United States. To use the bully pulpit of the US capital’s major newspaper is unfathomable and, simply, unacceptable.
Mr. Kingsley (who, by the way, is not alone; click on Curtis Sliwa, who, in turn, is half Italian American) is much too astute not to realize where he was going; namely, in the direction of offending one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. One might thus only assume that it is, within his social universe, indeed acceptable to poke fun at certain groups while not at others; or, simply, he does not care. One of these two conceptual phenomena is clearly in play. Surely, we are wont to ask, as in fact did Mr. Joseph Grano in his letter to Mr. Kingsley earlier today in an email: “Is there another ethnic group that you would dare denigrate, as you have Italian Americans, today?”
A few days ago, in my email box, I found an announcement of a newly endowed chair at Montclair State University, the Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Endowed Chair in Italian and Italian-American Studies! This is wonderful news that we need to shout out loud from the rooftops for an array of reasons. However, please allow me to underscore only two of these many, which I consider most significant: (1) it tells us that there are even more people than the dozen or so I have found thus far who are willing to put their hard-earned money into the promotion and expansion of our two cultures; and, (2) this is happening at a state university where, still, a good number of Americans of Italian descent go to study, especially those who are first-generation college students.
For many of us began there, at the oft-times commuter state college/university, before moving on to something more like the mini-ivies and then on to one of the top five universities in the country. It was that state college that made it all possible, that allowed us to acclimate to that new and strange world of intellectualism, which did not necessarily surround us at home as a daily nutrient. This situation, I would submit to you, dear reader, still exists today; it is not the rare beast some might currently think it is.
Now, many are swift to underscore the negative representations and references found in a public discourse, be it journalistic, literary, or filmic. Indeed, there are those who also bemoan how some of our own Italian/American sisters and brothers represent us in their various fora. Well, as I have stated before, on this web-site and elsewhere, I shall indeed repeat myself here once more. (Is repetition truly the greater form of education?) We simply cannot just complain and write letters; for much of the responsibility lies with those of us within the Italian/American community. Until we step up—and I underscore also as a group voice—and respond, not merely react, in a proactive manner, we will continue to be mocked, ridiculed, and, metaphorically and literally, held hostage to dominant-culture public opinion.
In order to combat such bigoted ignorance—yes, not having familiarity with a culture leads to such simple-minded thinking—we need to be sure that those who follow, the younger generation, are aware of our culture, past and present. They can indeed have access to such knowledge in two ways: (1) People need to be there to impart the information necessary for such cultural awareness. This includes teachers and professors, on all levels. Such a strategy for success is twofold: (a) people need to get into the various K-12 curricula lessons on significant Italians and Italian Americans. To date, the New Jersey Italian and Italian American Heritage Commission has a wonderful plan that still needs to be implemented on a much larger level—indeed regional and national—than it is at this time; (b) professors at the college/university level need to include Italian Americana in their various courses and, especially at the graduate level, in their seminars. (2) This, in fact, leads to that second of two ways—an area where “push comes to shove,” so to speak. This is where cultural philanthropy comes into play; professorships in Italiana and Italian Americana need to be established; centers for Italian/American Studies need to be established. Both, clearly, can be done through endowments, as both the Inserras and those who preceded them have demonstrated. Endowed professorships and centers run the gamut for other United States ethnic groups, funded by individuals and/or their foundations. Very few individuals among the Italian/American community have engaged in such cultural philanthropy; as we count the number, we barely break double digits.
In dealing with Virginia representative Salvatore Iaquinto’s Godfather ad of last year’s election cycle, I had closed a blog by reminding us that Renaissance Italy engaged in, as they articulated in Latin, vita contemplativa—what we might call today intellectual meditation on the issues at hand—and vita activa—what we might consider today a “vivere civile,” a manner of us realizing our worth in active Italian/American citizenship. Such activity, I continued to write in the blog, involves thinking through issues (popular or not within our community), which is then combined with a philanthropy that is both behavioral (giving of our time and energies) and financial (giving of what we can afford of our means); namely, that kind of patronage in which the Medicis engaged so successfully and thus brought the Renaissance to its celebrated heights. Sitting back and lamenting only is, to be sure, worse than the objectionable actions we abhor.
As I understand it, this latest chair has what we might consider grass-roots origins, manifesting the above-mentioned practice of “vivere civile.” The idea was born out of a conversation following a lecture given by Fred Gardaphe seven years ago. Subsequent to that talk, he and Joseph Coccia, already a cultural philanthropist with both The Joseph and Elda Coccia Institute for the Italian Experience in America at Montclair State University and the independent Coccia Foundation, had a long and animated conversation. Soon thereafter, Joseph, then chair of UNICO National’s Italian Studies Chairs and Fellowships Committee (as well as being one of UNICO’s more generous benefactors, in this instance also), initiated the fundraising effort with a kick-off dinner in January 2002. Over the following six years, through this integration of individuals and chapters of the New Jersey-based national organization that is UNICO, the rest, as we say, is history. This chair, basically, is the result of a practice in philanthropy that, as I classified it earlier, both behavioral (giving of time and energies) and financial. Coccia, Gardaphè, and the plethora of UNICO members and chapters have demonstrated what true collaboration can bring to bear. Wonderful and benefiting results in the further education of members of the next generation of all things Italian and Italian-American. We simply need more of this!
Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra now join the select few who have given to the cultural survival and propagation of Italian and Italian/American Studies. The others, once more to repeat myself, are: Charles and Joan Alberto endowed the Charles and Joan Alberto Italian Studies Institute (Seton Hall University); Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta endowed the Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta Chair in Italian Studies (Seton Hall University); The Valente Family’s funding of the The Valente Family Italian Studies Library (Seton Hall University) has set up a collection of Italian books second to none; the Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò’s most generous donation funds in perpetuity the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, home of the Department of Italian Studies at New York University; Joseph and Elda Coccia have endowed The above-lauded Joseph and Elda Coccia for their Institute and Foundation; George L. Graziadio endowed the George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies and its eponymous Chair of Italian Studies at California State University in Long Beach; Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio endowed a chair in Italian studies and Western civilization at Fitchburg State College; and, dulcis in fundo, the Esposito family set up the Esposito Visiting Faculty Fellowship at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
Again, hats off to Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra for both their largesse and, equally significant, their insight into recognizing the importance of investing in our two cultures.
It is with great sadness that I write this blog about a dear friend, Felix N. Stefanile, who, at the age of 88, died at 5:21 AM Tuesday, January 27, 2009, at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Lafayette, Indiana, where he spent twenty-six years as a member of the professoriate at Purdue University.
Felix was born April 13, 1920, in Long Island, NY, to the late Frank Stefanile and Genevieve Lauri Giannicchi. Educated in the New York school system in the 1920s and 1930s, he received his bachelor’s degree from the College of the City of New York, CUNY in 1944.
A veteran of World War II, Felix served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army and went on to co-author a manual on how to fight malaria in Southern Italy. After the war, he worked at various jobs until 1950, when he took a position with the New York State Department of Labor until 1961. During that time, he and his wife Selma (nee Epstein, whom he married in 1953, and who now survives him), a poet in her own right, started Sparrow (1954), which remained one of the oldest poetry journals in the United States, until they stopped publication in 2000. They founded the journal “to lead the life of poetry”; it was their “idiosyncratic odyssey.” Over the years, Sparrow steered itself toward form, specifically the sonnet. In explaining such a move, Felix responded as follows to Gloria G. Brame in a 1994 interview: “I love the sonnet; I’m devoted to it…. It’s also an air-tight editorial alibi…. Furthermore, it’s a form that is a paradigm of the genuine writing experience: closure, constraint, contrast, accuracy of expression, focus, architectonics of syntax.”
Felix won numerous awards for his poetry, essays, and teaching. In 1966 he penned an essay entitled “The Imagination of the Amateur”; it earned him a National Endowment for the Arts prize in 1967. In 1973, he was awarded the prestigious Standard Oil of Indiana Prize for best teacher; and in 1997 he was the first recipient of the John Ciardi Award for lifetime achievement in poetry, presented by the journal Italian Americana. Author of a plethora of essays and reviews in the best of journals in the United States and abroad, he authored numerous books of poetry and translated some of Italy’s finest poets, from the middle ages to the twentieth century. His books of poetry and translations include: A Fig Tree in America (New Rochelle, NY: Elizabeth Press, 1970); East River Nocturne (New Rochelle, NY: Elizabeth Press, 1976); Indiana, Indiana: A Local Reader. Edited by Felix and Selma Stefanile (West Lafayette, Ind.: Sparrow Press, 1976); Umberto Saba, Thirty-one Poems. Translations by Felix Stefanile (New Rochelle, NY: Elizabeth Press, 1978); In That Far Country (West Lafayette, Ind.: Sparrow Press, 1982); The Blue Moustache: Some Futurist Poets. Translations by Felix Stefanile (New Rochelle, NY: Elizabeth Press 1980); If I Were Fire: Thirty-Four Sonnets by Cecco Angiolieri. Translated by Felix Stefanile (Iowa City: Windhover Press at the University of Iowa, 1987); The Dance at St. Gabriel’s: Poems (Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1995); The Country of Absence: Poems and an Essay (West Lafayette, Ind.: Bordighera, 2000).
Felix moved to Purdue University in 1961 as a visiting poet and lecturer. After that initial year, he was asked to stay on as a member of the English Department, and in 1969, he was appointed full professor. He retired from Purdue in 1987, the year in which I first met him. In the subsequent thirteen years Felix and Selma became dear friends in one sense, mentors in another, and, to some degree, my initial guides on how, as a North Easterner, I might successfully negotiate this new landscape; in effect, family. Possessive of profound intelligence, affable wit, and a wonderful gift of language, Felix proved ever generous in spirit and consul. His wisdom was infinite, and he dispensed it charitably; his erudition was extensive, and he shared it willingly. One could not expect any more from such a bountiful and integral human being. For those of us who came to know him well, we are forever the beneficiaries of his munificence and magnanimity.
An American of Italian origins, Felix was equally and fiercely proud of his Italian heritage and his American being. He negotiated the US literary scene like very few before him. In like fashion, he distinctly negotiated the US ethnic landscape. Two poems that might best exemplify such sentiments of his are “Hubie” (a poem that sings the necessity of racial integration) and “The Americanization of The Immigrant,” both of which appeared in his last collection The Country of Absence. I leave you with one of these two seminal poems.
“The Americanization of The Immigrant”
Your words, Genoveffa,
through the open window,
telling me once again what to buy at the store–
don’t forget, don’t forget–
aroma of fresh bread almost a halo.
That was a long time ago.
I never forgot.
I have pondered and pondered
the speech I was born to,
lost now, mother gone,
the whole neighborhood bull-dozed,
and no one to say it on the TV,
that words are dreams.
Virginia Beach, Virginia elected official Salvatore Iaquinto is very much off the mark with his original “Godfather” ad and his follow-up commentary. Now, I would preface my comments here by stating that such films (e.g., The Godfather, Means Streets) are significant cultural markers both for the so-called “elite” intellectual arena (some professors use these and other films in undergraduate and graduate courses) and the community at large. We do indeed need to investigate the hows and whys, consider the pros and cons of such cultural products, and, in the end, see where it all leads us by asking what some may consider those impertinent questions.
The issue of Italian Americans adopting imagery et alia that have its origins in organized crime (specifically, “mafia” and “cosa nostra”) is complex, to be sure, not at all a black & white issue; and it remains, still, something the Italian/American community at large needs to explore in a most profound and investigative manner. A first step, I would suggest, is to consult some preliminary reading such as Frederic D. Homer, Guns and Garlic: Myths and Realities of Organized Crime (Purdue, 1974). This is a starting point, I would submit, for all those interested in a disinterested, analysis of the phenomenon of “organized crime,” Italian American and not Italian American. Most recently, while different in scope, two keen reflections are available in George De Stefano’s An Offer We Can’t Refuse (Faber & Faber, 2006) and Fred Gardaphè’s From Wiseguys to Wise Men (Routledge, 2006).
De Stefano and Gardaphe provide the springboard from which to build a more evolved discussion and/or analysis of the evolution and implications of representations of the Italian/American “gangster” figure. They offer a one-two punch invitation to a re-examination and a new discussion of this contested figure, one that does not fall back on steadfast determinism (read, outright condemnation of those artists who adopt such imagery) but that allows for a more constructive conversation that could lead to a greater—read, more interpretively flexible—understanding of this truly complex phenomenon that so engulfs Italian Americana.
It remains unquestionable, I would contend, that US dominant culture thinking still believes it is acceptable to deride or, for that matter, make erroneous assumptions about certain ethnic groups, Italian Americans being one of them. This is evidenced by how media use such cultural references as catch phrases in headlines and subtitles, as the San Jose Mercury Sun did with reference to the irresponsible musings of Belmar, New Jersey’s mayor Ken Pringle and his comments on “guidos.” This is also evidenced by how journalist Jeff Pearlman catalogued Irish and Italian ethnics a year or so ago in a blog entitled, “Turning a critical eye to the ol’ alma mater”. In that piece, he included the following paragraph:
But I also saw the darker side of my hometown — a gritty, blue-collar Manhattan suburb with a predominantly Irish-American and Italian-American makeup. I still remember the kids who threw pennies at my brother and I because we were Jews; still remember the two crosses that were set aflame in my African-American friend's yard; still remember my eighth-grade teacher instructing us on how “blacks can't ski — they just can’t.” Mostly, I remember the n-word being dropped left and right without punishment. “I love Whitney Houston,” my across-the-way neighbor once told me, “but I hate the color of her skin.”
This surely makes one wonder why Pearlman, an American of Jewish descent writing in 2007 (which suggests, to some extent, that he would be sensitive to ethnic stereotypes as things now presently stand), would engage in such seemingly pre-conceived generalizations about the two “white,” United States Catholic groups par excellence. To impugn anti-Semitism, racism, and violence tout court is, simply stated, a gross misjudgment in human characterization and surely beneath someone engaged in a public discourse that is journalism and popular book-writing, two discursive activities in which Pearlman seems professionally engaged.
The irony in all of this is that Pearlman is ostracizing what he considers the continued, “offensive” practice of knick names for sports teams that refer to Native Americans. To decry bigotry aimed at one group by willy-nilly impugning bigotry to others seems, simply stated, offensive, wrongheaded, and embarrassing to all who are engaged in the enterprise of eliminating such prejudice.
Now, in returning back to Iaquinto, one might indeed argue that, after all, he is Italian American, and as such belongs to the in-crowd with all the so-called rights and privileges of an insider. Well, perhaps! But such a privileged status nevertheless still comes with responsibility. In so stating, I would contend that the notion of responsibility or lack thereof is dependent on one’s position in society. Namely, whether we want to accept it or not, the “public” official—elected and/or appointed—is simply held to a different standard, one that does not necessarily allow for the flippant remark, the off-color joke, or, in this instance, the self-referential ethnic joke that is also the hallmark of one’s public persona, as is the case with all elected officials, appointed administrators, and others in roles of—and I underscore—“public” responsibility.
Such practice by our co-ethnics only gives rise, I would contend, to a sense of entitlement for the likes of those non-Italian/American individuals and entities such as those cited above. After all, they would surely rebut: If the Italian American publicly identifies—albeit jokingly—with the imagery of organized crime (And let us not forget the antics of New York’s most recent Italian/American mayor, in this regard!), what then is wrong with others doing so? Not an entirely illogical question, we need to admit.
It simply does not pass muster that, according to Iaquinto the flier was an attempt at humor and indicative of his desire to distinguish his event from the so-called rubber-chicken event. That said, then, let’s pull out nonna’s sauce recepe if we want to rebuff rubber-chicken dinner! If he were truly not trying to celebrate the culture of organized crime, then why also does he list donor levels such as “Godfather,” “Don,” “Consiglieri” [sic]? If he wanted to celebrate an Italian/American movie, there are numerous other films he could have chosen.
Mr. Iaquinto has succeeded in winning office to an elected position. That said, I suspect he is most familiar with nuance. His statement that “[t]his isn’t a Mafia thing”[; i]t’s a movie thing” is not acceptable; it is not simply an either/or situation. More complexing, dare we say impertinent, is his logic that even though he threw a fundraiser inspired by the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, which included pirate actors, to boot, despite his use of The Godfather this year or Pirates of the Caribbean last year, “[He] by no means condone[s] the activity of organized crime, and [he does not] condone the activities of pirates.” This is then followed by what we suspect is an apology for those who might desire one: “I do apologize if I’ve offended anyone, but that was not the intention.”
Intentionality, unfortunately, is not always a way out of jail card. Sometimes our actions have certain results; and when those results are offensive to the many, a flat-lined apology is in line, not one that is conditionally based. In spite of the enormous successes of many of our sisters and brothers within Italian America, we the community still have much work to do in this regard. We need to investigate such issues further; we need to have those unpopular and uneasy discussions about the above-mentioned issues and other uncomfortable topics amongst ourselves; we need to educate those who need to be educated, even if we come off as seeming thin-skinned. We can partly succeed in these things by, first and foremost, guaranteeing that our culture is represented within the educational system, both correctly and respectfully. We simply cannot tolerate otherwise.
Yet, we should not simply complain and write letters in so doing. In stating as much, allow me to close by underscoring that much of the responsibility lies with those of us within the Italian/American community. Until we step up—and I underscore also as a group voice—and respond, not merely react, in a proactive manner, we will continue to be mocked, ridiculed, and, metaphorically and literally, held hostage to dominant-culture public opinion.
I would, in closing, remind Mr. Iaquinto and others that Renaissance Italy engaged in, as they articulated in Latin, vita contemplativa—what we might call today intellectual meditation on the issues at hand—and vita activa—what we might consider today a vivere civile, a manner of us realizing our worth in active Italian/American citizenship. Such activity involves thinking through issues (popular or not within our community), which is then combined with a philanthropy that is both behavioral (giving of our time and energies) and financial (giving of what we can afford of our means; namely: that patronage in which the Medicis engaged so successfully and thus brought the Renaissance to its celebrated heights). Sitting back and lamenting only is, to be sure, worse than the objectionable actions we abhor.
Our heritage and culture need you to act – now!
Precisely because Italian Americans have willy-nilly “complicated the notion of whiteness in America,” as Gardaphe keenly indicates, so too those of us who have come after Rudi Vecoli and Rocco Caporale need to “problematize” this and many other issues at hand. I use this seemingly “ugly” term because, at the very least, it calls attention to the issue at hand.
Too often spokespeople for our community and the defense thereof have flattened the discourse, similar to revisiting an opened bottle of champagne three days later and being surprised at the lack of bubbles. This, to some extent, is what has been going on in a certain corner of Italian America.
Two other recent posts during these past couple of weeks call our attention to (a) how we chose our heroes (Joey Skee, “Watching ‘Serpico’ with my Thirteen-Year-Old Son”), and (b) the unspoken past of POWs (Laura Ruberto, “Becoming Italian American: POWs and National Identity”), which also calls to mind the similarly unspoken, related history of enemy alien status.
Our discourse has been flattened, to be sure. Early on, during that generation of first-time high school graduates and, subsequently, college graduates, we do find a few names of those who have tried to keep the bubbles alive. But they are few and far in between, and they are now beginning to leave us. We have lost two in the last few weeks: Rudi Vecoli last month and, a few days ago, Rocco Caporale.
Each of them exhibited in their work a rare combination of intellectual acuity and integrity. As we remember and honor both of these fine individuals, we should also keep in mind their unbending conviction that subtended their research, as they sought the truth by asking those questions that brought them into areas that often interrogated the status quo.
Q: Professor Ryan Calabretta-Sajder, for those who may not know, what exactly is Lago del Bosco?
A: Lago del Bosco is the Italian Language Village, one of 15 language villages, which makes up Concordia Language Villages Summer Program. This year, Concordia has supported the creation of a second Lago del Bosco on the East Coast. Located roughly an hour from NYC, Lago del Bosco Blairstown, New Jersey offers everything a summer camp would plus much more. Our philosophy in the language villages is "doing" foreign language — the program is honestly a language and cultural immersion program, for us in Italian, aimed at creating global citizens.
Q: How is the program structured? How long are the sessions?
A: At the New Jersey site, we offer two sessions: one, two week session and one, one week session. The first session runs Monday, August 4-Saturday, August 16; and then the second Monday, August 18-Saturday, August 23. The villagers spend the entire day involved with Italian language and culture through the communicative approach to language learning. The food is all authentic to true Italian cuisine, and each day villagers are exposed to different cultural (regional) themes as well as linguistic ones. During a typical day at camp, villagers are exposed to singing, Italian theatre (commedia d'arte), two language learning sessions, cultural activities, special performances, and everything else camp offers (for example high/low ropes courses, a zip line, wall climbing and rappelling).
Q: Who is the best candidate to attend? Children, young adults, adults?
A: At the New Jersey site, our program is offered to students 7-14. If you student/child is 15 or 16, please contact us... we will except him/her. At the Minnesota site, we offer high school credit for high school age students (a four-week program). Young adults who have a strong command of the language are encouraged to apply as staff. We also offer adult weekends at our Minnesota site throughout the academic year.
Q: Once someone attends a session, can they return? Are there different levels?
A: Many of our villagers return each year in all of our languages. We offer a progression of levels.
Q: You have been involved with Lago del Bosco for some time. What are some of the success stories you can share with us?
A: This year marks my fourth year as staff with Concordia Language Villages. My first year as a counselor I had a villager who attended Lago del Bosco in preparation for a year abroad. This villager returned as staff after his experience and gave a lot back to the program. Currently he is a student at Harvard who will be spending his sophomore year abroad in France, with an internship in England this current summer (the reason why he cannot work with me in New Jersey). This villager is a perfect example of a "global citizen."
Q: Where might we find more information?
A: For more information, please go to www.concordialanguagevillages.org and check out the Italian New Jersey site or contact me directly, Ryan "Luca" Calabretta-Sajder at [email protected], or they can call me at 847.217.1630. Check us out TODAY!!! Plenty of scholarships opportunities still exist but the deadline is Thursday April 24, 2008, please contact Heather Vick ([email protected]) or myself.
A number of you have written to me, and I am uplifted by your desire to do something constructive. We will indeed have some suggestions as we move forward.
In the meantime, however, we need to make our desires known. The figures for the world languages in the "low volume" category were the following:
Japanese = 1667
Chinese = 3260
German = 5397
Italian, instead of the projected 1,788 expected, is at 2,025 as of April 8, the final deadline being April 18.
If you wish to opine to the powers that be, as some of you have in your responses to me, let me follow Dr. Cuomo's thoughts and suggest you send a passionate, respectful message to the following:
Governor Gaston Caperton, President of the College Board
Trevor Packer, Vice-President of the AP Programs
James Monk, Associate Director, World Languages and Cultures
As Dr. Cuomo states, "it is appropriate to say that Italian is in the 'infancy' stage of its development, having been introduced in 2005."
Alla riscossa! Anthony
On January 14, 2008, there was a meeting between an ad hoc committee in support of the AP in Italian (Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Former First Lady of the State of New York and AP Italian Committee leader; Francesco Maria Talò, Consul General of Italy in New York; Marco Mancini, First Counselor at the Embassy of Italy in Washington; Luigi De Sanctis, Director of the Education Office at the Embassy of Italy in Washington; Alfio Russo, Director of the Education Office at the Consulate General of Italy in New York; Margaret Cuomo, AP Italian committee; and myself as president of AATI) and administrative members of the College Board.
To date, there have been two iterations of the exam. In 2006 there were 1,597; in 2007 there were 1,642; and for 2008 the CB projects 1,788. There is growth, and one would normally applaud such progress. The problem is that the College Board accepted to create the AP Exam in Italian because, back when negotiations were being conducted, it was expected that there would be approximately 500 schools and 10,000 students involved in the exam. These are the numbers to assure that the exam, as the College Board explained, would not be a financial loss. Regardless, the College Board did commit to continuing the exam, even at a loss, but that the numbers of students would have to grow and financial support would have to be forthcoming. Clearly, from what you can read above, we are well under the initial estimate. There are less than 200 high schools nation-wide that offer AP courses whose students take the exam. We are, therefore, significantly lacking in the original expectations.
The upshot is that all of us, together, need to do all we can to improve the number of students taking the AP Exam in Italian. There is no question that if there are more students in high school who aspire to and take the AP Exam in Italian, there will be more students populating more advanced courses in colleges and universities. This is simple math. Let me also underscore something that Dr. Cuomo pointed out in her letter published in the latest American Association of Teachers of Italian Newsletter; that a student may indeed sit for the AP Exam in Italian without having to participate in the course. Rightfully so, as she states, “this opportunity will be most attractive to native Italian speakers, and those American students learning Italian independently.”
But much more needs to be done, and the challenges are close to staggering! As it stands, the Board of Directors of the College Board has most recently decided to suspend the AP Exam in Italian after 2009 if the number of students taking the exam does not markedly improve and funds to the tune of $6,000.000 are not raised in order to (a) guarantee the exam for another triennial (2010-2012) and (b) develop a more economical type of exam. In a letter from the College Board we were told that it “requires that if [the College Board is] to sustain AP Italian during the 2009-2010 academic year and beyond, external funding [is necessary in order to] reduce […] annual losses to the original budget approved for AP Italian. So $6 million in external funding will be required to: (a) cover $1.8 million in operating costs for the current paper/pencil face-to-face scoring model for AP Italian for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011; (b) cover the conversion of the exam content into the evidence-centered model (routine updating of the exam questions): $1.2 million; and (c) cover the development and systems build for the creation of the computer-based AP Italian Exams and the online scoring network (i.e. converting AP Italian to the same model that has allowed [the College Board] to operate Chinese and Japanese at lower volumes), launching the new model for the 2011-2012 academic year: $3 million.”
Part of the “broadsided effect,” as one of our colleagues called it, is that the AP Commissioners in Italian have been dis-invited to the May meeting in Atlanta. This meeting was to have been the final in a series begun in May 2007 in order to articulate claims, including skills-evidence-tasks and best practices, in preparation for the revision of the AP language exams. The AP Commissioners in Italian met with Commissions in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese in order to collaborate cross-linguistically on the articulation. As Dr. Elvira Di Fabio, College Board AP Commissioner for Italian, stated, the “implication of this action on the part of the College Board would be that the Italian AP exam is no longer on the roaster for revision.” Past president of the AATI and College Board AP Commissioner for Italian, Dr. Paolo Giordano, stated the following: “Let me add that the decision of the College Board to rescind its invitation to the Italian AP National Commissioners for the next working meeting in May is disrespectful and embarrassing, not just to the Commissioners but to all of us involved in Italian Studies.”
The above-mentioned ad hoc committee will meet later this month. At that time, members of NIAF, OSIA, UNICO will also be present, as well as other professors and teachers of Italian involved in the AP at various levels. The major discussions at that time will be dedicated to funding and short-term goals with regard to a greater diffusion of the AP Exam in Italian.
All of this inevitably speaks to an overall commitment on the part of the Italian and Italian/American communities with regard to Italian culture and its many facets. First and foremost, of course, is its language. If we do not know the language, we simply cannot access a greater part of that culture. Furthermore, for those of us who are children and grandchildren of those who spent weeks in steerage, a greater knowledge of Italian affords us greater knowledge to the hows and whys such immigration took place.
I close this piece with a few random thoughts, much of which, I am confident, many would agree. Italian culture extends beyond the realm of fashion and food; nice leather shoes and osso buco do not suffice! And to underscore the importance of Italian cultural artifacts throughout the centuries, I would remind everyone that France’s Musée du Louvre, one of that country’s most grandiose, prized possessions (one that is chock full of art from every corner of the world), is ubiquitously represented by the icon of an Italian oil painting that measures 30 × 21 inches. A big job for such a small painting!