Andrea Leone-Pizzighella on her book Discourses of Student Success

Interview by Clara Miller-Broomfield

https://www.routledge.com/Discourses-of-Student-Success-Language-Class-and-Social-Personae-in-Italian/Leone-Pizzighella/p/book/9780367681111

Clara Miller-Broomfield: What led you to choose Cittadina, Umbria as the setting for your fieldwork on discourses of student success in Italian secondary schools?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: I chose Cittadina for a few different reasons. First and foremost, I had already established contacts there through a teacher network I was part of several years prior, and I had also done a very brief exploratory study in the schools of Cittadina (focused on the use of dialect in the classroom). Those two elements made my entry much easier than if I had needed to cold-call schools and drum up interested participants. In my experience, no matter where in the world you go as a researcher, it takes an immense amount of time, finesse, and—maybe more than anything else—luck to gain access to a school community (not to mention to three schools, as was the case with my research). I wanted to enter the schools as a researcher and not “sneak in” under the guise of English teacher, which would have undoubtedly eased my entry into the schools, but I would have also then taken on a role that isn’t conducive to the type of research I wanted to do.

Another reason for choosing Cittadina was for its manageable size and affordable cost of living. I left my husband, dog, house, and car in the U.S. while I was doing this research, and was still paying for life in the U.S. while I was doing fieldwork, so I couldn’t afford to spend tons of extra money or excessive time gathering data. I needed to be able to reach the research sites on foot, not be at the mercy of public transportation, and I needed to manage my time well in order to stay on track with my timeline, which was a single academic year. Organizationally, the small (but not too small) size of the city meant that it offered all school options (lyceum, technical, and vocational), but in a contained format, which was perfect. All of the technical subjects were housed in one building, all of the classical subjects in another, and all vocational subjects in another. A smaller city would not have offered all types of secondary school, and a larger city might have had five schools just for the technical subjects, another five for the classical subjects, and so on, which would have made it a nightmare to organize fieldwork. The size of Cittadina and the relatively central location of all the schools made it so that I wasn’t spending half of my day commuting to and from the sites, that I could track people down for interviews with relative ease, and that I had time, energy, and space for working through my data in the evenings.

The third reason I chose Cittadina was because the regional variety spoken there belongs to the family of varieties that is, for me, easiest to understand. I by no means consider myself a speaker of Cittadinese but I was able to understand much of it in a passive sense after a few weeks of exposure to it; Central Italian varieties often resemble Standard Italian enough that it’s not too complicated to identify patterns quickly. (I once heard Guadalupe Valdes refer to this phenomenon of mutual intelligibility as “a one- or two-day language,” which she herself experienced – if I remember correctly— as a Spanish speaker in Venice, where she noticed that there was quite a bit of lexical overlap between Venetian and Spanish.) I also had contacts in a few other cities, but some of these cities were either too big or too expensive to manage for a lone researcher on a PhD stipend, and some cities have a regional variety is not as mutually intelligible (for me, at least) with the variety of Italian that I speak. Cittadina ended up working out really well!

Clara Miller-Broomfield: You mention that the tripartite division of secondary education in Italy creates an inherently unequal system, despite the government’s best intentions to the contrary. How do you think your findings might have differed if you had carried out this research in the United States, where such a rigid division of secondary education does not exist?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: As an American student/teacher/researcher in Italy, I have been pondering the pros and cons of the U.S. system and the Italian system for about a decade and I still don’t have a clear-cut statement to provide about my point of view on their differences. Honestly, even though there isn’t often a rigid or physical division (such as a wall) between high school interest groups and student types in the United States, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that students aren’t divided at all – of course they are. We know that the (pseudo)gerrymandering of school districts and their associated very unequal funding sources (especially property taxes) mean that schools in neighboring districts may have vastly different resources and vastly different student bodies. This leads to the same outcome as we see in Italy of some schools being labeled good and others bad. Even looking at a single school in a given neighborhood in the U.S., there are school-internal divisions amongst the students because of streamed or tracked education. This division of students by ability level is the norm in the U.S., and I think some of the effects of this system are very similar to the effects of the Italian system (for example, labeling students as gifted or remedial). What I think is potentially positive however, about the U.S. system of having all of the students from a given area in the same school, is that they can be in the math class labelled gifted but in the writing class labelled remedial, and they can also experiment with lots of different elective subjects as well (IT, art, music, woodshop, psychology, ceramic, Latin, and so on). They don’t need to decide that they are a certain type in terms of their disciplinary interests until their final year of high school, and even then, there is still some wiggle room. There are exceptions, though, especially in large cities, which sometimes follow a model that resembles Italy a bit more (for example, the performing arts high school, the science high school, the Latin school, and so on). I am of course biased, but I tend to think that the focus on general education and the ability to take lots of electives is a very positive aspect of the U.S. school system.

However, to answer your question, I think that I might have found many similarities, but some important differences. One of those differences would have likely been the timeline of student identity formation. Few U.S. students need to decide in middle school what type of career they would like to pursue, unless they are headed toward a trade school. The types of divisions in Italian schools that are already apparent in the first year of upper secondary school might not appear until much later in U.S. high schools (for those following the general education model). Whether this is positive, negative, or neutral, I’m not sure, but I have the feeling that that aspect would have been much different in a U.S.-based study. The other difference I would have expected to see is in regard to the student-student and the student-teacher dynamic. Students in the U.S. often go to many different classrooms a day, and they sometimes have different classmates from one lesson to the next. This means that there is no class unit, as there is in Italian secondary schools where 20-25 students are in a classroom together all day, every day, for every subject, for five years. On the one hand, milling around to all of these different classrooms every day gives a U.S. student perhaps more options and flexibility in terms of self-presentation and identity work, whereas Italian students’ identities might solidify more quickly and stay that way for years. On the other hand, the U.S. model might leave more room for isolation and competition than the Italian model which appeared to favor cooperation and groupness, but there are positive and negative aspects to both sides of the coin here as well.

Clara Miller-Broomfield: I was struck by the fact that many of the specializations offered by vocational schools and technical institutes are associated by outsiders with a positive, even prestigious image of Italy (for example, fashion systems; tourism; food, wine and hospitality; the ‘Made in Italy’ label). During your fieldwork, with the 3Moda class in particular, did you notice an awareness from students and/or teachers of this fact despite the generally negative perception of these schools in popular discourse?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: The teachers are definitely aware of what it means to be in the world of fashion, since all of the discipline-specific subject teachers had spent at least a few years trying to make it in that world themselves. I think that nearly all of them (in the specific case of the 3Moda’s fashion teachers) turned to teaching when they had children because the world of fashion was either too competitive or too unstable for raising a family. In their role as teachers, they did whatever they could to leverage their professional networks for educational purposes (finding internship placements for the students, inviting guests who led workshops for the students at school, and sharing anecdotes from what they considered real life fashion work). The 3Moda students were probably less aware of what it meant to choose a career in this industry, but I noticed that some of the students came back transformed and humbled after their two-week internships where they were actually put to work on the floor of a shop (measuring, cutting, sewing), and seeing that it’s really important to get right all of the supposed minutia from class. I think that for a potentially myopic 16-year old, this has a big impact on their approach to their studies and their ability to imagine themselves as part of the fashion system, but reality inevitably hit them after graduation when the time came to market their skills and look for jobs. Not all of them graduated and not all of them have managed to break into the fashion industry.

Just as a side note, I think that the worlds of wine, tourism, and fashion are often romanticized by outsiders because their finished products are usually luxury goods, especially when marketed to non-Italians. What I think is important to highlight, though, is that the vocational school graduates are often on the shop floor in these industries and are not often customer-facing or in a managerial role. They can of course be in these roles, but this requires extra skill development on their part; I wouldn’t say that the vocational school equips them with these skills necessarily. Anthony Bourdain’s famous New Yorker article about Les Halles in New York City comes to mind: behind the elegance and glamour of one of the top-rated restaurants in one of the world’s major culinary cities lies a whole world of blue collar specializations like fry cook, butcher, porter, dishwasher. The reward for doing these jobs flawlessly is often simply… not getting fired. A lot of that type of work is thankless and disconnected from the finished product. The worlds of fashion, wine, and tourism are the same: the people who are doing the dirty and dangerous jobs like operating heavy machinery (for example, fabric presses, tractors, buses) are not the first who come to mind when we think of these industries, but they are an integral part of them despite not being able to afford to indulge in the finished products that they, themselves, are helping to create. For instance, one former student from the 3Moda works for a fashion house whose least expensive scarf is listed at 530 euros: what she earns in about half a month of work.

Clara Miller-Broomfield: You point out that the questione della lingua or “language issue” looms large in everyday discourse in Italy, and that the country’s many regional varieties or dialects are associated with technical and vocational schooling while Standard Italian is associated with the more prestigious lyceum. Do you believe that this perception could be altered by teaching these regional varieties in schools, as is done to some extent in other European countries (such as France and Spain)?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: This is a great question, and one that is very hard to answer. While I do indeed say this in the book (about dialect being more associated with vocational/technical students than with lyceum students), I think I should clarify here that this observation is based on my own experiences. I am sure that there are many parts of Italy where this is not the case at all, but in the three parts of Italy where I have spent the most time (Rome, Cittadina, and Verona), I have both observed this phenomenon firsthand and heard about it from contacts and friends in those areas. Every province, region, city, and neighborhood have their own very specific histories, politics, and associated language ideologies, so I can’t make sweeping claims about any realities outside of the ones I have experienced myself. Of course, many countries have undertaken very intensive language revitalization and revalorization efforts and have been, by many measures, extremely successful. However, the reasons why Galician or Catalan are taught in Spain, or why Occitan or Alsatian are taught in France, are rooted in different histories and are motivated by different causes. A few years ago, Sabina Perrino and I put together a special issue for Multilingua that lays out some of the issues with language revitalization efforts in Italy and in Europe more broadly; a lot of the work in that publication speaks directly to this issue and will paint a clearer picture of European language politics for anyone interested in this topic.

However, I’ll go out on a limb and say that teaching regional varieties in schools in Italy would probably not alter their overall standing because it would require them to be so standardized and sterilized that the end product deemed teachable enough for school would probably resemble only somewhat the way that people actually speak. A standardized orthography would need to be decided, as well as a shared pan-regional lexicon and a pan-regional pronunciation. In some regions this might be more straightforward than others, but this presents major problems for many regional varieties because so many city-specific lexical or phonological particularities would need to be erased in order to standardize the dialect on a broad enough scale that it would gain recognition as a supposedly real language. This is all a gross oversimplication, but let’s just say that I am very skeptical as to whether this would help to legitimize the ways that people actually use dialect in schools! It would essentially require inventing a new version of the regional language which, if adopted by institutions like schools, would simply risk alienating speakers of dialect considered untrained and erasing hyperlocal varieties in favor of the invented school-approved one. That said, I think teachers should nonetheless encourage students to leverage any and all of the languages they know in order to facilitate their learning, and that all languages should be treated as resources rather than as hurdles to overcome. This can, of course, be done by a single teacher without the accompaniment of a major language revalorization effort.

Clara Miller-Broomfield: As a linguistic ethnography of education, this book does an excellent job of bridging the gaps between linguistics, education studies and anthropology. If you had to explain the importance of this work to a linguist or discourse analyst without much background in anthropology, what would you say?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: Thank you! I think that the linguistic elements and the anthropological elements in this book really lean on and rely on each other for meaning making, but that’s not to say that you need to be an anthropologist in order to understand its significance. In fact, I think the book’s interdisciplinary framework makes it accessible to many students and scholars who work within and across any of the many fields related to education studies, education policy, cultural/linguistic anthropology, (socio)linguistics, and language policy—at least I hope it does! Applied linguists who study what I call “big L” languages in the book might be interested in the discourse that surrounds the teaching and use of these big-L languages in schools, as well as what draws people to pursue particular educational paths. Discourse analysts will likewise hopefully appreciate the book’s look at the many styles and layers of talk in the three different classrooms, whether they are interested in class stratification, didactics, youth language, or how broad societal values filter into conversations between students. There is plenty of small-D discourse and plenty of big-D Discourses (in James Gee’s sense) to analyze in this book, many of which I only hint at. In sum, I would tell anyone generally interested in linguistics, sociolinguistics, or other related fields that this book uses language as its lens in that it looks at ideologies about personhood through the lens of broadly circulating discourses, focusing on the role that words and speech play in constructing, maintaining, and undoing our social worlds.

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