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Notes on my study and work experience in the United States

by Giacomo Mazzei

My academic and life experiences in the United States have changed a great deal my intellectual and political convictions. I said academic and life experiences because I believe that, conceptually, the two can not be separated. I graduated from La Sapienza University in Rome several years ago, then I took a Master in American History at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I am now in the American History PhD program at the University of Maryland, in College Park, Maryland. I have read a mountain of books on a great number of subjects but, if one really wants to understand something of the United States, books alone won’t do. You have to live and work there to let those books speak to you and to come, or at least get closer, to a full understanding of the distinctive characteristics of that complex country and its history. Indeed, this argument is valid for any country.
I also feel that, as a scholar, I have been particularly privileged to be in the United States in a time of war and to live in two such different places such as Southern Virginia and Washington, DC, after having spent a two-month period of study in New York City a few years earlier, when the World Trade Center was still standing tall over the city skyline. I enjoyed my time in New York, where money meets culture and politics in ways that are hardly replicated elsewhere, and I have appreciated the opportunity to live in Washington for three years, in close proximity to the center of American political and military power. But I have also appreciated the perhaps not-so great privilege of seeing first-hand what the American South looks like while living for about a year in Williamsburg. As soon as you leave the suburbs of Northern Virginia behind, you find yourself in the South, which is another country if you come from, say, New York, Boston, or Chicago. It is important to understand that Williamsburg is far more reflective of contemporary America now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, than New York and Washington. Indeed, the big American story of the past twenty or thirty years is the Southernization of American politics, society, and culture. Moreover, much of the military industrial complex that was built during the Cold War is located in the South. My experience in Williamsburg, which is only miles away from Norfolk, where probably the largest navy base in the world is located, help me better understand a significant aspect of American society, its militarization, which clearly distinguish the United States from Italy and most European countries.
As I specifically consider my academic experience in the United States, I think that the best way to describe it to the reader who is not familiar with the American system is by comparing that experience to my previous one in Italy. A comparison between the two systems may also be of interest to the reader who would like to know more about Italian academia. Of course, my experience is limited. I am a history student. Those working in other fields may have a different story to tell.
From my point of view, there are certain advantages in studying in the United States rather than in Italy. These are primarily practical advantages, because of the greater resources that are generally available to those studying in the United States, particularly the graduate students, who are in either a Master or a PhD program. One clear advantage is the availability for graduate students of long-term book loans, up until 6 months or, in certain cases, even one entire academic year, with no limit to the books that can be checked out from the library of the university that one belongs to. Plus, interlibrary loans are usually easier to get and longer than in Italy. This is of great help when writing a Master thesis, a PhD dissertation, or even a paper for a seminar. To this, one should add the convenience of the open-shelf libraries, the numerous electronic databases and the easy access to the Internet available in most libraries, including public libraries and the libraries of the other universities that might be located in the area of one’s alma mater. From this point of view, those who live in urban areas are generally the luckiest.
As for the academic curricula in the United States, I especially appreciated how much emphasis is put on writing at both the Master and PhD levels. Indeed part of the PhD, at least two academic years, is dedicated to taking a number of seminars. Master curricula are all about seminars. For most seminars, which can be either reading or research seminars, the student has to write a final paper and/or a number of short papers – sometimes one or two book reviews, sometimes a book review each week with no final paper needed, sometime one or more exercises tailored to the specific requirements of the seminar. This great emphasis on writing is probably one of the best features of the training as Master or PhD student. So much writing is particularly challenging for international students whose first language is not English, but it is also a great opportunity of professional training. I have no direct experience of the recent and much criticized reform of the Italian university system but, from my experience of the previous system, I find that Italian students would benefit from a kind of training more similar, in this sense, to that provided in the United States.
If the easier availability of precious resources and the greater emphasis on writing are two features of academic work in the United States that are worth stressing in comparison with the situation in Italy, other features compare less favorably. The workload, in particular, can be at times almost unbearable. In my experience, this is due primarily to the student’s responsibility as teaching assistant and to the great importance which is attached to the comprehensive examination that each PhD student has to take before concentrating exclusively on writing the doctoral dissertation. Working as teaching assistants, which most PhD students regularly do for most of the program, is a great opportunity of training, but sometimes it can be quite stressful, adding more workload to an already busy schedule. This is particularly true at state universities, where students are generally required to work more than at private institutions. As for the comprehensive examination, this is line with the American system for professional training. The comprehensive examination that a history PhD student has to take, generally during the fourth or fifth semester of the program, is quite similar, in terms of preparation and difficulty of the examination itself, to the much dreaded tests that doctors or lawyers in the United Sates have to take in order to enter the profession. The examination is both written and oral, it usually takes three or more days, the student must pass it in order to stay in the PhD program, and it cannot be failed twice. It can be a great challenge, especially for international students.
Finally, a few words on the intellectual quality of professors and colleagues: in my experience, it is generally the same as in Italy. This is to say that we Italians have great potentials and should do as much as we can to make the best of our talents.

Pagina modificata Thursday 23 October 2008