On location: Professor gives students an authentic Italian experience — virtually

Maritozzi, a type of Italian pastry, featured in a video created by Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Monica Straniero. Image Credit: Video still.
Maritozzi, a type of Italian pastry, featured in a video created by Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Monica Straniero.
Maritozzi, a type of Italian pastry, featured in a video created by Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Monica Straniero. Photography: Video still.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Monica Straniero was doing just that — visiting Italy — when the American border slammed shut due to the coronavirus.

A native of Rome — from the city’s architecturally striking Via Giulia or strada magistralis, to be exact — Straniero lives in Binghamton, but visits friends and family back in her homeland during the summer. In late August, she began her journey back to campus, but officials stopped her at the airport: While she has a valid work visa, she wasn’t permitted to enter the United States due to the pandemic-related travel ban.

She was stuck in Italy — not the worst situation for an Italian professor with prior experience teaching online. Unable to reach her students in person, Straniero brought them to Italy instead.

For her course on Love and Family all’Italiana, she personally interviewed writers and directors, some of whom joined the class as guest speakers via Zoom. Her class on Italian festivals had the opportunity to visit festival sites and artisans through videos she made on location.

“For the Venice Carnival, I interviewed a mask artisan still hand-making masks in papier-mâché. The video shows students the real deal, how the actual products are made,” she said.

The class also paid a virtual visit to the Venice International Film Festival, one of the most glamorous in the world, and Rome’s three-day Maritozzo Festival, which celebrates the city’s classic sweet pastry. Then there was the video trip to Matera, a film set for many American movies, from James Bond films to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Students are loving their virtual experience with Italian culture, Straniero said. It’s almost like paying a visit themselves.

“My effort is to get them to stay focused on the courses’ topics because I am perfectly aware that online students are more easily distracted,” she said.

Italy, an early hotspot for the coronavirus, is currently in the second wave of the pandemic and the entire country has a night curfew. Rome, where Straniero is staying, is in the yellow zone, considered a lower-risk area. Red zone areas, where the risk is highest, include Lombardy, Piedmont and Aosta Valley in the north and Calabria in the south, she said.

As much fun as it is to give students a virtual Italian experience, Straniero hopes to return to the Binghamton campus sometime soon.

“My goal is to deliver the best possible educational experience for the students. See you in Binghamton in the spring!” she said.