Student Life: The ability to pursue our own research

Sarah Thurmer (French and Italian, 2014)

Sarah Thurmer (French and Italian, 2014)

Yesterday afternoon, students in Dr Charles Leavitt’s final-year Italian module IT3AF: After the Flood – Italy 1945-1956, gave their research poster presentations. Students investigated a wide variety of topics, then presented and discussed their research findings with colleagues in the Italian section. We’ve asked Sarah Thurmer, who presented an innovative poster on advertisements in the Italian journal Rinascita last year, to share her thoughts on conducting and sharing research as an advanced undergraduate. Here’s what she had to say:

Two years ago now, I was set to choose my final year Italian modules while still away on my Erasmus placement in Padua, Italy. The module IT3AF appeared on a list and I was presented with the term ‘After the Flood’ for the first time. As a French and Italian student, I had the chance to choose only two Italian modules and with six available I had more than enough to choose from, but IT3AF caught my eye immediately. At the time, I was writing my dissertation on the spread of western communism in France and Italy after the Second World War, and I was therefore drawn to this module, which would allow me to study the cultural and political debates in the post-war period – fantastic!

Gemma Martinez presents her research on Naples after the liberation.

Gemma Martinez presents her research on Naples after the liberation.

Just weeks into the programme and my final year back in Reading, I began to realise that After the Flood was turning out to be the most challenging, rewarding and enjoyable module I had ever taken.

The module was at its core was an introduction to the critical analysis of a selection of texts, novels, films and journals and Dr Leavitt presented us with a schedule of seminars for the year with lists of everything we would be analysing and when, as well as detailing the assessment and deadlines. He also arranged weekly film viewings outside of seminar hours so that we could together watch a collection of unforgettable films from the dopoguerra (post-war period) in Italy.

Lorenzo Corradi leads a discussion on the USA's policy of communist containment and its effects in post-war Italy.

Lorenzo Corradi leads a discussion on the USA’s policy of communist containment and its effects in post-war Italy.

As students, we had all the information we needed and what came next was up to us. I soon realised if I was to really engage with the content and participate in what became very heated and inspiring in-class discussions, I needed to read everything and I mean everything.

For the first time, I was reading the short stories, the novels, the poems and the articles not because I had to, but because I wanted to. For a student who always avoided literature and stuck to the safety of solid facts in history textbooks, IT3AF was allowing me to take the ideas and values expressed by authors and directors and apply them to the history and politics of the period.

Not only did the novels, a favourite of mine being Uomini e No by Elio Vittorini, compliment what I already knew about the dopoguerra, they allowed me to view the period through different eyes and see past the tables of election results or industrial production figures.

Helena Moore presents her research on the return to Italy of Jewish survivors of the Shoah.

Helena Moore presents her research on Italian survivors of the Shoah and their re-integration in Italy.

I was already enjoying the module and then in the Spring Term, the study of journals was introduced and this is where I really engaged.

After an exciting guest lecture from Dr Mila Milani, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Reading, three post-war Italian journals were presented to us and all students picked one to work on. I chose Rinascita, simply because I found Palmiro Togliatti, the journal’s editor and the head of Italy’s Communist Party, an interesting figure.

I can remember nervously withdrawing the journals from the library’s closed-access collection. I immediately loved reading them. I loved analysing the images, the poems, the advertisements and of course the long articles, all in Italian, and I was excited to use to them to produce coursework.

Sophie Baldwin discusses her research on changing attitudes to divorce in Italy after the war.

Sophie Baldwin discusses her research on changing attitudes to divorce in Italy after the war.

At this point in the year, we were all being given the freedom to take the study of these journals, (or even the films, novels and poems) in whatever way we wanted within the bounds of the assessment deadlines. I know that I, along with my classmates, found this the most exciting part of the module.

Dr Leavitt enjoyed listening to our interpretations and ideas and was happy to help us further study the area we engaged with most. Many of us had never created conference posters, let alone presented them to our peers and lecturers. Yet through the study of the journal Rinascita and the flexibility to pursue the area I engaged best with, I confidently presented a poster which gained me the highest mark of my degree and fantastic feedback from everyone involved.

Students and lecturers alike enjoyed the poster presentation session and it was a great way to end the module and the year on a high. I even felt confident going into the exam because I had really connected with the content rather than reading texts simply because they were on the reading list and I wasn’t left cramming information and lecture slides the night before the exam.

Josie Harrison discusses her project on the legacy of internal exile (confino) under Fascism.

Josie Harrison discusses her project on the legacy of internal exile (confino) under Fascism.

IT3AF filled me with confidence in my studies and I look back on it now as a module I really enjoyed, something I know I am not alone in. The ability to pursue our own research, voice our own opinions and informally debate with one another made it different to anything I had studied before.

Looking back on my university experience six months after graduation, I realise it is no longer as important what mark I gained for each essay or presentation, but the skills I gained from the research, production and assessment of my work will stay with me as I continue my studies and embark of my professional future.

In IT3AF with Dr Leavitt, learning went from being a series of lectures and seminars with predicted outcomes to being an in-depth analysis of all relevant resources at my disposal and a collaboration of ideas and concepts. Lecture slides were no longer my bible and I learnt to value my own interpretations.

Gabriella Burns has to hold back from dancing as she presents her work on popular music in post-war Italy.

Gabriella Burns tries to keep from dancing as she presents her work on popular music in post-war Italy.

I would recommend this module to anyone. I had a previous interest in the period 1945 -1956 but it wasn’t the study of what I already knew that was the most rewarding, it was the discovery of new material and skills. Moreover, I now look back on IT3AF as enjoyable, so much so that I am now considering continuing studies to MA level within the Italian department.

To learn more about IT3AF: After the Flood, the dozens of other modules we offer in European Studies, French, German, Italian, and the multi-language comparative modules we offer in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Reading, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.


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Gabriella Craft leads a discussion on Italian masculinity after Fascism.

Gabriella Craft leads a discussion on Italian masculinity after Fascism.

Chloé Saleh discusses Italian Arte Povera

Chloé Saleh discusses Italian Arte Povera




Stefano Santosuosso considers Francesca Passaseo's research findings on Italian translations of Ernest Hemingway

Stefano Santosuosso considers Francesca Passaseo’s research findings on Italian translations of Ernest Hemingway

Get to Know a Reading Module: Travel in the GDR

Ever stopped to think about why you travel, where and how? Dr Alison E. Martin has.

Dr Alison MartinA specialist in travel writing, with a main focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel narratives, Dr Martin offers a module for second-year students, GM2OPT3, which explores travel in quite a different period – the twentieth century – and examines travel in Europe and beyond during the Cold War.

Her seminar has several missions. One of these is to revise the commonly-held views that travel writing is not proper ‘literature’ at all – in the sense that it is not creatively crafted – and that it is nothing more than coffee-table reading, merely seeking to entertain,
with little ‘meat’ and message to it. She also aims to make students understand how travel is intimately related to all sorts of things we do in life – not just get to work or go on holiday. Where we go and how we travel has much to do with the community to which we belong or the social group to which we aspire, our dreams and aspirations or our fears and concerns.

RathäuserWhile in this course we adopt the time-honoured position of the ‘armchair traveller’, undertaking voyages with our authors to places as disparate as Siberia and Brighton, America and Cologne, we do so with a critical eye as we examine how the writers in this module use a wide range of different textual strategies – the use of first-person narration, direct speech, factual enumeration – to create a seemingly authentic, immediate and above all engaging picture of the foreign.

Get to Know a Reading Module: The Legend of Tristan and Iseult

In a regular feature on the Blog of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, we invite you to “Get to know a Reading module.” We want to share with you examples of the innovative teaching that goes on in the department, as well as the excellent work that our students do inside and beyond the classroom. Each month we’ll invite one of our Lecturers to fill us in on one of the dozens of modules our department offers, from language and linguistics to cinema, history, literature, politics, and beyond. This month, we’re featuring a module on Medieval France.

IreneDr Irene Fabry-Tehranchi is a specialist of Medieval French Literature, in particular knightly romances of the court of King Arthur and text and image relations in illuminated manuscripts. Her FR305 module for final-year French students looks at the Legend of Tristan and Iseult in order to introduce her students to key aspects of Medieval French Literature and the cultural context within which it was written.

In the legend, the knight Tristan goes to Ireland to fetch the beautiful Iseult as a wife for his uncle Mark. On the way back, Tristan and Iseult drink by mistake a love potion and will carry on loving each other, despite Iseult’s wedding, hiding their affair from the court and from the King…

fr112 (3) f144This passionate love story and its tragic end played a key role in the development of medieval imagination, as well as its literary and artistic creation. In the Middle Ages, the legend of Tristan and Iseult was not transmitted in a single text. The story led to different versions, in verse and in prose, and had a wide diffusion, in French and other European languages. In addition to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the prose Tristan, references to the legend appeared on medieval ivory or wooden caskets, mirror cases, tapestries, decorative tiles or even chairs, shoes and tin objects, showing its wide appeal and success.


tristan casketIn this module, which alternates between lectures and seminars including students’ presentations on particular themes or textual passages, we examine the rise of courtly love in vernacular literature, the cultural importance of chivalry, feudalism, and constructions of sexuality and gender.  We look at different representations of transgression, including deception and adultery, and examine the question of marginality, from life outside the royal court to madness or leprosy, considered as both a physical and moral stigma by medieval society.

The myth of Tristan and Iseult also proved very productive in the 19th and 20th century, from Wagner’s opera to Jean Cocteau’s filmL’Éternel retour, which we study together.