Dante in the Digital Realm: A New Journey

Anna Holt (University of Puerto Rico)

Dante Notes / July 8, 2020

Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third. -T.S. Eliot[1]

The quarantine has affected teachers and professors everywhere, forcing us to change to an online format with no advance warning. We know too well the struggle to keep the joy and beauty of learning alive in our students when sheltering in place, internet connectivity issues, and un-synched video and audio rob us of many of the dynamics that allowed our classroom teaching to flow. It is likely that similar conditions may present themselves again in the foreseeable future; for that reason it can be useful to share our ideas and experiences, and reflect on our teaching strategies. To that end, I will describe how we celebrated the first Dantedì at the University of Puerto Rico, where I am an Italian instructor (lettrice). The event, in the form of a peer teaching opportunity, was conducted online and in Italian (my students’ target language). I will also offer some reflections on the outcome of the activity, which in its final form was different than what I had first envisioned. My hope is that sharing my experience might inspire other educators’ projects and ideas.

The Italian government announced earlier this year that March 25, 2020 would be the first Dantedì, a day dedicated to Dante Alighieri. For the occasion, I asked advanced students of Italian, who were enrolled in a literature course dedicated to the Divine Comedy, if they would be interested in participating in an activity on Dante with my beginner Italian students (completing Level A2, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

My initial idea was to create a space for fellow students to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange centered around Dante and his magnum opus. About 10 days before the event, the University decided to switch all instruction to an online format, and the restrictions made it impossible to conduct any in-person events. The three advanced students that had agreed to participate cleverly thought of reformatting their presentations to videos that I could share with my students. On Wednesday, March 25th we were able to celebrate Dantedì in an a-synchronic, online format which was not flawless but nonetheless provided us a last-minute adaptation that was well-received.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the highest expressions of Italian literature, and is at the basis for the Italian language spoken today. It is not an exaggeration to characterize Dante as the Father of the Italian language.[2] Echoes of his work can be found all over Italian collective consciousness, culture, and even international literature. All of the students presenting emphasized the importance and relevance of Dante’s works during their presentations: Victor opened and closed his video talking about his relevance today;[3] Mairim expanded on it when describing the didascalic nature of the Comedy;[4] and Pierre started his presentation summarizing Dante’s significance.[5]

For about half of my students Dantedì became their first exposure to Dante. In their videos the presenting students touched on Dante’s biographical information;[6] briefly mentioned some of his other works;[7] and then talked about various aspects of the Divine Comedy,[8] establishing for their viewers an initial foundation. For all of my students, however, this day was their first encounter in the original language with the masterpiece. All the presenting students incorporated portions of the cantica in the presentation, allowing my students to hear the text read for the first time.[9]

Even beginner students in Italian are capable of understanding sentences and phrases in the Divine Comedy. This ease of interpretation is made possibile by the unique history of the Italian language. Contemporary Italian was codified in the first half of the sixteenth century and has its roots in the language used by influential Florentine authors of the fourteenth century.[10] From the sixteenth century until the early twentieth century it was a language used almost exclusively for literature and scholarly exchanges, and remained relatively unchanged by popular use.[11] It gave my students great satisfaction to enjoy some of the poetry contained in the Comedy and it gave those who will continue their studies in Italian a view of what to expect in future course work.[12]

            Another positive aspect was the fact that the presenters were all fellow students. These informal peer teachers, with their fluency and proficiency in Italian, indirectly encouraged my students to keep working on their language skills while doing an outstanding job at conveying their own interest and enjoyment of Dante’s writings. For the presenters this project became an opportunity to deepen their knowledge on the subject matter and it allowed them to build important expository, organizational, and research skills in Italian. According to the post-activity survey[13] I created, 81% of all the students who answered it found that learning the information from peers kept their interest level high and 47% reported that learning from their peers allowed them to feel at ease and better understand the contents of the presentation (13%). Only 13% of my students would have preferred a native speaker professor to contribute. The presenting students included images, audiovisuals, props, and adopted a range of styles, from structured and formal to witty and conversational.

The videos were well received; however, the lack of an in-person or, at best, synchronic discussion was greatly noticed by the vast majority of the students, perhaps because of the subject matter discussed and the language used. In fact, 56% of the surveyed students would have preferred a hybrid presentation: they enjoyed watching the videos; but they would have also liked a discussion or Q&A in class. Also, 28% of the surveyed students would have preferred an event conducted completely in the classroom, compared to the 16% who were satisfied with an event completely online.

Because of the online nature of this first Dantedì, my ability to monitor students’ comprehension was greatly reduced. I asked my students to send me audio files with their reactions to the videos; unfortunately though, my feedback to them could not be immediate as it would have been in class. I suspect that this delay may affect their ability to internalize clarifications and corrections. For instance a number of my students understood that Dante married Gemma Donati at 12 years old; whereas the presenting students had mentioned a marriage contract that was signed by Dante’s father when his son was that age. I sent them individual feedback, but in class I could have more effectively clarified the misunderstanding. On the other hand, the individual audio files allowed me to hear from all of my students, while, in class, a few of them may not have felt as comfortable expressing their thoughts.

My students reported that the video presentations were strongly beneficial to them in several areas of learning. In the survey 72% of the students thought that the activity was useful to improve their vocabulary; 73% felt that it helped their listening comprehension; and 100% of them reported that it enriched their knowledge of Dante and the Divine Comedy. It is likely that the ability to pause, rewind, and re-hear any portions that were not immediately clear offers a tremendous advantage to beginner students. In a classroom presentation, not only are these advantages impossible, but there are also potential interruptions that can limit comprehension. Moreover, students can feel pressure to understand the information as they hear it, which can quickly become overwhelming in a language that they don’t yet master. The presenting students also reported on their post-event questionnaire[14] that the video allowed them to record several versions until the final product was satisfactory for them to share, boosting their confidence in the quality of their presentation.

From the scheduling aspect of the activity, having access to video presentations greatly improved my ability to efficiently reach all my students. The literature students participated as volunteers. The ones who decided to get involved did so specifically to improve their language skills and to mentor fellow students of Italian. Before the quarantine began I had not yet succeeded at finding enough presenters for my eight labs.[15] The video presentations instantly and effortlessly solved that problem for me. Even better, my students suddenly had access to three different presenters who, albeit occasional repetitions, offered their original view on the subject matter. In future years I believe I can adopt this solution should I encounter the same difficulty.   

Overall this unexpected turn of events was favorable for both the advanced students who presented and the beginner students who received the information. My students were satisfied with the activity,[16] and some expressed the desire to read the Divine Comedy themselves. They appreciated being introduced to Italian literature even if it was a one-time event. As the figure responsible for instilling a love for the language and culture of my country in my students, I cannot ask for a better outcome. I truly appreciate the effort and engagement of all the students involved. Without their diligent endeavor, none of this would have been possible.

Il vero cuore della Scuola è fatto di ore di lezione che possono essere avventureincontri, esperienze intellettuali ed emotive profonde. Perché quello che resta della Scuola, nel tempo della sua evaporazione, è la bellezza dellora di lezione[17]. (The true essence of Education consists of classes that can be adventures, encounters, and deep intellectual and emotional experiences. When it’s over, then, what’s left of the time spent in School is the beauty of these experiences.)

Click here to download the Appendix, which includes post-activity survey results.

[1]. T.S. Eliot, “Dante,” in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., 1964), 225.

[2]. Luca Serianni, “Lingua della Commedia di Dante - L’Italiano. Dal latino a oggi,” Le Pillole della Dante, YouTube video, 8:04, uploaded by Enciclopedia Infinita, September 28, 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YITvqTFiAzc&list=PLsF4ylP0ZjUWPN6sNTwq95CaUgU7RHb6T&index=5, 00:07:21 - 00:07:50.

[3]. Victor Nieves, Dantedì Video, YouTube video, 7:18, created on March 25, 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jtHPMWIz0kNieves, 00:00:17 - 00:01:18, 00:06:15 - 00:06:33.

[4]. Mairim Ramos, Mairim Ramos Video Dantedì 2020, YouTube video, 8:22, created on March 25, 2020, http://youtu.be/ZCRS8cfYnzE, 00:02:26 - 00:03:57.

[5]. Pierre Mounier, Pierre Mounier Video Dantedì 2020, YouTube video, 14:57, created on March 25, 2020, http://youtu.be/pPbTNUV1Mj0, 00:00:00 - 00:00:40.

[6]. Ramos, Mairim Ramos Video Dantedì 2020, 00:00:20 - 00:00:58; Mounier, Pierre Mounier Video Dantedì 2020, 00:00:41 - 00:04:43.

[7]. Nieves, Dantedì Video, 00:01:19 - 00:02:30.

[8]. Mounier, Pierre Mounier Video Dantedì 2020, 00:05:39 - 00:14:57; Ramos, Mairim Ramos Video Dantedì 2020, 00:05:00 - 00:08:23.

[9]. Nieves, Dantedì Video, 00:03:41 - 00:04:53; Ramos, Mairim Ramos Video Dantedì 2020, 00:00:59 - 00:01:39; Mounier, Pierre Mounier Video Dantedì 2020, 00:07:00 - 00:07:15, 00:12:06 - 00:12:30, 00:14:20 - 00:14:45.

[10]. Luca Serianni, Pietro Bembo - LItaliano. Dal latino a oggi,” in Le Pillole della Dante, YouTube video, 6:21, uploaded by Enciclopedia Infinita, September 28, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=er_SXhU7xrg&list=PLsF4ylP0ZjUWPN6sNTwq95CaUgU7RHb6T&index=7, 00:05:30 - 00:06:07.

[11]. Luca Serianni, “Manzoni e la lingua italiana - L’Italiano. Dal latino a oggi,” in Le Pillole della Dante, YouTube video, 7:53, uploaded by Enciclopedia Infinita, September 28, 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlI9EDdSkRY&list=PLsF4ylP0ZjUWPN6sNTwq95CaUgU7RHb6T&index=9.

[12]. Paulina Fuentes, Paulina Fuentes Reazione Dantedì, Ogg audio file, 0:40, created March 25, 2020,                         https://drive.google.com/file/d/1zLoT9SFSJDL9FEL1UFaSogMO6QxELEKC/view?usp=sharing, 00:00:22 - 00:00:40

[13]. The post-activity Google Forms survey is available in the Appendix and at https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1zFF2empjXceOtcs_lV1172MesX4Hc3mH?usp=sharing.

[14]. The post-activity questionnaire is available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lEj0vdlxJt9RZLnFDXiePrHgRktDracc/view?usp=sharing and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1pGK1k6QscZ5yfBI-GaC2eYSStkHmxU_v/view?usp=sharing.   

[15]. The University of Puerto Rico’s intensive language courses consist of a daily grammar class followed by a 30-minute lab for the first two semesters.

[16]. Valeria Morales, Dantedì, M4a file, 0:40, created March 25, 2020. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1GwtDzqi5VHfaCV-6XrBAUDCu_6DnZxkC/view?usp=sharing. 00:00:00 - 00:00:40

[17]. Massimo Recalcati, L’ora di lezione (Einaudi Editore, 2014), 7.