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By Francesco Freddolini (Art History)
We were all students once, and some experiences made during that wonderful season of life – when the quotidian was made by books to devour, fascinating questions to ask, and dreams about the future – have a lasting impact on our lives.
My story dates back to September 2001 when, as an undergraduate student at the University of Pisa, majoring in Art History, I passed my Linguistics exam. I studied hard and, more importantly, I did my best to think deeply while preparing for my exam. As an Art History student I thought it made sense to address the fact that one the founders of the Visual Arts department in my university, Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti (1910–1987), had theorized what he called a “Linguistics of Vision” based on structuralism, and especially on Ferdinand de Saussure’s work. In Italy the exams were oral – an interview with the professor after the completion of the course – and when the professor asked a question about Ferdinand de Saussure I thought I had my opportunity to shine and, more importantly, to engage in a meaningful discussion. But when I mentioned Ragghianti’s theories the professor dismissed my statements as completely off topic because – he maintained – Linguistics is all about the verbal communication. I insisted, mentioning the book La critica della forma (The Critique of Form) that Ragghianti had written, but my efforts were in vain and actually annoyed the professor. I still managed to get a good grade, but I wasn’t happy because I realized that my examiner had no interest in the student he had in front of him: he overtly refused to consider that he was teaching to a cohort of art history students, an audience that may look at problems from a perspective different than his.
That exam taught me an important lesson, and as soon as I left the professor’s office I said to myself: “If one day I’ll became a professor I will never adopt that behaviour, and I will always consider the background of the students I have in front of me.”
That day arrived (yes, sometimes dreams do come true!), and 15 years later, when I walk into a classroom, or when I talk to students regarding their papers, I often think about my Linguistics exam. I teach art history, but there isn’t only one history of art, and that is – in my view – the most intriguing aspect of academic life. Students majoring in history might want to look at images as evidence for their social, political, or military history; someone focusing on geography might be interested in architecture and urbanism; a practicing artist might want to study the techniques of painting… Such a variety of perspectives is a blessing and enriches every academic discipline. That’s why I always encourage my students to find a connection between their interests and what they learn in class. I don’t want my students to just borrow my eyes, my vision, and my background, when they look at art. That would be just too easy, for them and for me. I want them to look with their own eyes.