The art critic Federico Zeri claimed there were three things wrong with Italy: the Mafia, the Vatican and the University. I don’t have any personal experience of the first (though I know someone who did, and I’ll get to his story later), nor direct personal experience of the second, which is strictly extra-territorial, though you wouldn’t think so from the traffic jams along the Tiber embankment every Wednesday or the almost daily presence of God’s ferret on the TV news. But the University? Right on, Federico!
I’ve been what’s known as a university lettore for25 years, and in litigation for 23 of them. During that time, I’ve been sacked, redefined, demoted, been prevented from working in the absence of a contract, been obliged to continue working in the absence of a contract. I’ve been told by my superior that I belong to a category that ought to be exterminated, and that I will be ‘made to pay’ for arguing. I’ve been threatened with unspecified ‘measures’ for taking time off to attend my father’s funeral. I’ve been propositioned by students of both sexes, and resisted (honestly). I’ve been promised publications that have never appeared and had more prestigious publications ignored or patronised. I’ve been treated like shit by just about every other university category, including students, in one way or another, except maybe the cleaners.
Zeri probably didn’t even know that lettori exist. Because, of course, we aren’t the problem.I was talking earlier about the way Italy imports words for concepts it doesn’t really want to handle too closely. The corollary of this is that dozens of Italian words exist for which there is no real translation, words that sink their roots deep into the humus of the culture and won’t be dug out. Qualunquismo. Menefregismo. Furbizia. Clientilismo. I don’t know what bilingual dictionaries do with these words, but if you wanted to explain them through context the Italian university wouldn’t be a bad context to start from. But maybe the best way in would be the word barone. It looks and sounds like baron, but is used to describe a certain kind of university professor. The feudal implications, needless to say, aren’t accidental.
But this deserves a post of its own.