In the Spotlight: Ca’ Foscari University, Venice/Italy

In this issue, the Ca’Foscari University in Venice, Italy, is placed in the Spotlight. Erica Scarpa, who has recently graduated from the Masters Programme of the University, and Stefania Ermidoro, a PostDoc Researcher there, have been so kind to answer a few questions about their University.

Stefania Ermidoro, PostDoc Researcher, Ca’Foscari University

I love what I do for a living, and I would like to transmit this passion to younger students

Could you tell the readers something about yourself?
My name is Stefania Ermidoro, I am a PostDoc Student at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. I was born in Rome, and I spent there the first 11 years of my life. I think that my passion for archaeology and for the past derives from this, since I had the opportunity of looking at ancient ruins and visiting archaeological remains since I was a little child. In Bergamo I attended the Liceo Classico (Classical High School) and I began to be interested in ancient languages, as well: thus, given my “classical” background, I moved to Venice being sure that I was going to study Roman or Greek Archaeology.. and I ended up with a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern History!

Can you say something about your PostDoc position?
After my PhD, I had the opportunity to be involved in a newly started project promoted by the Department in Venice, entitled Use and development of channels network in Babylonia during the second half of the 1st mill. BC. This is a one-year position, during which I will work in cooperation with Dr. Paola Corò – who has also been my supervisor in the years of my Bachelor and Master Dissertations.

Where lies the focus of your research?
I have always been interested in cultural history: I like to study how people in the past actually lived, how they thought and related to each other. During my Doctoral years, I have studied banquets and commensality in first millennium BC and in particular in the Neo-Assyrian period.

How do you see your future, what are your ambitions?
After this year as a Postdoc, I would certainly like to continue to be a researcher. I have also always enjoyed the opportunities I had to interact with students as a tutor for Assyriology, therefore I would also like to teach classes of Ancient Near Eastern History and/or Philology. I love what I do for a living, and I would like to transmit this passion to younger students. Unfortunately, in Italy there are not many opportunities for young scholars, especially postdocs: I am quite sure that my future is somewhere abroad. This is absolutely not a problem to me however, because I believe that we should think without frontiers..

What would you like to know from other academics doing postdocs in another country/from another continent?
I would like to know which projects are actually active in other Universities in Europe, how are the Research Groups organized and which opportunities are there for students or scholars coming from abroad. I think that these kinds of information are important in order to create connections and exchanges of ideas: everyone’s research would certainly benefit from the existence of a wider network of people working together in different countries.

I was inspired by the kind of atmosphere that I have found here, in the Department in Venice

What does the Near Eastern department of the University of Venice look like?
Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Venice are included within the broader Department of Humanities: we have classes of Near Eastern History (Prof. L. Milano), Assyriology (Dr. P. Corò), Egyptology (Dr. E.M. Ciampini) and Archaeology (Dr. E. Rova). In the past years we have had also some Visiting Professors, for Hittitology (Dr. G. Frantz-Szabó; Dr. A. Gilan) and Semitic Philology (Prof. W. van Soldt). In addition to the main library, we also have a room called “Laboratorio di Epigrafia”, where advanced students can work in close contact among each other and with the professors, as well: this is also a reference point for younger students.

What resources does Venice have for researchers?
Visiting Professors and Researchers can work in the “Laboratorio di Epigrafia”, where some workspaces are reserved for them. The main library includes books of every faculty of Humanities: the Near Eastern section is quite rich, it includes the most important and recent volumes and all the main Journals and Series. Ca’ Foscari is also a jstor subscriber, and we have access to several other online resources as well.

What are the strong suits of the University of Venice?
Venice University has a long tradition, and the studies on the Ancient Near East today are well-structured and integrated within the Department of Humanities. It is a very lively environment, that offers not only “traditional” classes but also workshops, conferences, visits to exhibitions and activities such as the researchers’ night. And of course the beauty of Venice itself and the possibility to live and study in such a unique city is also a good incentive!

What procedure did you go through for this postdoc position?
I answered to an open call for a Postdoc position, sending my cv and all the relevant documents, and after a personal colloquium I was chosen by a committee which was composed by 3 Professors of the Department of Humanities (one of them was the one in charge for the specific project, who will be my supervisor throughout the year).

What does your PostDoc programme entail?
During this year, I will have to carry out my research in close cooperation with the others who are also part of the project. I am quite free to organize my time and my work as I wish, as long as my supervisor knows it and agrees with my schedule. I don’t have other particular duties or responsibilities, but I am involved in the “daily life” of the Department and I assist the teachers during their work.

Why did you choose to pursue a PostDoc in Venice?
I have studied in Venice, and I have completed here my PhD (although I have also spent several years abroad): I like the working environment here, and I think that we make a good and efficient research group. Therefore, applying for this postdoc position appeared to me as the most natural think to do!

Are there more scholars doing a PostDoc in Venice?
There are several other postdocs in Venice, in particular within the Department of Humanities: none for Assyriology or History of the Ancient Near East except me, but a couple of them study Near Eastern Archaeology. We work on completely different projects so I cannot say that we collaborate on this respect, but we often meet and discuss about our job or our position as postdoc, in general.

Do you get a lot of guidance in your postdoc or are you working on a more independent basis?
I mostly work independently, and I like this because it shows that my supervisor and the other scholars involved in the project trust me and consider me as a “grown-up student”. However, we meet on a regular basis to discuss the major issues raised by our research: I can always count on their advice and they are always available to guide and support me.

Where did you do your bachelor/master programme?
I have always studied in Venice, from the beginning of my University studies. I had the opportunity to spend several months abroad for archaeological excavations (mostly in Syria) and as visiting student (during my PhD) I stayed three semesters in Heidelberg and a few weeks in Helsinki.

Can you say something about the path you took when you were working on your PhD?
Getting a PhD in Italy implies a selection procedure, usually including a written and oral exam as it was for me in 2009. I got foundings from Ca’ Foscari University for the whole period of my doctoral studies (three years), and this certainly helped me a lot because it allowed me to focus exclusively on my research. The first months were a bit difficult, because the topic I was approaching was different from what I studied for my Master Dissertation. What helped me was the assistance of my supervisor, and certainly also the months I spent in Heidelberg have been crucial because there I could improve my philological skills and I could work in a richly equipped library and in a very stimulating environment.

Can you tell me something about your academic achievements?
The Doctoral School in Venice organizes a Conference every year, and on those occasions I not only presented my specific research to colleagues and scholars, but I also had the chance of working on other themes. I have published these papers in various articles, in the Proceedings of the Conferences as well as in other journals. I have tried to attend all the Rencontres of the past years (my first one was in Barcelona, in 2010), and during the one in Ghent I presented part of my work, getting some very interesting feedbacks. I am currently working on the publication of the book that derives from my PhD Dissertation, which should be ready before the end of this year.

What do you feel is your greatest academic accomplishment so far?
I think that the best has yet to come! If I manage having my first book ready by the end of this year, this would certainly be something I would be extremely proud of..

Who or what inspires you as a researcher?
More than a person, I was inspired by the kind of atmosphere that I have found here, in the Department in Venice. I have always noticed that advanced students of Ancient Near Eastern history and philology could work in a nice and relaxed environment, and I have longed to be part of it, as a “grown-up”. Of course the credit for this belongs to our teacher, Prof. Milano, who has always taught us to work as a real team and who puts a great effort in the development of a well-coordinated research group in our small but rather active Department.

Erica Scarpa, Master Graduate, Ca’ Foscari University

My desire is to continue my research and to examine third millennium Syro-Mesopotamian historical geography and geopolitics in-depth through a PhD program.

Can you tell the readers something about yourself?
My name is Erica Scarpa and I have recently completed my Master’s Degree in Ancient Civilizations at Ca’ Foscari University. I was born in Venice, and I live in town nearby. I have been interested in archaeology and ancient history since primary school and decided to study classical archaeology at Padua University, where I earned my BA. However, during the last year of my Bachelor’s degree I became interested in Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology, and then decided to move to Ca’ Foscari University: here I developed an even keener interest in history and philology, which made me choose to specialize in History of the Ancient Near East.

Where lies the focus of your studies?
My research interest focuses mainly on IIIrd millennium Syria: I am interested in the history and archaeology of IIIrd millennium Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as in the epigraphic artifacts from Tell-Mardikh – Ebla and from the Old Akkadian period. During my MA thesis I focused my attention on historical geography.

Can you say something about your masters’ thesis?
My MA thesis concerned the historical geography of Syria in the age of the Ebla Archives. The main purpose of my work has been the collection of all the occurrences of the geographical names mentioned in the chancery documents of the Royal Palace G Archives: this activity took most of the time I spent working on my thesis. By comparing the data contained in economic texts with the information provided by chancery documents, and linking toponyms on the basis of the information provided by the texts, I was able to identify several main geographical clusters: this allowed me to sketch a general geography of the main political actors involved. My supervisor has been Prof. Lucio Milano.

How do you see your future, what are your ambitions?
My desire is to continue my research on this topic, and to examine IIIrd millennium Syro-Mesopotamian historical geography and geopolitics in-depth through a PhD program. I am also strongly interested in teaching, since I firmly believe that teaching is a challenging experience, and a chance to increase one’s knowledge and improve one’s skills.

What would you like to know from another student in another country/from another continent?
I am interested in how the university system is structured in other countries: I would like to spend a period abroad, to improve my skills and to experience a different ambiance and workplace.

Students often have to move around the city to attend classes, as the classrooms are scattered among several buildings, but walking around in a city like Venice makes it of course more pleasant.

Please tell us something about Ca’ Foscari in general.
The University of Ca’ Foscari is distributed among several locations: the main building is Palazzo Ca’ Foscari, where the main administrative offices are based. Some of the university locations are historical palaces, like Ca’ Cappello, the former Venetian residence of Sir Henry Layard, which overlooks the Grand Canal. Most of the classes for the department of Humanities are held at San Basilio, in a restored building which was previously a port warehouse. Students often have to move around the city to attend classes, as the classrooms are scattered among several buildings, but walking around in a city like Venice makes it of course more pleasant.

What does the Near Eastern department of the University look like?
In Venice there is no independent department of Assyriology; the teaching of near eastern subjects takes place rather in the Department of Humanities. To this department belong historical, archaeological and philological curricula for different periods and places (Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Medieval, Near Eastern). As for Assyriology, a point of reference is the “Laboratorio epigrafico” where students and professors meet and discuss.

What does the general university track look like in Italy?
The university curriculum in Italy begins with a three-year period (BA), which starts after high school (in some cases with entrance tests). After the BA, one can continue through a two-year degree course (MA). Very often, at least according to my experience, both the BA and the MA curricula are made up of a series of required courses (directly relevant to the main subjects of the degree), and a series of courses that every student can choose on the basis of his/her preferences. A student can also move from a subject to another, if they change their mind regarding the main focus of their favourite subject. In my opinion the most relevant choice is made during the MA degree, when one chooses in which specific research field to focus their attention.
For those who desire, it is also possible to spend a study period abroad, through the ERASMUS project: as for Ca’ Foscari, several exchanges of this kind are active, also with non-European universities.

What does your student career look like?
The academic year is divided into two semesters, each of which is additionally divided into two periods: some courses last two/three months, others only one period, but the exams take place in the hiatus at the end of each semester. Typically the exam schedule is very dense, so it is necessary to study during the semester while attending courses, and it is not always easy to manage your time efficiently. Very often the preparation of a class presentation and a written essay are required, in addition to the oral exam. Generally speaking, a student is not required to enrol for a course and attendance is free: one can also attend a course without taking the exam at the end.
During my MA I was able to attend numerous classes: as I said, the student must attend some required courses, but also has freedom of choice in the characterization of his/her curriculum. This allowed me to attend courses in History and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East and Assyriology, as well as an Arabic language course, formally held at the Department of Languages, Cultures and Societies of Asia and North Africa. Furthermore, every year our Department hosts a visiting professor from abroad, and I had the chance to attend several other language courses, such as for example Hittite language with Dr. Gabriella Franz-Szabó, or peripheral Akkadian and Ugaritic with Prof. Dr. Wilfred van Soldt. Very often the Department hosts various lectures during which you can listen to leading scholars (especially foreigners), and observe how certain matters are dealt with outside of Italy.

As for my personal experience, I was offered the opportunity to participate in many initiatives: before graduation I participated in various laboratory activities, such as the “Cunei-Lab, organized by Dr. Paola Corò on the occasion of the “Notte dei Ricercatori”, during which we showed to groups of children how to create a cuneiform tablet. Following the achievement of my degree I was able to participate in the teaching of Akkadian language, always held by Dr. Paola Corò, as an online tutors for the Moodle Platform. I have also been involved in the Ebla Digital Archives Project (EbDA) as an assistant, in charge of the data entry, during the last two years.

What resources does Venice have?
The Library for the Humanities (BAUM) of Ca’ Foscari University houses most of the books we need, and it is well supplied for Assyriology as well as for archaeology. It is arranged over four floors, two of which are reading rooms, and two more underground floors that house most of the books on open shelves: it is also considered one of the best libraries for archaeology in Italy, as well as being a reference point for many students. The Library of Linguistics (BALI) at Ca’ Cappello also holds several books.

What are the strong suits of the University of Venice? Why would students want to go there?
Even if Ca’ Foscari University is smaller (both in terms of overall size and number of enrolled students) compared to other Italian Universities, I think this can be considered a virtue rather than a defect: the ambience is really pleasant, and you can easily interact with both fellow students and professors. Many activities are promoted, such as seminars, workshops and many laboratory activities.

What does the typical Italian student do when it comes to social activities?
To my knowledge, student societies are not a widespread phenomenon in Italy. Nevertheless, there are many activities one can carry out in Venice: all throughout the year there are art exhibitions and events and, since Venice is an art city, several museums and places to visit. Many students go to the theater, since Ca’ Foscari offers reduced price tickets, while it is also possible to enjoy local fairs and festivals, some of which take place on different isles of the lagoon (and take the opportunity to visit them, like the Grape Must festival on the St. Erasmo isle)

Is it difficult to get into the University of Venice?
As for Italian students, the access to the MA in Ancient Civilizations is free-access: only a minimum grade in the BA degree is required, along with sufficient skills in the discipline one wants to focus on. It is not a closed-number degree course, and enrolment in classes is not a common practice in Italian universities: one can attend a course more than once (since the program often changes from year to year) and to be admitted to the classes one does not need to take the final exam. Professors welcome auditors who are just interested in the discipline.

How is student housing organized?
Ca’ Foscari University offers agreed residences to students who meet the income requirements. Many students rent private accommodations, which they share with other colleagues: very often people who live close enough commute everyday, and not all students live in Venice. The university also provides a Housing office for those in search of an accommodation.

What benefits do students have in Italy?
The University requires students to pay an annual fee (partly calculated on the basis of the family income). Students who meet the income requirements are eligible for tax relief, and are entitled to a scholarship; if offsite, agreed accommodations are provided by the university. Many Venetian museums and theaters offer reduced price tickets for students, and this year the University also offers reduced price tickets for the EXPO 2015 in Milan.
As for the canteens, all the students can access the university cafeteria and canteens, where they can have a meal at an affordable price or even buy packed lunches. The University also has a Sports Center (CUS), which students can access at discounted rates, and use the gym or take courses. Another initiative of the University of Venice is the possibility to access to language courses at the Language Center of the University (CLA) where you can take English, French, German, Russian or Italian-for-foreigners courses.