Chat with Dr. Rachel E. Love
Janet Lee: So to start off, who are you and what do you do at NYU?
Rachel E. Love: I’m a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Core Curriculum this year. I assist on Core classes, and I’ll be teaching a freshman seminar next semester. I earned my PhD at NYU in Italian Studies.
JL: Can you tell me about your undergraduate experience?
RL: I did my undergraduate degree at Smith College, which offers quite a different environment than NYU. For me, it was wonderful. I majored in English Literature and International Relations. I also studied Italian as a language because I thought it would be a fun language, and if it was fun, I would be able to dedicate myself to it. At Smith, study abroad is very encouraged. I decided to study in Florence my junior year, and in preparing for that experience and once I was there I basically completed all the requirements for an Italian minor.
JL: Coming out of high school, going into college - did you know what you were going to major in?
RL: I did not know what I wanted to major in. I knew I loved to read books, I loved to write, both creatively and analytically. I also liked science and biology in particular because I was interested in the natural world. As a first-year entering college, I felt torn between my passions for literature, science, and politics. I think my desire to write and to engage with the world brought these interests together. I was a supernerd.
JL: So how did you choose your major?
RL: I fell into an English major because I kept taking literature courses over my first two years of college. I did try several fields my first year, and I was fortunate that my parents were incredibly patient with my explorations, and even encouraged me to do it. I know a lot of students now are pressured to know early on what they want to do. My second year, I began pursuing literature and international politics courses in a more systematic way. I later earned a certificate in International Relations, which was cool because it allowed me to synthesize my politics courses with the work I was doing in Italian. But ultimately, it was really important to be able to explore – for instance, I took a statistics course, a geology course, and a biology course, and I learned very valuable skills in those classes even though they didn’t directly serve my major.
JL: What kind of a student were you?
RL: I was a very diligent student. I liked to approach literary analysis and papers in a methodical, careful way, gathering evidence from texts, writing outlines, and developing arguments. These essays felt like problems to be solved, and I enjoyed working out complex theses. I studied hard in classes that were less familiar to me, as well. For example, for my statistics course, I remember walking to the TA’s office hours in the science quad every Wednesday night to get her help, sometimes through the snow and other weather hazards of Western Massachusetts. I also struggled with my first Italian courses too: a second language did not come to me easily. Overall, I’d say I was a diligent, hard-working, and generally nerdy student. Still, I’ve always been quite extroverted, and I also liked to get outside and go dancing, to have little adventures in new places, to go see concerts and to seek out human interaction outside of books.
JL: So did you do anything outside of class?
RL: Oh yes, I was a very enthusiastic member of the ultimate frisbee team, Lunadisc, for all four years, and by my senior year I served as President. I also had one semester as a DJ for the college radio station, perhaps my coolest semester. I had a show called “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” where I played mostly folk, country, and blues songs related to sins like murder, jealousy, and lust. Which is most music, now that I think about it. That was a brief and awesome chapter in my college experience.
JL: What’d you especially enjoy?
RL: I definitely enjoyed school and learning and obviously still do. Ultimate frisbee came with an incredible community - in general ultimate is a funny and goofy sport, although it is also quite serious and athletically demanding as well. I’m grateful for the relationships I built over four years on that team. I also should say that studying abroad in Italy for a year shifted the direction of my life in a way I couldn’t have predicted at the time.
JL: Is there anyone that influenced you in particular on the frisbee team, or one of your professors?
RL: On the frisbee team, we were a group of women working together and playing a fun sport, so I suppose the experience influenced my perspective on teamwork and female friendships. Academically, as an undergraduate I had an engaged advisor, Michael Thurston, and in general close relationships with my professors. I remember wanting to live in the world like my professor, Sharon Seelig, who taught courses on Milton during the school year and worked as a park ranger in the summer. When I reflect on who has perhaps impacted my professional life the most, I think of Alessandro Portelli. He has been very influential on how I approach the work I do. When I was abroad in Italy, I did a little project on folk music and politics, and I interviewed him for the first time. I still regularly return to a phrase that he told me in that first interview, “Music has no borders,” when I’m thinking about the ways we express our identities and our beliefs through art and performance.
JL: So - senior year of undergraduate - what brought you to pursue your doctorate?
RL: Coming out of undergrad, I didn’t know I’d pursue graduate school. Again, I had very patient parents. I really wanted to go back to Italy - a common symptom for those who study abroad - and wanted to continue working on that folk music and politics project I started. I applied for a Fulbright to work on that project in Rome but ended up being selected as an alternate. It’s funny to see those things now because if I had gotten the Fulbright, I probably wouldn’t be here at NYU. Anyways, I had also applied to teach English in Northern Italy, which did work out. I spent two years as an assistant teacher at two high schools in Milan. I began to think that I might want to go to graduate school, but at the time, I thought I’d get my PhD in English. After all, I had majored in English in undergrad and I still loved the idea of analyzing literature as a career, but I quickly realized that vision was a bit naïve. Plus, the project I wanted to work on had to do with Italian folklore. After some failed attempts at English PhD programs, a professor in a Comparative Literature program suggested that my ideas would fit well with Italian Studies. I began developing my folk music project, and I connected with my advisor here at NYU, David Forgacs. When I graduated from the program in May 2018, I reflected a lot on the fact that I had been thinking about my dissertation in one form or another for ten years, through college and during my experiences teaching and then into graduate school. I wouldn’t have been able to predict as a junior in college, however, that these ideas and passions would stick with me for so long.
JL: If you could go back into time, is there any advice you’d give your undergrad self or even advice you’d give your undergrad students if that’s different?
RL: Actually, I believe my advice would be different for myself than perhaps for other students because I am really happy with how my undergrad went, and I was happy at the time too. Nonetheless, I think we all would like to go back and tell our younger selves “It will be okay, don’t worry, it works out.” I really treasured the opportunity to explore outside of what I thought I’d be pursuing, and I would advise students today to do the same. I know many undergrads are juggling a deficit of time and a surplus of debt, and that means that they are trying to think strategically about their professional goals, but college is also a very precious time to experiment and learn new things. So, I would advise students to try to reconcile the practical choices they need to make with the space to try things out. I actually remember now that I was planning to take German in my first year because it made the most practical sense and I had taken it in high school. I changed my mind at the beginning of my first year, and out of curiosity, I took Italian. That curious choice has led me to where I am today! So you never know - try to be open to what comes your way.
JL: Do you drink a lot of tea/coffee and what’s your favorite place in NYC?
RL: I drink a lot of tea in NY and a lot of coffee in Italy, because in coffee is cheap there and going to drink it is a lovely ritual that everyone takes part in - you go to the bar and take a shot of espresso standing up, you chat with the barista, maybe eat a snack, and then you go back to your day. In New York, I really like the loose-leaf chai tea at Think Coffee!
JL: Favorite restaurant in NYC?
RL: I like Toad Style in Bed-Stuy for a delicious and cheap night out and Al Di Lá in Park Slope for special occasions. In general, I prefer to cook Italian at home and eat other genres of food out!
JL: Favorite getaway spot in the city?
RL: I really love Prospect Park. It’s my favorite place to have picnics, toss a frisbee, or play bocce. When I was a first year student in the PhD candidate living in Manhattan, I liked to de-stress by riding my bike on the Hudson River Greenway - you can see the horizon, which is a special thing in NY. Anywhere near the ocean is great - Coney Island and the Rockaways are only a subway ride away! We forget we live in a coastal city.
JL: A superhero you identify with / like?
RL: I don’t have a favorite superhero, but if we’re talking about comics, I really like Calvin and Hobbes.
JL: Favorite book?
RL: Many books…I bet people have trouble answering this question. Two authors I’ve loved for a long time are William Faulkner and Alice Munro. Reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!in high school and again in collegewas quite formative for me, as I was coming to terms with growing up in South Carolina. Going back to Alessandro Portelli, The Order Has Been Carried Out is a book about the history and memory of a massacre committed by the Nazis in occupied Rome. I think it’s a beautiful and empathetic book, and it’s a model for me about how to do compassionate intellectual work. He interviewed hundreds of people, wives and children of those who had been killed, friends, people in the neighborhood, politicians, his own students, and he weaves in their memories with written documents and historical records. He wants to see what we can learn about historical meaning through the stories that people hold on to and repeat to others.
JL: Have you travelled anywhere outside of Italy?
RL: Yes. I travelled some growing up, as my mom was involved with the World Council of Churches and often planned trips around meetings. I went to Kenya, the UK, and Germany that way. When I was a student studying abroad, I travelled to Spain, but I was focused on getting to know the place I was living and really learning the language, so I mostly stayed in Italy.
JL: So it seems like you’re really familiar with Italy - any hidden gems?
RL: If they’re hidden gems I can’t tell you! *laughs* I think that southern Italy is a wonderful place to go. More people are realizing how interesting Naples is. I love to spend time in Puglia, specifically Salento and Lecce. In general, I think people who visit Italy will get more out of their trip by picking a city or a small town and spending some time getting to know that place. Still, I don’t think people need much convincing that Italy is a lovely country to visit.