The Power of Narrative: Professor Alessandra Grego

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Alessandra Grego is Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at John Cabot University. Born in London (UK) and raised in Rome, she was educated in the Italian state system and earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Rome “La Sapienza.” Her area of study is myth as a form of narrative, which she has investigated in Victorian Literature (specifically George Eliot) and the novel in general, before turning her attention to the role of myth in digital animation and popular culture in the 21st century. A JCU professor since 2003, she has taught courses ranging from Shakespeare to The Contemporary Novel, from Victorian Literature to Myth in Animation and developed an interest in interdisciplinary studies.

Professor Alessandra Grego

Professor Alessandra Grego

What is your teaching philosophy?
I have been teaching for almost 20 years, having started as an English language lecturer at the University of Viterbo. Initially, teaching was my least favorite part of being an academic. I was terrified of students, and I felt like I was taking an exam every day. Today I really enjoy teaching and thinking of ways to get students interested in the study of literature and literary theory. I find that the best way of engaging students is to teach subjects that I feel passionate about.

What is the advantage of studying literature in this day and age?
I am determined to show students, especially students who are not English Majors and who start any conversation with me by prefacing “I am no good at literature,” that reading, thinking and writing about literature is not only entertaining and stimulating, but develops valuable skills that are useful for anyone, like the ability to think critically, write persuasively, and be articulate. The study of literature and the humanities, which philosopher Bertrand Russell called “useful useless knowledge,” can mark the difference between a competent professional and an engaging one. Literature classes should not be regarded as a pointless requirement towards a liberal arts degree, but as an opportunity, possibly the last for many of our students, to look into other fields of knowledge from their own, to be exposed to different perspectives on the world, to challenge their mindset.

I firmly believe that students of literature who have developed those practical skills I mentioned are fit for any job, without limitations. In our hyper-specialized days, there is the common belief that it is necessary to focus single-mindedly on one subject to become the most competitive candidate for a job in that field. But the much-celebrated talent of thinking outside the box is certainly not developed by focusing narrowly on one topic. An elastic mindset is a great professional asset, and that is what I believe the study of literature provides you with.

Which are the five books that every person should read in their life and why?
I am no fan of lists. I never know what to recommend and really don’t think one text is intrinsically more valuable than another, but I do notice my own favorites change with the political and cultural climate I am living through.

My current favorites are the classics of dystopian literature.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World at number 1, followed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. I particularly recommend Forster’s story, which is impressively prescient of the internet and modern systems of communication.

Medieval Romance, the antecedent of contemporary fantasy genre like Game of Thrones, has always interested me. My all-time favorite is Parzival, by Volfram von Eschenbach, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Robinson Crusoe because they give us a good understanding of how the old fiction/reality conflict is irresolvable and possibly pointless.

Jane Austen, of course, because she is a masterful stylist of the English language who uses words as scalpels to carve perfect representations of people (certainly her sample was limited to a specific social group at a particular time, but the result is nonetheless impressive).

Bleak House by Charles Dickens, because it is a great read which manages to represent every level of 19th century English society.

All of the novels by George Eliot, and especially Middlemarch, because everyone who has read it (including some of my students) has loved it, and there is no better recommendation.

I fear I’ve listed more than five, but as I said, I am no good at lists.

What was it like to grow up in Rome with a British mother and an Italian father?
Strange. The problem was my parents refused to pick a dominant language and so I was raised in total syncretism. I was left to my own devices in separating the mixed up family traditions and attributing them to the respective country. I started off believing that all Italians were Jews, like my Roman father, and all British were Catholic, like my Welsh mother, on the basis that we celebrated Christmas in London and my Italian family was part of the Jewish community. I think my attempts to unravel the confusion of my upbringing is the origin of my constantly over-analyzing everything.

Actually, I am deeply grateful for my Roman/English childhood. I don’t have a dominant nationality, religious tradition, or language, and I like it that way.

In recent years there has been an increasing pressure on students to pick whichever major has the highest employment rate (normally in the STEM/Business field). What does this mean for the humanities going forward?
This seems to me, at bottom, a case of bad advertising. The humanities have been for some time in shock at finding they were considered irrelevant and have been incapable of reacting constructively. Certainly, in a driven and competitive work environment, students might feel more comfortable studying a subject that promises immediate employment, and the liberal arts appear too open a field for prospective employers to be able to immediately identify the set of skills they require in a candidate for a position. I don’t have a solution, but I think that very specific qualifications are a shortsighted conception of employability. I see signs of change in the interesting discussions I have with my colleagues in the Business and Political Sciences departments about the importance of narratives, and the relevance of theoretical thought derived from the humanities. In my opinion, interdisciplinarity is the way forward to study and work in a changing world.

Your course “Myth and Animation” has a heavy focus on Disney movies. How have the themes of Disney films changed in recent years?
Over its 94 year history, Disney has been criticized for promoting decidedly conservative, dogmatic, or at least excessively simplified and saccharine, narratives. But in recent years, certainly since Pixar and Disney operate under the same Chief Creative Officer – Pixar founder John Lasseter – there has been a visible change in critical opinion, and the animated feature films produced seem to be interrogating their own traditions and practices, as well as questioning the validity of conventional social roles that are perceived as changing. The most obvious example is the renowned Disney Princess trope that undergoes profound changes in representation from Snow White (1938) to Moana (2016). From a domestic princess and angel of the hearth who devotes her time to looking after 7 men, is antagonized by a competitive older woman, and is finally revived and rescued by a nameless prince, to an empowered young woman who saves her world from destruction by understanding and healing a violated Nature goddess. Quite a change.

What is one challenge you have encountered in teaching “Myth and Animation?”
I offer students the possibility of reading culture through the perspective of myth theory. What we do is analyze the way in which the movies select and represent themes that have a cultural tradition of collective relevance and which need to be periodically re-narrated to maintain that validity. For the most part, students are not familiar with this approach and are possibly expecting an easy ride of a course – 15 weeks watching animated feature films. So initially they are a little shocked, but usually things fall into place before long, though I have been told in the course evaluations that I have “ruined Disney forever.” In reality, I don’t want to exalt or demonize Disney or other studios, or corporate power, but only investigate their products critically.

Are there any projects you are working on you would like to share? 
For many years I have been studying myth and mythical systems of representation and communication. I am fascinated by the way collective narratives stratify into systems of belief and carry so much meaning and agency for those who create and receive them. I am preparing a publication on the function of mythical narratives in realist literature, which I have been working on for a long time. The Myth and Media Course has allowed me to discover a whole different area of applicability of my expertise beyond literature, and I am eagerly studying the history and practices of filmed animation, and the way in which Computer Generated Images (CGI) and new media can be read as a new form of oral culture.

This summer I attended the Summer Institute for Narrative Studies, a week-long project held by major international experts of narratology and narrative studies at Aarhus University in Denmark. It was a great experience and stimulated me into developing a course for John Cabot on Narratives and their interdisciplinary uses. This course will be offered in Spring 2018: EN 399, Special Topics in English Literature. Introduction to Narrative Studies. Having pestered many professors from different departments at John Cabot to come and give talks to the students about how narratives work within their subjects, I have found that there is a lot of interest in co-operation and interdisciplinarity, which is exciting.

What is your advice for a student who wants to pursue an English major?
Read as much as you can: the more you read, the easier it is to start to identify patterns, ideas, cycles, influences, etc. Also, have fun reading.

With so many colleges in the US, why should a student pick JCU?
Because no college is as hybrid as JCU. You get the opportunity to live in a strange and wonderful city like Rome, in a strange and wonderful country like Italy, to travel around Europe, to meet people of different nationalities, to be taught by people from different parts of the world, and to do all this within the American liberal arts system. You get the best of both worlds. And this works, in reverse, for Italian students.