Italian Graduate Program


We are accepting applications for Fall 2023 admissions. The deadline to apply is January 15, 2023.

Visit the Graduate School for admission information and the online application to the Ph.D. program. Please note that only online applications are accepted. Any difficulties or special requests for paper applications should be addressed directly to the Graduate School. Questions of a general nature relating to the Department of Romance Studies may be directed to the Graduate Field Assistant, Dorothy Lovelace.

Program Overview

Drawing on Cornell’s unique field structure, students in Italian design a program of study that is comparatist and interdisciplinary in approach, and are strongly encouraged to develop a high degree of theoretical and methodological awareness. The Italian program is particularly strong in the areas of medieval and Renaissance Italian literature, modern and contemporary visual culture and media studies, political theory, literary theory, intellectual history and feminist thought. Graduate students have access to other outstanding faculty in many departments and programs across the university, such as Architecture, Comparative Literature, German Studies, Government, History, History of Art, Medieval Studies, Music, Anthropology and Visual Studies. The opportunity to conduct research across disciplines is enhanced by the structure of the program, which requires students to complete a concentration in a minor field. Typical concentrations include gender studies, visual studies, comparative literature, music, and art history.

Intellectual Life & Research

Cornell is uniquely positioned for the study of Italian literature and culture, and the Italian studies field faculty brings together a diverse group of internationally renowned scholars whose research bridges various disciplines. Students in the program have access to an impressive range of resources, fellowships, grants, writing group support, and additional funding opportunities for conference travel and research. Students have the opportunity to study abroad and are encouraged to spend one of their fellowship years in Italy.

The University Libraries house the finest Dante and Petrarch collections outside Italy, while the university is home to Cornell Cinema, cited as one of the best campus film exhibition programs in the country, screening close to 400 different films/videos each year, seven nights a week. Students will find a vibrant intellectual life on campus through any number of venues, including lecture series, keynote presentations, workshops, seminars, reading groups, colloquia and symposia on campus. In particular, the Society for the Humanities is home to many of these. Founded in 1966 to support research and imaginative teaching in the humanities, the Society for the Humanities encourages serious and sustained discussion on topics of compelling interest to Italian Studies. Each year a focal theme voted on by the Humanities Council at Cornell structures a series of lectures, workshops, and special seminars. The topic for 2017-18 is “Corruption”; next year’s focal theme will be “Authority.”

Graduate students may engage in the activities organized around the Society for the Humanities (SHC) annual theme and are encouraged to apply for SHC fellowships in the last years of their dissertation work. Students may also choose to apply for participation in Cornell’s prestigious School for Criticism and Theory [link here], which takes place every year during the summer.

Cornell is also home to the Institute for European Studies, whose mission is to enhance the international dimensions of Cornell University’s curriculum and facilitate interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. The Institute provides financial and logistical support for more than 20 programs in area, thematic and development studies at Cornell. It is especially active in offering pre-dissertation workshops and international research travel grants to encourage graduate student research.

Our Romance Studies Annual Lecture is a department-wide event that invites especially exceptional scholars to campus. Additionally, the department is home to the Romance Studies Colloquium, an intellectual forum where graduate students and faculty can discuss their work. Graduate students can take advantage of countless opportunities available in the department and throughout the university including workshops, conferences, and talks. Students may also apply to be on the editorial board of diacritics [hyperlink here], which selects two to three highly qualified graduate students to participate in the life of the journal each year.

Courses & Curriculum

Please refer to the Italian section of the Romance Studies course offerings for detailed descriptions about the language and literature courses we offer.  Note that bracketed courses are not being taught this academic year.

The following list of recent graduate seminars offered by members of the Italian Field offers a snapshot of faculty interests and the kinds of subjects prospective students can expect to study at Cornell:

  • Life As We Know It: Readings in the Biopolitical Paradigm
  • Italian Mysteries
  • Biopolitics and Italian Thought
  • Machiavelli: Today and Tomorrow
  • Boccaccio
  • Dante’s Commedia
  • The Cinematic City
  • Love and Sex in the Italian Renaissance
  • The Culture of the Renaissance
  • The Catholic Grotesque: The Italian ‘Sacri Monti’ and Their Post-Renaissance Legacy
  • Precariousness
  • The Italian Landscape: From the Dittamundo to Cyberspace
  • Autonomia: Art, Literature and Politics in and around Italy, 1968-1979

Coursework and Second Foreign Language Requirement

Students fulfill their graduate requirements by taking course work in the Department of Romance Studies and in other departments at Cornell. During the first two years, students plan a full load of courses in their major and minor fields and are expected to take a minimum of 14 courses over a three-year period. The normal load is four courses per semester while on first-year fellowship, and three courses per semester for those holding teaching assistantships, in the second year.

All incoming students are required to take the Romance Studies Colloquium (ROMS 6100) during their first semester. In the second semester of their first year, students must take Language Methodology (ROMS 5070) in preparation for their teaching assignments as TAs.

Every student is expected to speak and write Italian fluently and accurately. Prior to taking the “A” exams, students choose an additional language of study according to their major area of research and in consultation with their special committee. In the summer following their first year, students are encouraged to pursue related language study either at Cornell or abroad, along with independent readings in preparation for the Q exams and independent research to complement their intellectual interests. Students may demonstrate proficiency in a second foreign language through coursework or by written examination.

Ph.D. Program

Structure of the Ph.D. Program

The graduate program in Italian literature is structured to allow for a broad experience in literary history and criticism. The student of recent literature should acquire an ample and precise sense of cultural traditions; likewise, the student of earlier periods should become acquainted with the literary and critical trends of our own day. To this end, courses and seminars seek to provide both broad and detailed familiarity with major periods and authors.

The graduate plan encourages students to define their field of study flexibly and broadly, in relation to such disciplines as history, philosophy, anthropology, visual studies, history of art or music, medieval studies, psychology or psychoanalysis, and the study of classical literatures or other modern national literatures. The student’s field of study is defined in consultation with the special committee.

Special Committees, Major & Minor Fields

By the end of the third semester of study students are required to constitute a special committee made up of the chair and two (or more) additional members. It is the student’s responsibility to consult regularly with the members of his/her committee and to convene the entire committee once a year to discuss the general direction of his/her studies.

The special committee is responsible for administering exams and supervising dissertation research and writing, and must be chaired by a faculty member of the Romance Studies Graduate Field.  Every member of the Romance Studies faculty is a member of the Graduate Field, but the Field also includes a number of faculty members with related research interests from other departments. Any member of the Graduate Field can serve as committee chair, whether or not he or she is a member of the department.  A student can change the chair and/or the other members of their special committee at any time up until the “A” exam, especially as their research interests evolve and crystallize and as their contacts with faculty members increase. After that time, committees can be changed through special petition to the Graduate School.

Students are encouraged to take seminars in other fields to complement their coursework and training in the department. Indeed, the Cornell Graduate School requires that all graduate students declare a minor field outside their major field of specialization. Students are welcome to declare minors in closely related fields, but in theory a student can minor in any field of study that complements his or her research program.  Student are not required to complete a specific number of courses in their declared minor field, but it must be represented by at least one member of their special committee. Most students choose only one minor subject, though graduate school regulations allow election of two.

Members of the Graduate Field from the Department of Romance Studies

Members of the Graduate Field from Other Departments

Area Examinations

Q Exam

The main purpose of the “Q” or “Qualifying” Exam is to evaluate each student’s ability to do the kind of original research work and analysis required of a successful Ph.D. candidate. Additionally, the Q exam may be used to assess the student’s pedagogical and linguistic skills. Ideally, the Q exam will provide an opportunity for the student and the special committee to discuss possible directions the student’s work might take in the future.

Students must take the Q exam by the end of their fourth semester in the program. This exam consists of a longer essay (possibly developed from course work) and short answer questions, followed by an oral discussion. Because the Q exam depends on directives provided by the members of the special committee, the student would be well advised to constitute a three-person committee as early as possible, and no later than the end of the student’s third semester.

If the committee is satisfied with the quality of the student’s Q exam, the student can begin preparing for the A exam. If the committee finds that the Q exam does not meet the standard for graduate work, the committee will ask the student to complete further portions of the exam or the committee will recommend a terminal M.A. degree.

A Exam

The Graduate School requires that students complete the “A” or “Admission to Candidacy” Examination before registering for the seventh semester.

The “A” exam is an oral exam that usually does not exceed two hours. Based on an extended piece of written work presented to the special committee—usually a paper designed to serve as the introduction or first chapter of the dissertation—the “A” exam tests the student’s competence in his/her area of specialization.

Students should plan to spend a significant amount of their time during, at least, one semester in preparation for this paper, consulting frequently with their committee chair as they define a topic of research, prepare an outline and begin the writing process. The paper presented for the A exam should not be a first draft, but rather a finished piece of writing, scholarly in scope and complete with appropriate bibliography (most such papers are twenty to fifty pages long). The completed paper should be made available to all members of the special committee at least one week (preferably two) prior to the date agreed upon for the examination.

During the examination, members of the special committee question the candidate on the worth and coherence of his/her topic and on his/her understanding of the texts and problems of interpretation that the topic raises. Students who pass the A exam receive recommendations from committee members for further work on the dissertation. In the event of failure, the student repeats the examination on the basis of a new or revised paper.

B Exam

The “B” exam is the defense of the dissertation. Each member of the special committee usually presents to the candidate a brief written judgment and critique of the dissertation along with a checklist of errors to be corrected. The major aims of the exam are to assure the candidate that the dissertation has been carefully read and considered and to allow the student to engage in a serious discussion of the work.

Applying to the Ph.D Program & Support

Admission to the program is competitive and based on an evaluation of the entire dossier of material submitted by the student, including a personal statement, three letters of recommendation, writing sample, transcripts and, if pertinent, TOEFL scores. GRE scores are not required. Particular attention is paid to the student’s self-presentation, so care should be taken in writing the personal statement and in choosing the essay sent as a writing sample.

Cornell’s aid package is highly competitive nationally. All admitted students are guaranteed a six-year package that includes two years of full fellowship, the opportunity for building a strong teaching portfolio based on a range of courses through teaching assistantships, and four summers of research support.

Fellowships & Assistantships

Students receive six years of full support. The first year of course work is covered by a Sage Fellowship from the Graduate School, and students are expected to take a full load of four courses per semester while on fellowship. The second year of Sage Fellowship is taken while a student is writing the dissertation, normally during the fourth or fifth year. During the second, third, fourth, and sixth years in the program, students receive support from teaching assistantships, which typically entail teaching responsibilities of 15 - 20 hours per week, teaching different levels of language and, for advanced students in the program, introductory literature courses and Freshman Writing Seminars.