Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese Blog

I'm Chip Gerfen, the current Head of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at Penn State (and the one with less hair Chip Gerfenin the picture). I'll be using this space to maintain a blog about what's happening at the Department, and to talk about our faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and alumni. If you'd like to contact me about any of the posts that you see here, or if you'd like me to post on a particular issue, please don't hesitate to send me a message at

Richard Rorty Fellowship Award to Nicolás Fernández-Medina

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The number one reason that you know you are behind...

is when your father writes to tell you to update your blog.

On the bright side, however, this reflects the solid and vast fan base that you have carefully and painstakingly built in the blogosphere, and in any case, catching up is a pleasure when you have good news. Today's good news focuses on  Nicolás Fernández-Medina. Nicolás is in his fourth year as a faculty member in our Department, having joined us upon the completion of his PhD at Stanford. I'm very pleased to announce that Nicolás was awarded a prestigious Richard Rorty Fellowship this past summer at the Instituto Universitario de Investigación en Estudios Norteamericanos Benjamin Franklin at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Madrid, Spain. During his fellowship at the Instituto this past July, Nicolás began a major research project on how American pragmatism developed in Spain during the first few decades of the twentieth century and how it influenced the literature and thought of major figures in Spanish literature and culture, such as Unamuno, Lorenzo Luzuriaga Medina, Domingo Barnés, Antonio Machado, and Ortega y Gasset.


Nicolás's first monograph, The Poetics of Otherness in Antonio Machado's "Proverbios y cantares" is forthcoming with The University of Wales Press in January, 2011, and in January of 2010, I'm extremely pleased to note that Nicolás was named a Public Humanities Scholar at Penn State. ( for his public outreach work on the ideological foundations of nation-building in Spain and the United States after the Spanish-American War.  Congratulations, Nicolás.

San Juan blog2.jpgOne of the things that almost all of us in the profession are asked to do periodically is to provide a statement of our teaching philosophy. It's a task that can be extremely challenging, because in order to do it right, at least from my perspective, the challenge involves both articulating the philosophical underpinnings of our approach to teaching and mentoring while at the same time demonstrating how we, as educators, translate our core beliefs into the actual practice of teaching. Perhaps not surprisingly, many things can get lost in translation!

In my case, there are a number of core commitments that I have made to myself as a teacher, and one of these is that education should be a transformative experience for students, in which the process is in large measure the goal. By referring to process, what I mean is that although it goes without saying that learning should involve tangible, domain-relevant outcomes, how those outcomes are reached is really what lies at the core of the best educational experiences.

That's where the transformative comes in. What I think makes education transformative, at its best, is when we as educators supply our students with the skills and opportunities to become the agents of their own intellectual development. This can be accomplished in many ways, depending on the circumstances, but for me the magic of it all emerges when we manage to challenge students to push themselves beyond their comfort zones by 1) expecting great things from them and 2) trusting them to make their way with the tools with which we provide them.

It all sounds pretty abstract when talked about this way. So, here's a much better way of trying to show what I mean. What follows is a short essay by my honors and Bachelor of Philosophy student, Janalyn Sheetz, who just capped a stellar career here at Penn State with an honors project based on her field work on a variety of Mixtec, an endangered language family in Mexico. Janalyn's own, concrete explanation does a better job of putting it all in perspective. (In fact, I'm not even doing Janalyn justice, because in addition to her B.Phil, her honors thesis, her Spanish major, and her International Studies major, Janalyn also completed her MA in Spanish as part of an integrated BA/MA degree. Congratulations, Janalyn, on a wonderful project and a wonderful PSU experience!)

In Janalyn's words:

"One of the most terrifying days of my life was the one in which I woke up in the small village of San Juan Coatzospan, Mexico, and realized that I had little idea of how to collect data for my undergraduate thesis.  My honors advisor is a defender of the rather underappreciated mantra of "Learn by Doing," and while he helped to prepare me in some ways for my first day of linguistic fieldwork, he strongly believed that I would learn best by hands-on trial and error.   In that moment, alone and highly aware of my complete lack of research qualifications, I did not see the wisdom of his advising approach, nor did I feel particularly fond of it.  Nonetheless the rewards of the struggle of learning for myself during the composition of my thesis have proved invaluable.

The sweat and toil was more than worth it.  Traveling to the remote mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico and living with a Coatzospan Mixtecan family during the summer of 2008 proved to be one of the defining experiences of my life.  With limited access to a computer and no experienced linguistic researchers on hand, I had to learn the ropes for myself.  The people who worked with me graciously over-looked technological problems such as dead microphones and cantankerous recording devices, recommended aspects of the language to record and include in my research, and taught me Coatzospan Mixtec lessons daily, even though my accent left something to be desired.  But while learning to collect linguistic data toward the goal of writing a thesis and making an academic contribution, I became aware of something bigger than these worthy goals--an issue that affects millions of people to their core.  I caught a glimpse, first-hand, of the steady erosion of an endangered language and culture due to an influx of the Spanish language and western societal norms.

Hundreds of the world's languages are spoken in small communities such as San Juan Coatzospan.  With each passing generation, these groups face the growing threat of permanent linguistic and cultural assimilation.  Languages are forgotten by both academics and native speakers, and as each endangered language disappears, so too is lost a culture and a people that once made up a vital part of our global community.

Seeing this pattern unfold before my eyes while working with the Coatzospan Mixtec people inspires me to continue the work I started in writing my thesis.  With the help of my advisor, I plan to publish a portion of my thesis findings in the hope that a wider audience will hear of the threat of impending language loss.  In  coming years I plan to expand my research toward future doctoral work by further study of the tone system of Coatzospan Mixtec and investigation of the effects of its extensive linguistic contact with Spanish.  These efforts, while small, will contribute to the world's knowledge of endangered languages and communities, and, I hope, will inspire all of us to better appreciate their value.

To have worked and investigated Coatzospan Mixtec tone during my years at Penn State is resoundingly my proudest accomplishment.  Not only did I successfully "Learn by Doing" in the realm of linguistic research, I grew personally and intellectually while living among the Coatzospan Mixtec people in ways I could not have foreseen when I walked onto Penn State's campus in 2005.  My thesis molded my academic and cultural interests, identified the research areas I care most about, and expanded my appreciation for the intricacy of linguistic systems.  Most importantly, however, this project has exposed me, in a deeply personal way, to the crisis facing each of the world's endangered languages."
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Amelia Dietrich wins major National Science Foundation Fellowship

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Ah, yes, behind on the blog again...but at least I've got some great news to share.

The results of the 2010 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) applications were announced very recently, and I am exceptionally pleased to announce that our very own Amelia Dietrich has been awarded a Fellowship.

These are highly prestigious, three year fellowships that are awarded across the range of NSF-supported disciplines in the sciences and social sciences. Here's a link to the NSF's program website:

To contextualize, Amelia's is only one of ten total awards made nationally this year in the linguistics area.  Amelia is working with Giuli Dussias, and her project proposal focuses on bilingualism as a window for exploring the architecture of human language processing. Specifically, Amelia's project is going to investigate the way in which people's expectations about the properties of verbs guide the decisions that they make on-line while processing sentences.

This work is built on our growing knowledge of what monolingual speakers do when comprehending sentences. Here's an example. Say that you are hearing or reading a sentence that proceeds as follows:

John heard ...

It turns out that native speakers of English know that there is a greater probability that this sentence will be followed by a direct object, as in "John heard the new song" rather than by a complement that is a sentence, as in "John heard the new song would be on itunes by next Friday." This phenomenon is called verb bias, and what is so very interesting is that studies show that people are already making guesses about what comes next (on the basis of the statistical probabilities that they extract from their previous language experience) in real time as they are taking in information. The processor is constantly updating, and it does so by integrating many sources of information at once, including the probability of whether a verb will be followed by one type of complement or another.

What happens, though, when people learn another language? What happens when, for example, a verb has one bias in their first language but the opposite bias in their other language? Amelia's project is going to focus on these questions, and her experiments will provide a crucial window on fundamental issues regarding how people acquire a second language, on the effect of the first language on the processing of the second language, and even on how learning a new language changes the language we already know.
Congratulations, Amelia! We'll all be looking forward to your results!!

This year's Student Marshal

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Max.jpg.jpgOne of the things about committing to doing a blog is that you've committed to doing a blog, a consequence of which is that you've got to write stuff in your blog. One of the good things, however, about writing stuff in your blog is that there are good things to write about. And one of those good things is the topic of student marshals.

I came to Penn State from UNC-Chapel Hill, and after my first year here, I learned that each department selected an outstanding graduating major to represent it at commencement, and I learned that the students elected by each Department themselves select a departmental faculty mentor to accompany them during the ceremony. This was not something that we did at Carolina, and it struck me as a great idea on multiple levels. First, all of us know that there are lots of terrific students that we have the honor of teaching in our classes and of working with in our labs or centers or other research contexts. Having a system of student marshals provides a way of giving meaningful public recognition to many outstanding students across the College at graduation. It also allows students an opportunity to recognize faculty with whom they have worked closely and who have helped (we hope!) to shape their intellectual development at a crucial juncture of their lives. 

This year, our Student Marshal in SIP is Max Freeman. Besides being selected as our student marshal, Max has also been awarded an Evan Pugh Scholar Award. The Evan Pugh Scholar Award is awarded to juniors and seniors who are in the upper 0.5 percent of their classes at the end of the fall semester of the year that the award is given. Max is a double major in Psychology and Spanish, and he is also completing a minor in International Studies. The picture above is a picture of Max being international in Spain.

In short, we are really proud of what Max has accomplished here at Penn State. In addition to his stellar academic record, Max has been active in a number of service activities, including volunteering at local animal shelters, organizing a video games tournament to raise money for St. Jude's Children's Hospital, and organizing fund drives for the local food bank. Max has also worked as a research assistant on laboratory projects focused on bilingual language processing, and I'm delighted to say that we'll have him around for at a little while longer. Max will be working next year full time as a Research Associate in the Center for Language Science.

Congratulations, Max, on a terrific college career!

Maria Truglio wins College Teaching Award!

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It's that time of year, the time for teaching awards. I can't tell everyone how happy I am to be able share the news that our very own Maria Truglio has won a 2010 College of the Liberal Arts Outstanding Teaching Award for Tenure Line faculty.

This is a wonderful award that recognizes Maria's dedication as a teacher and mentor, both inside and outside of the classroom, and I can't think of a more deserving winner. Maria is a wonderful instructor, and at the risk of embarrassing her, typical written comments from her students include high praise for her hands-on approach to teaching and learning, her genuine concern for and interest in her students, her openness to the opinions and ideas of her students, and her gift for fostering an atmosphere of trust in the classroom. It is not unusual to see summary remarks such as "This was the best course of my college career," "Best classroom experience at Penn State," and "The most I've learned from any class here."

I've had  the chance to observe Maria a number of times, and I can still recall forgetting that I was supposed to be the observer and not a student in a wonderful seminar that Maria taught on Umberto Eco, sitting there with my hand in the air. I asked Maria to give me a few notes to describe what she is currently looking at in her most recent research. Here's what she said:

"My current research focus is on Children's Literature in Italy starting from the period of Italy's national unification (1861). I'm analyzing both famous works, like Carlo Collodi's the Adventures of Pinocchio  (a story far more complex, satirical, and violent than the Disney film adaptation ),and obscure books, like the 1904 spin off called Pinocchio in Africa.  I'm interested in seeing how these children's books helped to define the new concept of "being Italian," since before 1861, people living in Italy identified primarily with their local community.  I enjoy using these children's books in my classes, partly because they are so much fun to read, but primarily for what they can teach us about Italy. Since many of these books were written in part to promote literacy in standard Italian, they are custom made to help us learn the language, too. As one student wrote on the evaluation for my seminar on La letteratura infantile, "By studying the literature for children, it is easier to understand how a culture develops and where its values are based."

Sound interesting? Drop Maria a note at, or, better yet, sign up for a class.

Looking forward by looking back

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Though I hope for this blog to be forward looking, I'd like to start off by looking back.  In this case, to a dinner that I attended last October 23, as part of the College of the Liberal Arts Centennial celebration. (To see the Centennial video on YouTube, click here.) The dinner was an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the College throughout its history, as well as to recognize a number of truly amazing alumni who have made a difference in the life of the College, and who have also made major contributions to their fields and their communities.  The point of this blog entry, though, is to talk about two people in particular: Terry Peavler and Linda Deniston-Peavler.

Terry came to Penn State in 1971 from the west. He grew up in Colorado and did his PhD at UC Berkeley. Terry had a long and successful career as a Professor of Spanish. He also put in stints as Graduate Officer in the Department, as an Associate Dean of the College, and as Interim Head of SIP as well. Terry has always been a strong supporter of both Penn State and of SIP. In fact, Terry and Leon Lyday (another emeritus professor and longtime Department Head) established the Lyday/Peavler Graduate Student Enhancement Fund in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. The fund allows us to provide travel support to graduate students every year and plays an invaluable role in the professionalization of our students.

Terry and Linda retired to Colorado 2001. Linda is an artist, and both are very active in their community. They've just made an extraordinary estate gift of over $1.5 million dollars to be used to support graduate fellowships in the Humanities, with a preference for Spanish. This is one of the largest gifts ever made by a Liberal Arts faculty member. Terry and Linda's gift will have a major impact on our program and on the lives of the graduate students that it benefits. In many ways, our graduate students represent the lifeblood of what we do. They play a crucial role in the education of our students, and they represent Penn State as they move forward in their own careers. We are all extremely grateful to Terry and Linda, both for their generosity and their vision for the future of our Humanists.

So I guess that starting off by looking back really is a way of looking forward.