This is a cathartic rant disguised as a meticulously planned assessment.
Over the past year, I have fielded questions from dozens of prospective students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG). They sent heartfelt messages, wanting to know everything from what the classes are like, to whether vegetarians will be slapped in the face with a piece of prosciutto. I carefully replied to every email that was sent to me, giving answers that I felt were judicious while catering to the writer’s sensibilities. See, by the time most people have discovered UNISG, they have fallen in love with the school already, and idealize it as foodie heaven on Earth. Which to be fair, in many respects, it is.
I am not going to discuss the warm and fuzzy parts today; the rest of my blog does that already. Instead, I am going to give a completely uncensored portrait on what it’s like to be in the Food Culture & Communications (FCC) masters program at UNISG.
This piece will not make me popular, and effectively shoots myself in the foot, but I am a big believer in the Louis Brandeis adage that sunshine is the best disinfectant. It should go without saying that the views expressed herein are my own, and not necessarily supported by other UNISG students or the administration.
At best, attending UNISG gives you experiences of a lifetime. At worst, it’s a scam.
UNISG’s most innovative feature is its experiential elements: extensive tastings, visits to artisanal producers and farmers in the field, travel to elusive foodie gems that you would never otherwise discover.
Unfortunately, the school wrestles mightily with the balance between these hands-on activities and traditional academic structure. In the end, the latter loses out, big time.
Here are some basic facts of life as a UNISG FCC student:
- Classes: Your regular class schedule includes two sessions a day, from 9 am-12 pm and 1-4 pm, five days a week. However, many days include free mornings or afternoons. After the first two months of classes, it was rare for us to receive a full 10 lectures in a week. Some of these lectures will be rewarding but many will feel like fluff classes, scheduled last-minute to fill time. Once, we had a lecture on the history and development of refrigeration. Another time, we had a lecture from a member of the Langhe-Roero tourism board, who told us about their efforts to market and brand the region.
- Professors: UNISG does not employ any full-time professors for the FCC program. (The undergraduate program does have permanent staff.) Instead, lecturers from other universities are asked to visit. At most, they are present for a week, and more often, they are only around for 2-3 days. That means classes are compressed into a very short time frame, and you have no opportunities to really analyze or absorb the material. Moreover, it’s more difficult to get to know your professors, they can’t provide feedback on more than one assignment or exam, and you have no chance to show growth over time, the way a semester-long course would provide you. Since professors are only around for a few days, many aren’t invested in teaching and don’t seem to take it seriously, treating their brief stay at UNISG like a week-long vacation in Italy. I have turned in at least half a dozen papers without receiving any feedback or comments from the teacher, who has long returned to his home institution. Having said all that, we did have several stellar teachers, including Stuart Franklin, Fabio Parasecoli, Ann Noble, Carole Counihan and Corby Kummer, who taught ideas I will never forget.
- Organization: Poor. Some of you may laugh and say, “Oh, well what do you expect from Italians…” but it starts to get less humorous when your euros are on the line. I have a litany of complaints, but my biggest concerns are with class management. UNISG provides course readings online, but these are often uploaded only a day or two before the class begins, so you have little lead time to get the readings done. Occasionally, a class will require reading a book held in the library. Unfortunately, the library doesn’t hold books on reserve, so the lucky student who dashes to the library first nabs the book for the next three weeks and is under no obligation to share it. In addition, UNISG doesn’t require that professors provide a detailed syllabus ahead of time, which means we sometimes go into a class only knowing the professor’s name and course title. Worst of all, with its bureaucratic inefficiencies, UNISG actively impedes some of its better lecturers from doing their jobs. Our nutrition professor, Emily Ventura, was one of the most engaging, well-prepared teachers we had. In order to build upon an earlier professor’s lectures on nutrition, she asked if she could sit in on those lectures to make sure her material was not repetitive. The university told her she could only attend classes for a fee of €100/day. Meanwhile, students bring their friends to classes all the time, free of charge.
- Library: The library is only open 4 hours a day, mostly during class hours. This is actually a major improvement over last winter, when the library completely shut down for about two months because the librarian quit (because the university didn’t renew her contract on time). Even when the library is open, you will have a difficult time finding the books you want. There are no fines levied for overdue books and no forced recall system, which means every student returns books at their leisure, if at all.
- Career Counseling: Practically nonexistent. There is some emphasis on networking and job placement, as we are required to participate in a 2-month internship at the end of the program. However, support for this internship is weak. Unlike most U.S. universities (and like most Italian universities), there is no office or personnel dedicated to career counseling or job search support. We do meet a fair number of artisanal producers, farmers and researchers through stage and it is possible to build professional relationships with them. I also met good contacts at the Terra Madre conference last October. But overall, networking and job placement are areas that you will have to put energy into yourself. Note that you must cover the costs of an internship, so unless you want to intern at the University or with Slow Food, you’ll likely be paying for housing twice: in Bra and at your internship.
- Thesis: Here, the academic and experiential aims of the program are once again at loggerheads. The thesis is supposed to be a report based on findings and information you’ve learned during your internship. But the internship is an applied work experience, while a thesis is traditionally an academic research paper. When you’ve spent the last two months working full-time, where do you find time to conduct serious research? How do you structure a thesis based on an internship when you don’t know what your experience will be like? Hence, the thesis requirements at UNISG are laughably minimal: 4,000 words (excluding citations), written without the support of an advisor and defended against a committee of 3-4 professors, only one of whom has read your paper. I took the initiative to propose a thesis topic that was unrelated to my internship, and began researching my paper well ahead of time. In the end, I wrote a piece that I was proud of and learned new something from the process. However, for most people, the thesis is simply an extra-long report, summarizing and reflecting upon their internship.
To put it quite bluntly, UNISG has poor academic rigor.
Over the year, I gauged my classmate’s reactions to the university carefully. A few were content, and felt the program met their expectations. Some rationalized the expense because they couldn’t confront the possibility that they’d wasted their money. Others got angry and tuned out.
I took action. On a couple occasions, I sent emails regarding the program to the administration, with joint signatures from some of my classmates. The emails were received politely, with acknowledgements that improvements could be made and promises that change would occur. At the end of the year though, I don’t feel that much has truly changed, and moreover, that the university has not learned from their mistakes. Not a good sign.
Incidentally, I was always under the impression that the undergrad program was better run, but last month, some undergrads began sending emails to the student listserv titled “La Revolution” with comments such as, “Enough now! I don’t know about you, but I am really tired of how they ‘organize’ (and tax) things at this university.” So perhaps things aren’t so great at the undergrad program after all.
Which leads me to the question, what is the future of the university? Right now, there are only two other established food studies masters in the U.S. (at NYU and BU), but interest in the field is growing and new programs are being established every year. With expanded options for students, is UNISG going to remain relevant, especially for the American students who comprise about half of the masters classes? I understand that standards are much lower in Italian-run universities, but this English-language program caters to foreign students, and UNISG will have to amp up its game to remain competitive.
Would I have been better off traveling on my own for a year? After all, you can get a long way in Europe with €15,000 (the cost of tuition). However, the university’s connections with Slow Food grant students incredible access to farmers, producers and activists; you would never be able to reach them on your own. How can I forget the warmth of the cheesemakers who welcomed us to their Alpine goat farm? When will I ever again smell the singed wood of a freshly-made wine cask, see the live birth of a kid, taste the bittersweet smack of fir honey?
But is that worth €15,000?
In the end, I don’t regret my time at UNISG, though I think I was one of the luckier ones. I was highly proactive, sought out and harnessed opportunities, made use of the university’s networks, and managed to land a job before graduating. So, it wasn’t a complete wash, mostly because of what I put into it.
To future students: continue to push the university and push the envelope. Always question. Why do the vending machines sell bottled water and why are there are no drinking fountains installed? What do producers say when their Slow Food representatives aren’t around? How can the program provide valuable learning experiences on par with the magic that happens on stage trips?
Here’s to a UNISG that truly embodies the future of food.