Dr. Kristin Stasiowski
Name: Dr. Kristin Stasiowski
Title: Assistant Professor of Italian Language and Literature, Modern and Classical Languages (College of Arts and Sciences)
What is your expertise? What are your research interests?
Italian Medieval Literature, Modern Italian Poetry, Film and Cinema Studies, Intercultural Communication
How long have you worked at Kent State?
When do you first remember hearing about COVID-19 or the "coronavirus?" Did you have any sense at all that it would have as large an impact as it has on our day-to-day life?
I remember hearing about it in December 2019. At that time, I was working to promote the Kent State Xi'an Program in Xi'an, China for Summer 2021 and I wondered how the appearance of this virus might impact that program. I had no idea how quickly and dramatically the disease would come to impact all of us around the globe. This only underscores the need for a more global perspective and more nuanced understanding about how intimately connected we are despite great geographical distances.
Is there any experience you have had in your life up until now that compares with what we all are currently navigating? If so, what was it?
I teach a course on Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron every spring semester. Set in Florence, Italy during the 1348 plague known as the Black Death, Boccaccio’s one hundred novelle have received recent, widespread attention as readers the world over struggle to navigate the perils of this COVID 19 pandemic. In the first few riveting pages of the Day 1 Introduction, Boccaccio tells us what to expect from human behavior during a crisis of epic (and seemingly unending) proportions. The reader is drawn into the putrid and decaying world of plague-ridden Florence. All manner of practical life was upended and death was everywhere present. He writes: “Confined thus to their own neighborhoods, they get sick everyday by the thousands…[…] in the midst of so much affliction and misery….the respect for the…authority of laws…had declined just about to the vanishing point…people felt free to behave however they liked…[…] There was not enough consecrated ground to bury the enormous number of corpses that were being brought to every church every day at almost every hour, especially if they were going to continue the ancient custom of giving each one its own plot.” These words are particularly striking to COVID reading audiences, as they resonate so clearly to each of us struggling to come to terms with the “new normal” hardly believing that another time and another place might have dealt in the same way with very similar circumstances.
How has your day-to-day life changed? What does your new "routine" look like now?
My schedule is usually filled with in-person advising and student-teacher interactions that have all become remote. I also travel extensively, which is not possible. Instead of taking students to Florence, Italy this summer I find myself working with colleagues to reimagine the nature and purpose of international education. This disruption to our daily routine and patterns of working will, I think, end by allowing us to be more innovative in the design and delivery of both the humanities and international education. "Place" is certainly important and travel is a critical (and enjoyable) way to help us break down barriers and dismantle prejudice and stereotypes, but travel is only a tool. The real lessons that both the humanities and international education teach are to be found in the perspective one gains from continuing to interact in any form with people and ideas that are unfamiliar to you.
COVID-19 and our collective response is one of the most interdisciplinary phenomena many of us have seen/experienced. How would you describe how your discipline/research interests/expertise contributes a valuable perspective to our better understanding and responding to COVID-19?
Literature is, by nature, interdisciplinary. There are libraries filled with books that make reference to similar circumstances in human history and that touch upon a variety of issues in psychology, sociology, politics, business, science, and religion. Other great "plague tales," such as Albert Camus’ The Plague; William DeFoe’s Journal of the Plague Year; Jose Saramago’s, Blindness and even the lesser-known Mary Shelley novel, The Last Man, offer a literary balm to those seeking solace during these months of solitude, confusion, and anxiety. The historical and emotional perspective that you gain by reading about how different people in different times dealt with similar circumstances can be both comforting and instructive. Shelley's protagonist in The Last Man turns to literature in just this way and comments: "I felt convinced that however it might have been in former times, in the present stage of the world, no man's faculties could be developed, no man's moral principle be enlarged and liberal, without an extensive acquaintance with books." This underscores the need to return to deep reading and reflection in order to buffer the blows of adversity and trauma, but also to reinforce our sense of morality and humanity.
If you had to embark upon a scholarly project (e.g., research, a new course) right now related to COVID-19 and our collective response, what would that look like?
I think it would be fascinating to teach a course that would bring together some discussion of James Hillman's "Healing Fiction," Martha Nussbaum's "Cultivating Humanity" and Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Cosmopolitanism." The intersection of the ideas in these books presents us with some unique opportunities to discuss the way that literature can help us develop intellectual and moral qualities that, in turn, can help us to become more thoughtful and considerate global citizens. As Nussbaum writes, "however we order our varied loyalties, we should still be sure that we recognize the worth of human life wherever it occurs and see ourselves as bound by common human abilities and problems to people who lie at a great distance from us." I couldn't agree more.
What other discipline (even without any expertise or knowledge in that area) could you see helpfully complementing yours in pursuit of your new COVID-19 project?
I think that psychology and intercultural communication are two disciplines that would pair well with a project of this nature, though really any discipline can join a conversation like this and bring something of value to the discussion. That is the beauty of approaching any problem or challenge with a humanistic, liberal arts perspective.
Do you have any last insights/thoughts regarding COVID-19 and what we are all experiencing?
In the Author’s Conclusion at the end of The Decameron, Boccaccio offers his readers one last consolation by way of a warning: “anyone seeking profit and utility [in my tales] will not be prevented from finding it, nor will these stories ever be thought of or described as anything other than useful and seemly if they are read at the proper time and by the people for whom they were composed.” I think now is the proper time and we are the proper readers for books like the Decameron. Boccaccio's tales speak to us across centuries of forgotten sorrows and weave through generations of readers to find us ready to hear his message once again; ready to cure weakened bodies and broken hearts. After all, he begins his tales with this line from the Preface: “it is a matter of humanity to have compassion for those who suffer.” We need compassion now more than ever and we need to recognize and help those who suffer. Science will eventually find a cure for COVID-19, but it will be the works of literature like The Decameron that will teach us how to have compassion. Only then can we heal the deep wounds caused to so many by this pandemic.