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Cristina Della Coletta. Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

Meet Cristina Della Coletta, Dean of Arts and Humanities

Cristina Della Coletta, Dean of Arts at Humanities, Chancellor’s Associates Chair in Italian Literature

Cristina Della Coletta, a professor of Italian literature, is the new dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities at UC San Diego. A doctoral alumna of UCLA, Della Coletta was on the faculty at the University of Virginia from 1992 to 2014, serving there most recently as an associate dean.

A decorated teacher and long-serving mentor to junior faculty, Della Coletta held a number of academic leadership posts during her tenure at UVA. She is also the award-winning author of three books. Her research interests include contemporary Italian literature, particularly historical fiction, film and cultural studies, women’s studies, and the use of technology in the humanities.

Della Coletta was born in Venice, Italy. She began university in Venice and came to UCLA as an exchange student during her third year in college. It was then she decided to pursue an academic career in the United States, inspired by the residential experience and the U.S. education model, where “even research dynamos like UC San Diego are still absolutely devoted to the teaching and service missions.”

As dean of the UC San Diego Division of Arts and Humanities, Della Coletta leads a dynamic and highly ranked academic division with more than 1,700 undergraduates, 450 graduate students, and faculty spanning six large academic departments. She also provides oversight to the Center for the Humanities, the Mandeville Center, the University Art Gallery and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego, as well as leads divisional engagement with such affiliates as the La Jolla Playhouse and the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus.

Q & A

What drew you to UC San Diego and its Division of Arts and Humanities?

I had a long history with the UC system. I came for the first time to the United States when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Venice. I had the opportunity to study for a year in any of the UC system schools, and I chose UCLA – because there was a professor there who wrote a book that I found really inspiring. I spent a year at UCLA. That woman became my advocate and my mentor. And she really had an important role in my decision to pursue an academic career and move permanently to the United States.

As far as UC San Diego is concerned: I’d been interested in this institution for a while. ­­I think that UC San Diego – more than any other institution I had the pleasure to know or work in – lives in what I call a transformational present. And this is a present that exists in relation but not subservience to the past and a present that is really already in the process of becoming something else. There is a sense of the imminence of the future here that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. And this creates a mindset that is willing to take risks, and it’s full of curiosity for what’s behind the corner. And I find that very energizing.

What should people know about arts and humanities at UC San Diego?

First of all they should know about the strengths of our faculty – the quality of the faculty first and foremost –and then the distinctiveness of our departments. At more traditional institutions, just for example, you have a department of English, a large department of English, and a department of everything else or small departments of everything else. Here we have a literature department that really brings together dialogue across cultures and literatures on a really global scale. We have arts departments – music, theatre and dance, and visual arts – that combine practitioners, practicing artists, with theoreticians. And this is also a unique combination. Normally, if you think of music, we have either conservatories or departments of music. And here we have a really rich intersection of both practice and theory which is unsurpassed and gives great opportunities to our students.

There is a lot of public discussion about the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – in education. And some people amend that to STEAM to include an “A” for the “Arts”? How would you add to that conversation?

Given my own background, I like to think that we are really living in a new Renaissance… And STEAM may well be the perfect acronym for it. I like to think that we are looking at a new paradigm for the way knowledge is built and disseminated. And it’s a paradigm that is not based any longer on a specific niche of knowledge but it’s really the intersection of knowledges so we can create – help create – students who are able to work effectively across disciplines and move nimbly across fields and areas of expertise. Unlike its historical predecessor, however, I like to think that this Renaissance is really based on diversity – and not only the intellectual diversity that I just described but diversity of background, of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation that really build and nurture the kind of intellectual diversity and the spirit of innovation that I just described.

How do you describe your research? How did you become interested in pursuing your specialty?

Definitely interdisciplinary, and maybe eclectic. And that’s why I feel a strong sense of collaborative opportunity and intellectual affinity with my colleagues at UC San Diego.

I am interested in how multiple fields of study shed different lights on shared topics. My first book explored historical fiction, and I focused on how fictional works – autobiographies, novels, short stories – can contribute to historical analysis, and fill the gaps in mainstream historical records. Then I changed topics and became interested in the universal expositions, particularly the world fairs in their golden era, which is the age of nations and empires. Finally, my third large project was a book on fiction and film, titled when “Stories Travel.” This book looks at novels and short stories that have been made into films across different cultural, ideological and historical landscapes. For example, I look at how one of the great stories of Depression-era California, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” was transformed into Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione,” a film that was set in Fascist Italy. More than the principle of fidelity, I am interested in the process of transformation and how that sheds light on cultural narratives.

What guided your transition from scholar to scholar-administrator? How do your experiences as a researcher and a teacher inform your choices as a leader?

I don’t think that there was so much a transition but a natural evolution. The more I rose through the ranks, the more administrative responsibilities I embarked on and took on. But, you know, our profession has basically three areas: teaching, research and service. And I think the difference, at the end, is the amount of energy and time that goes in one area or another. Now I tend to concentrate on service, on administration, more perhaps than obviously I did in the past. But even if I simplify it now: I think that my role as a teacher and a scholar is the production and dissemination of knowledge. My role as an administrator and a servant to my faculty and my students is to facilitate the production and the dissemination of knowledge. So they’re all very intersected in the way I see it.

What advice do you have for students pursuing degrees in the arts or the humanities or both?

These days, students come to me and they often express great enthusiasm and passion for the arts and the humanities, but they also express concern about their ability to find a job once they graduate. It’s their concern, their parents’ concern. And I tend to tell them that the arts and humanities produce skills that are foundational, that are transferrable, and that are durable, They are foundational because the ability to think logically and ethically, the skill to build strong arguments, the ability to express those arguments with eloquence and grace – these are so basic that sometimes we take them for granted. (But when they are not there, we are keenly aware that there is something missing!) These skills are also transferrable. They don’t fit into a niche. They can – and need – to be applied to all kinds of practical enterprises and professional outcomes. In the arts and humanities, we want to create well-rounded human beings who are able to translate their skills and move them across various areas. These skills are also durable – they really last a lifetime. And sometimes, I tell my students, that if they’re really, really good, these skills may last even longer than a lifetime.

What advice do you give your own children?

Oh, I learned that being concise is very important there. I tell them to dream boldly, act ethically, and drive safely.

What is your greatest hope for the future of the division and for education more generally?

My greatest hope for the division is that we continue to enhance and define what makes us distinctive. The foundation is already there. And I think it’s very important that the humanities and arts at UC San Diego are distinctive in specific areas of excellence – that define the division as a whole but also create meaningful connections with other schools, other departments and other areas of the university. Just to give you an example, we are working now on a “Maker Space” with the School of Engineering, where we are hoping to bring together students in visual arts and engineering in a space where they can share techniques and technologies, skills and creativity to help “build stuff.”

The hope for education more generally is that we continue to press for the resources that we need to sustain this unsurpassed educational model, a model that is embodied at UC San Diego – and that the rest of the world is increasingly attempting to emulate: the model of the research-focused, student-centered, service oriented public university.

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