Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Milan, Italy

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David Moss
David Moss

David Moss was Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Milan for eight years until 2010. The University of Milan has 65,000 students and is very highly rated for research both within Italy and Europe.

Before moving to Italy David worked at Griffith University, Brisbane Australia, as Professor of Italian and European Studies. He has written widely on political violence, patronage, responses to HIV/AIDS and banditry in Italy. David holds an undergraduate degree in Modern History from the University of Oxford, and a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Kent.

He recently talked to about his experiences of working as an academic in Italy.

A complex application process

Italy, when compared to many other European countries, has very few overseas academics working in its universities. Italian universities do employ a few distinguished scholars from abroad, but the situation is very different to the UK, where around 40% of staff may be from overseas. David explains some of the issues:

“The application process for academic posts in Italy is very complex and time-consuming, even for Europeans who don’t need a visa – my application took around 18 months from start to finish. In theory academic jobs are open to people from all over the world – in practice very few foreigners are actually employed. The situation is starting to change, albeit very slowly. 

“All university jobs are advertised in Italy’s Official Gazette, with an advertised closing date. However these dates are not always adhered to and the positions suspended for unexpected lack of funding. When you apply for an academic post, you need to submit hard copies of your publications to the university you are applying to. This is costly, and it’s hard to get them back afterwards.”

The necessity of fluent Italian

Academic life in Italy is conducted in Italian. Courses in English, except for a few at PhD level, are very limited, and there are few native English speakers amongst the academic staff. Fluent Italian is essential if you are planning to apply for an academic post and take a full part in your university community.

“In my own case, I had taught English in Sicily and Rome for two years, during which time I learnt to speak and write Italian fluently, so I was well-prepared to undertake anthropological fieldwork for my PhD on banditry and pastoralism in Sardinia and later for my research on political violence. It’s not a difficult language to learn.”

Moving to Milan

Like other Italian universities, the University of Milan can’t provide any help with finding permanent accommodation in the city. David was fortunate to have friends living there who were able to help.

“Affordable rented accommodation in Milan can be hard to find. I only needed a one bedroom flat, as my main family base was back in the UK where my wife was working. I eventually found somewhere suitable, but the cost absorbed about 30% of my net salary. For the eight years I was at the university, I spent my time commuting between the UK and Milan, and as our home in the UK is not far from East Midlands airport everything worked out really well.

“Settling into life in Italy was really straightforward and I thoroughly enjoyed living in Milan. My colleagues were warm and hospitable, and I was invited to their homes for meals, or to stay at their holiday homes by the sea. I went to football matches in Milan and attended concerts and soon got to know people.

“Within the University I was seen as a bit of an oddity, since I was not an Italian national. Some of the staff wondered why on earth I would want to work there! Apart from the language teachers I was probably the only non-Italian in our faculty of 230 staff.”

But none of this mattered and David thoroughly enjoyed the academic life there.

“I have always liked teaching and this was no different in Italy. The students were great to work with, although there was the usual mix of highly motivated students and others somewhat less so. In Italy you can go on studying for your first degree for as long as you like – there is not the three year closure that you get in the UK. The average graduation age of political science students is 27, much higher than the UK.”

A different academic system

At the University of Milan only about 40% of the students enrolled in degree programmes attend lectures. The remaining 60% who don’t attend do reading programmes. Some are working, and others might live a long way from the university.

“The teaching workload in Italy is standardised and most courses in the humanities and social sciences involve 60 hours teaching time, all lectures.  I usually lectured for around ten hours each week, although this varied according to the semester. I had no seminars, no workshops and no tutorials to organise. Our third year students were required to write a thesis, and my job involved working closely with them, in a similar way to a tutor.”

As a lifelong student of Italian politics, culture and society, David did not want to miss the experience of working there.

“I’m an anthropologist and the Italians have been my tribe. My academic life has been spent writing about Italy and so the offer of a job at the University of Milan was very exciting. I have enjoyed my job enormously, and I have made some good friends and have been able to explore parts of the country I didn’t know. It really has been an unexpected privilege and I have been able to correct some of my own false impressions.

“Procedures within Italian academia are extremely rigid which can inhibit creativity, and about which Italian academics themselves complain. There has also been a lack of enthusiasm about internationalism but gradually this is changing almost everywhere.”

David’s tips:

  • “Develop personal contacts within Italian universities – I had contacts at the University of Milan before I applied for my job. You could use  Erasmus links, and visit Italian university departments
  • Consider organising a sabbatical at an Italian university with the help of contacts there
  • You need to make your own opportunities – be enterprising as Italian universities are changing and you can make it work.”

David Moss is the author of The Politics of Left-Wing Violence in Italy, 1969-1985, Italy under the Southern Cross and many chapters and articles on postwar Italy.

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