Grad Student Shares Experience

By: Department of History, 
March 4, 2019

In February 2019, the Department wrote graduate student, Benedetta Luciana Sara Carnaghi, who is currently conducting archival research in Vienna, and asked her some questions about her graduate student experience at Cornell.  Her full responses are below.  They are set up in a Question and Answer style so that readers may look for items of interest to them.  

For those interested in graduate work in history, Benedetta’ s enthusiasm for both Cornell History and the field shine through each of her responses.  Benedetta provides insight into her process of selecting a graduate program and Ph.D. focus with rich and pertinent detail.

This thoughtful Question and Answer piece will be helpful to students and individuals digging deep into history. Benedetta's enthusiasm for life will not be lost on the reader as she lives an exhilarating journey as a twenty-first-century female historian in the making.

1. Hello Benedetta, I understand that you are in Vienna this term studying.  What are you researching and where are you doing your research?


I was awarded a six‐month fellowship from the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. The institute is a vibrant intellectual community of scholars coming from all over the world, so we get to do our own individual research, but we also engage with our colleagues’ work in seminars and lectures. I really love being here: the wonderful collegial environment of the institute – where we don’t feel that any hierarchical distinctions exist, regardless of the stage we are at in our academic career – completes the sparkling magic of the city of Vienna.

My dissertation is essentially a comparative history of double agents in the Second World War: I compare the activities of the OVRA, the Fascist secret police, with those of its Nazi counterpart, the Gestapo, and the other Nazi intelligence services during the Second World War. Here in Vienna, I am specifically working on a chapter on the link between espionage and deportation. I am investigating the role that spies played in leading the Nazis to arrest and deport their targets to concentration camps. In addition to working at the Institute and consulting the Wiesenthal archive, I have also conducted research at the Documentation Centre of the Austrian Resistance (Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes, or DÖW) and at the Vienna City and State Archives (Wiener Stadt und Landesarchiv). I look at a great variety of documents, but very often court trials of Nazi criminals and spies.

My stay in Vienna finishes at the end of February. I will continue my research for three months in France with a fellowship from the “Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah” and during the summer in Germany, thanks to a DAAD short‐term grant. 


2. How did you select Cornell University as the place to pursue your graduate degree? 


I have to say that I always dreamed of studying in the United States. When I was in high school, my father organized an exchange with an American high school, St. Mary Academy Bay View in Riverside, Rhode Island. The exchange itself was a wonderful experience and our hosting families were really welcoming. There was something about the Americans that reminded me of us, Italians – maybe the sense of humor… clearly, I had no idea at the time that academia is a different world… just kidding! But more importantly, during that stay, we got to visit Brown University and MIT. I was amazed by the resources I could see those institutions had. 

Although I did the first part of my academic studies in Italy and France, that idea remained stuck in mind. So, when the time to apply to Ph.D. programs came, I also applied to a few programs in the United States. 

The story of how I ended up at Cornell is actually a funny one because I was originally admitted to the Romance Studies program, not the History one. So, at the end of the selection process, the biggest choice I had to make was between two graduate programs: one relatively “close” to home—Oxford—and that would have been a History program—and Romance Studies at Cornell. It was a hard choice. For a few reasons, Oxford would have been more straightforward for me: I was coming in with two Master’s degrees from France, so, like in most European programs, I was going straight to the Ph.D. It was just a three‐year program. I had to present a specific research project and I already knew that I was going to work on that project under the supervision of Professor Robert Gildea, a renowned specialist of the French Resistance. Cornell sounded like a more adventurous option: in addition to not being a History program, I had to take courses again and earn a new Master’s degree, before being able to devote myself fully to my research project. So why choose Cornell? First of all, because of Enzo Traverso, my advisor, who is mainly affiliated with the Romance Studies department, but is also in the History field. Even before I met him in person and learned first‐hand that he is a wonderful person to work with, Enzo looked perfect on paper. He was the perfect advisor for the research I planned to undertake. He is a Modern Europeanist with a particular focus on intellectual history—an area which, I have to say, is not my strongest suit, so I felt that I had a lot to learn from him. He had also authored some of the books that were in the bibliography of my Master thesis. But, in addition to his expertise, Enzo is Italian, earned a Ph.D. in France and taught there for many years before coming to Cornell, so I felt that he was in a unique position to understand my background and the strengths and weaknesses of my previous education. 

I made the decision to come to Cornell while I was spending a semester at Columbia University as a visiting fellow from the École Normale Supérieure (France), so I had the chance to ask some of the professors at Columbia about Cornell’s History faculty. One of the wonderful things they told me was: there are women around! Women are a large component of the History faculty at Cornell. Since one of the biggest issues in the academic world remains gender parity, I have to say that hearing that was really encouraging for me. And it was true! I had the pleasure of taking classes with some of those women, starting from the very first course I took, the introduction to the graduate study of history, with Professor Mary Beth Norton and Professor Isabel Hull—the first and third (I think) women hired by the department and essentially two of the most brilliant scholars and sharpest critical thinkers I have ever met. I was glad to catch some of their teaching before they retired. And they shared informative stories about what it meant to be a woman in a profession totally dominated by men when they started, so this definitely helps us put our own struggles into perspective, but also encourages us to push forward the fight for equality. I also wanted women to be in my dissertation committee, so I was very happy that Professor Hull and Professor Claudia Verhoeven agreed to be part of it. I really learned a great deal from them, on both a professional and human level.

So, I came to Cornell to study history and took mainly history classes, but as I said, I initially was in the Romance Studies department. I should also acknowledge that the Romance Studies department was extremely generous in letting me pursue my interests. However, I ultimately realized that this unusual situation implied some constraints: my main degree or concentration would have been Italian Studies and not History, which would have caused difficulties if I wanted to market myself as a historian—especially in Europe; and I would not have gotten any training in teaching history. So, at the end of the first year, I asked if I could transfer to History. I remember talking to Professor Rachel Weil, the DGS at the time, who told me something along the lines of We will do our best to see if you can transfer to History. If that is not possible, we will provide you with the best historical education possible. I am very grateful to her for saying this because it suggested that I was going to be fine either way. But in the end… I was indeed able to transfer! So I wrote a heartfelt letter to my Romance Studies friends, explaining that if I could have, I would have done two Ph.D.s, but since one is already pretty time consuming, I had to go for the one that felt closer to my interests… and so here I am! 

This is probably a longer answer than you expected, but I felt like it was important to tell this story because it could be encouraging for other students who are facing an initial rejection: Never say never! There is always a second chance in life…


3. How did you decide on a research topic?

I have always been fascinated by the story of the anti‐Fascist and anti‐Nazi Resistance, especially when I could take advantage of discussions with the few survivors left. For my Bachelor thesis at the University of Padova, Italy, I interviewed an Italian partisan, Argante Bocchio (born in 1924), who was a militant of the Italian Communist Party. To escape an arrest warrant during the dark postwar period of persecution of partisans who had fought the Fascist regime, he went into exile in Czechoslovakia and in the USSR, so his was also a first‐hand account of life under the Soviet regime. When I went to France to study at the École Normale Supérieure and at the Université Paris 1—Panthéon‐Sorbonne, I continued to pursue these interests. My second Master thesis centered on the story of an American woman, Virginia d'Albert‐Lake (1910–1997), who was involved in the Comet network, an escape line that helped downed Allied airmen return to Britain during the Second World War. On June 12, 1944, she was arrested by the Nazis and consequently deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived deportation and left behind a memoir and some private archives. In addition to reading those, I also had the chance to interview two survivors who told me that either they or their families had been arrested by the Nazis because of spies—individuals who pretended to be Resistance members but actually worked for the enemy. So I asked myself: Who were these spies, infiltrators, double agents? What motivated them? And that’s how my whole dissertation project started! I like to do history from below. I like to look at individuals—police informers and spies—because I think that they can tell us something about the totalitarian regimes and the terror they perpetrated from a different perspective, from the bottom up.


4. What is the best thing about doing research in so many different places?


I would say the sense of freedom! I feel like some sort of explorer and I constantly make new discoveries, not only in the archives but also in the cities where I had or have the chance to live. I was extremely lucky, because I got two full years of external funding. I already knew some of the cities I went to (for instance, Rome, Paris, and Berlin—Paris, in particular, because I lived there for years as an exchange and then Master student), but I got to explore a whole new side of them— the outdoor spaces—now that I have started running. Running takes my mind off things and it really allows me to reach spaces that I would not have had the time and energy to get to otherwise. In the other cities where I conducted research, like Palo Alto and Stanford last summer, and Vienna now, I had never lived before, so I had a great time visiting their most interesting spots and meeting new people. For me, research is a quintessentially collaborative process, so making connections with the locals is an essential component of it. I also think that historians need to imitate ethnographers a little bit: we cannot really understand the history of a particular place if we do not talk to its residents. Archival research and academia, in general, can also be a lonely and intense experience at times, so it is very important to find moments to “turn it off” and talk to people who do something different for a living!


5. Can you tell us more about your research, how it offers a different perspective on WWII?


 As I mentioned before, my dissertation is on Fascist and Nazi spies before and during the Second World War. My plan is to shift the focus from institutional stories of the police to a detailed analysis of the police informers while using history as a tool to also engage in the current debates about the nature of surveillance.  This shift would allow me to look at totalitarianism from the bottom up, showing how terror was an everyday experience and challenging the traditional dichotomy between popular dictatorship and repressive totalitarianism. Some of these spies, in fact, were threatened into working for the totalitarian regimes, and their cases put into question the too simplistic dichotomy between victims and perpetrators. I look at these spies not only in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, but also in Vichy and occupied France, and in post‐Anschluss Austria, as I recently discovered that the latter makes for an interesting comparative case with France. I tap into a huge secondary literature, but I found out that there is no book on the subject of spies that takes into account case studies from different European countries, so for me the comparative dimension is a way of expanding the existing historiography, of bringing out national specificities as well as broader networks.


6. What opportunities has the Cornell Graduate program provided you with in terms of teaching and publication?


The first course I was a teaching assistant for was “The Making of Modern Europe,” a course that surveys the major developments in Europe since 1500 and that the History Department offers every year. It was my first experience teaching history and it has been very useful for two reasons. First, because this is a course that I will likely teach myself in the future and it was very interesting to see how the syllabus was put together. You have to understand that compressing the entire history of Modern Europe into one semester and teaching it to students who may know very little about that geographical area, let alone history itself, is not something we generally do in Europe, so that was definitely a learning curve for me. The second reason is that I really enjoyed the working relationship with Professor Rachel Weil, for whom we were TA‐ing that year, and Nate Boling, my co‐TA. Professor Weil gave us some well‐appreciated guidance. We met more or less every two weeks to discuss the readings that she had assigned to students, come up with potential questions for the discussion section, and talk about the grading when the papers were due or when the students did their exams. Leading a discussion section was also something I had to learn because in Europe our classes are not particularly interactive. The system may be slightly changing now, but when I was a student in Italy and France, the professor essentially came in and lectured for one or two hours. At the end, we could ask a couple of questions or request clarifications, if necessary (and they’d better be good nitpicking questions, otherwise we were clearly told that there was no point wasting everybody’s time!). That’s it. No other interaction. So, when I arrived in the US, I wasn’t very talkative in the classes I took, because I had to overcome the fear of saying something stupid. When I was put in the position of leading a discussion section, I was like: “How am I going to help my students talk, when I have issues with that myself?!” So it was really nice to receive helpful suggestions in that regard. Professor Weil also observed Nate and me leading a section once and gave us feedback about the way we were doing it, so that was very useful.

The History Department always offers one hour of TA training at the beginning of the year to the new TAs, but it’s impossible to anticipate all the specific issues that are going to come up in a course in one general meeting, so it’s up to the various instructors to provide guidance to the TAs in the framework of their own course. I’ve also been a TA for “American Capitalism,” taught by Professor Edward Baptist. Since I am not an Americanist, I really knew very little about the subject matter, so I had to learn at the same time as the students. But the best teaching experience I had was definitely the first‐year writing seminar. I think it’s great that we get to teach our own course! It’s basically a course that we can design in the framework of the John S. Knight Institute’s writing program: the course needs to focus on writing, of course, so we develop a lot of writing exercises, but we choose the topic, so I could teach it on my own dissertation topic. I titled it “A Life Under Cover: Spies in History, Fiction and Cinema.” We looked at surveillance and espionage from different standpoints and from a great range of historical periods and sources, even spy fiction and movies. It was definitely a lot of fun. 

As far as publishing is concerned, it was more up to me to find the right opportunities and venues to do it. I had already written some small articles about my previous research work in Italian and French, but of course, my priority became to publish something in English, so that it could be read in the Anglo‐Saxon academic world. The History Department offers a graduate research seminar every year, in which the students can revise a paper or a chapter of their dissertation to turn it into a publishable article. I took it pretty early (in the Spring of my first year) so I am not actually sure that the paper that I wrote will end up being a standalone article. It will probably become part of my dissertation. However, I was very happy to take the seminar with Professor Aaron Sachs, because I discovered that he also organized a reading and writing group called Historians are Writers! (HAW!), open to students and faculty coming from different departments. I found HAW! to be a wonderful non‐judgmental collaborative space to discuss writing issues and to workshop bits of writing, and it definitely helped me find my own creative voice in the process.  Before targeting high‐ranked peer‐reviewed journals, one easy way for graduate students to start publishing is go to conferences that have some form of conference proceedings afterward. That becomes particularly interesting when those conferences are in the specific field of interest in which we are working. Since my work deals with surveillance and the world‐wars period, I joined a society for the study of literature and culture of the period between the First and Second World Wars called “The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914‐1945” and presented at its 18th Annual Conference “Under Surveillance in the Space Between, 1914‐1945” at McGill University.

After the conference, I learned from Professor Phyllis Lassner that she was going to edit a special issue of the society’s journal on “International Intrigue: Plotting Espionage as Cultural Artifact,” and that they were looking for submissions from the conference presenters. So I revised my presentation for publication and my article was accepted by the journal! 

7. Is there funding available for foreign nationals and how do students access that funding?


Yes, there are fellowships and grants available for foreign nationals. Some of them are offered by Cornell’s research institutes, such as the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Cornell Institute for European Studies, and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Others are provided by external research institutes and funding bodies. Some are well known, such as the Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship and the Chateaubriand Fellowship Program, but they are also difficult to get because many students apply for them. The lesser‐known are a bit trickier to find. It’s worth subscribing to the various professional associations and journals because many fellowship offers are sent through their listservs. This is particularly important for multi‐country projects such as mine because there aren’t many fellowships that cover an entire year of research and allow you to go everywhere without strings attached. So, for instance, it’s thanks to the Society of Italian Historical Studies that I discovered the Trinity College Research Grant in Modern Italian History; it’s thanks to H‐France that I got the email about the Wiesenthal Institute fellowship; the German academic world has its own listserv, H‐Soz‐Kult, and so on…

More good ways to find out are to reach out to the librarians in the field (sometimes they know more than the faculty!), ask previous students and look at the section of the History Department newsletter devoted to fellowships and awards.

8. Cite two advantages of studying history through the Cornell University graduate program.

The first advantage for me is easy access to faculty because of the small size of the program. In my experience, faculty always have time for students, even for the students they do not directly advise and even outside of their office hours. The second advantage, I would say, is the interdisciplinary nature of the program, which reflects the general interdisciplinary nature of graduate studies at Cornell: we can take seminars in other departments and there are always students from other departments who take seminars in ours. I find these intellectual exchanges very enriching.


9. When do you hope to complete your Ph.D. and what is one of your long‐term goals?


 I hope to complete my Ph.D. next year, in May 2021. Well, the long‐term goal would be to find a university teaching position, but we know that it’s not easy and rarely immediate. If I choose to stay in the United States, I have to face the added difficulty of immigration, because I am a foreigner here, and so I would need to work for an institution that would sponsor me for a visa. So, over these years at Cornell I made sure that I undertook a few “extracurricular activities,” so to speak, just to make sure that I’m more prepared for a job outside of academia if that needs to be a temporary or alternative option. I had to get creative, always because of immigration issues, because I have a student visa (F1) and so my teaching positions already covered the number of hours per week that I was allowed to work. Sometimes I did things for free. For instance, I was a reporting intern at the Ithaca Voice for one year—also, a wonderful opportunity to get to know the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County a bit more. Other times, I run into openminded and creative people like Professor Christopher Way, the previous Director of the Cornell Institute of European Studies, and Dr. Jason Hecht, currently Associate Director for Academic Programming of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and they managed to find a way for me to work for the Cornell Institute for European Studies as a Graduate Student Assistant Project Coordinator for the Migration Conference that they were organizing—and for that, I am really grateful. I also did some volunteering and went to a few workshops for jobs outside of academia. So, hopefully, when the time comes, I will be prepared for every possible outcome!


10. Is there anything else you would like to share about being a graduate student in history at Cornell?


I think I’ve already said quite a lot, haven’t I? I would just like to add a necessary clarification about what I’ve said for whoever reads this. You should keep in mind that I have been very lucky so far: I could always support my studies with scholarships; I was not the victim of any form of exclusion, racial or otherwise; I did not struggle with mental health issues, because I have an enormous support system of family, friends, and mentors who were there for me every step of the way— even the longest and most wobbly steps, I should say. If you ask these same questions to other students who are less lucky or less privileged than me, they might tell you a less happy story. Please keep an eye out for them, because their stories deserve more attention than mine.


Grad student photo