Since arriving in Bologna, I have not received a single grade. My lecture “Storia dell’Emilia Romagna in Antichità” (a history of Bologna’s region) ended on Monday, and I have no points, letter grades, or percentages. The oral exam (our one and only grade in the class) will not take place until April 11. “That’s over a month away!” my mom said. Yep, yep it is.
The Italian University system is a strange and lumbering beast. A final oral exam in which the professor or the assistant asks questions on the readings often entirely determines your grade. When you finish speaking, the professor writes down your grade on an official sheet of paper called a “libretto” which they then hand to you. Things like this are reminders that Università di Bologna is the oldest university in Europe.
Grades themselves are on a number scale up to 30. To convert grades into the UW-Madison scale: a 29-30 is an A, 27-28 is an AB, 26 is a B, etc. A student receives their grade after their “appello” or attempt at the oral exam. Some classes have multiple appelli so that students who are unsatisfied with their first grade or “voto” may try again. The appelli are often about a month apart. Thus students often take exams for the previous semester while beginning the next. When I moved into my apartment in February, my roommates were still studying for classes from the previous semester.
This may seem very complex and intimidating—standing in front of the professor who literally holds your grade in their hand? Terrifying! But everyday class is much more relaxed than American university, and frankly more boring. Classes last an hour and a half (On the schedule every class is two hours long, but it is understood that professors arrive 15 minutes late, and class ends 15 minutes early) and are entirely lecture-based. There is no such thing as participation. We Americans were told at the beginning of the semester that the professor is like a god in the Italian university, and this has turned out to be very true. Last week in my Italian literature course, a student whispered something to the person next to him and the professor stopped class, glared at the student and said (translated from Italian), “Attendance is not mandatory. You do not have to be here. Understood? If you don’t want to be here, leave.” To which the student meekly muttered, “understood.” Following that episode, no one has dared utter a word.
Despite scary professors and oral exams, Italian students all seem to remain “tranquilli” (calm). They complain about their exams and readings, and my roommates will throw themselves around our apartment yelling about their grades. But somehow they manage to go out to the bars any night of the week, skip class, watch lots of TV (usually American shows), go home for long weekends, and spend hours cooking and spending time with friends.
Ultimately, the BCSP director advises us to go with the flow. The Italian university system is messy and unorganized, but has a rhythm that keeps it moving along. Somehow students still learn and earn good grades. Somehow we sit, open books, take notes, and study the material that is (hopefully) on the test. Somehow the fact that I don’t know the exact date of my literature final isn’t a problem. I’ll figure it out, someone will help me, and the whole time there will be Italians tell me to “tranquilla” (calm down, relax).
On a more fun note, here is a picture from a concert Bologna hosted on March 4 in honor of the musician Lucia Dalla. Piazza Maggiore overflowed with people and famous Italians like Andrea Bocelli performed.