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Claudia Portogallo

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Claudia Portogallo

In this new series, GSAS alums describe their path to a fulfilling non-faculty career and how their experience at Yale has contributed to their success. Meet Claudia PhD in Classics and Renaissance Studies who is a boarding school mentor and teacher at Sankt Afra at Meißen in Saxony, Germany.

What did you study at Yale? What is your current profession/job?

At Yale I studied Classics and Renaissance Studies. As of last summer I am a boarding school mentor and teacher at Sankt Afra at Meißen in Saxony, Germany. Sankt Afra is a state-sponsored boarding school for exceptionally able and talented young adults.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/or rewarding?

The very diverse activities throughout the day are what I enjoy most about this job. I can go to the gym in the morning, teach at noon, in the afternoon work in an atmosphere that resembles that of college seminars—and then, during late evening rounds, reflect with students on the day’s successes, mishaps, and adventures. Language classes in Latin and Greek, a "Language and Politics” class, and a class on online journalism in which the students practice writing short-form texts which shed light on the school’s activities throughout the year all form part of my teaching portfolio. The two extracurricular workshops are particularly experimental in character: the students and I get to decide together in which direction we want to take our inquiries. In “Language and Politics”, for example, we analyze concepts of rhetoric and propaganda in antiquity. Then we read texts by Hannah Arendt, Elisabeth Wehling, George Lakoff, Per Leo, Maximilian Steinbeis, and Daniel-Pascal Zorn. Using the analytical tools drawn from these texts, we are focusing on political debates in Germany now. We are studying political speeches, blogs, Twitter feeds, and articles in journals, always asking what political frames have been used. We plan to display our findings in a digital visualization toward the end of the year.

This kind of academic work coupled with my duties as mentor is very gratifying for me. As boarding school mentor, I am accompanying twenty-three young ladies during their last two years at the Gymnasium. Creating a welcoming atmosphere for each and every one of them is my main priority. We talk about all kinds of different academic topics as well as such profound questions as how to find one’s path in life. At the same time, we joke about quotidian banalities. Through all this, I am learning a lot about what it means to be a young lady in East Germany today. Even though I was born not too far from here, my sixteen years away from home, which I mostly spent in the US and Italy, have had the effect that I returned to my home country as a foreigner: I speak the same language as everyone else and that’s an incredible advantage, but I, nevertheless, have had to learn many things afresh just like any other immigrant.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

During my dissertation research year in Italy, a friend of mine in the History/Renaissance Studies Department and I came up with a manuscript digitization project which we had hoped would be our future after our time at Yale. After returning to the US, we talked to many people at Yale, the NEH, and to several institutions in Florence, Italy. After much effort, we were able to secure collaboration agreements between some Florentine libraries and Yale. Then, I returned to Italy, but we were unable to secure funding for our project; and by this time, my family had grown by three kids. So, now, my days were split between finishing my dissertation, childcare, and topping up our family budget by working for a travel agency startup which had been founded by another colleague of mine in the Classics department. When I finally submitted my dissertation two summers ago, the question of what to do next and where was real and serious. For a number of reasons I could not go through the hoops of applying for one or two-year contracts before hopefully landing a tenure-track position. So, I looked around in Florence and met with friends, who all worked jobs that I considered quite wonderful. Eventually, I understood that the city where I felt most at home would not allow me to grow my family as I envisioned it. This may sound quite strange, but if you want to raise your family from your paycheck alone, it’s an almost impossible endeavor in Italy. Italian families usually own property and have other incomes from rent to make ends meet. We had our minds, our hands, and ourselves, so we decided to look elsewhere. When I got invited for a job interview in Germany, I scheduled several other informative appointments with schools, university libraries, and professors. Sankt Afra offered the best possible deal for us as a family: we now live in a beautiful house on a large campus with amazing students and facilities, with a wonderful library, and among a welcoming crowd of colleagues from all walks of life. Meissen, a picturesque medieval town, is nestled on the river Elbe amidst vineyards: all of this reminds us of Tuscany. So to answer your question: how did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory? I pursued my research and it opened up different avenues of work, some of which were temporary, and one of which provided more stability.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a GSAS student which help make you successful in your current career?

I taught myself so many things during my PhD that I can safely say the main faculty I came away with is the knowledge that I can teach myself anything if I only set my mind to it. Now I teach mostly language classes in Greek and Latin. I challenge myself, however, to inform my teaching with digital methods such as treebanking or translation alignment. In our Latin class, the students have selected long passages from Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum which they would like to read. I hope that using these digital tools, we can gain speed in reading and translating the texts despite having to make compromises regarding deep textual and grammatical understanding.

Besides language competency and literary fluency, I am trying to foster awareness for the diverse narratives of history—for the history of ideas and of material culture—in my classes. Experiencing true diversity can be difficult for students in a city that can hardly be described as divers by the standards of New York, Florence, or even New Haven. I thus find helping students develop a historical perspective very important. Something else that informs my teaching every day is my work in manuscript studies, which taught me the importance of preserving and digitizing cultural heritage. When I teach, I draw on all of my skills and knowledge and try to make it accessible. Whenever possible, I introduce students to the texts and materials that I worked with while at Yale. I break it down, of course, and it’s great fun when students eventually become more curious and interested.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

Teaching college students at Yale and teaching high school students at Sankt Afra is not so very different. Naturally there are differences in subject and pace, but the intellectual curiosity, autonomy, and rigor with which some students present their work in the classroom is fascinating. I am grateful that teaching at Yale provided me with so much experience and taught me many a lesson on how to work with a demanding and curious crowd who enjoys intellectual challenges.

What advice would you offer GSAS students who are interested in your line of work?

Teaching at a boarding school is a greatly rewarding experience. You can interact with students on so many levels: sports, music, theater, reading, and generally organizing all kinds of activities. Living and learning together is not just a catchy phrase; it actually means that learning goes both ways. I was blessed with a wonderful mentor at Yale from whom I learned a wealth of methods for how to provide feedback and for how to interact with students or other professionals in a cordial and respectful manner, especially when you might not share the same opinions. If you are considering becoming a boarding school mentor, I can only recommend that you look at your own mentors at Yale. Graduate school is formative not only for your academic and intellectual path forward, but also for the way you interact professionally. Yale has great mentors from whom you can learn boundlessly.