Professor Renée D’Elia-Zunino, distinguished lecturer in the Italian program, earned her graduate degree in Italian and English Comparative Literature from Università degli Studi di Genova, Italy, in 1997. That winter, she decided to visit her parents, who had recently moved to Knoxville. After a few serendipitous introductions in the Italian Program at the University of Tennessee, D’Elia Zunino received a job offer and returned to Knoxville in 1998. Twenty-three years later, she says she still loves the city and the school where she and her husband both teach.
Since she joined UTK, Professor D’Elia-Zunino says she has adapted her teaching philosophy repeatedly to meet the changing times and changing needs of her students. By adapting her strategies, D’Elia-Zunino strives to allow her learners to be involved, immersed, to work together, to learn how to solve problems, and to negotiate meaning— all vital goals when learning a new language.
D’Elia-Zunino also believes in high standards for her students. She says, “By setting high standards, I mean I’m doing a trade-off for them… I want them to invest their energy and their time, I want them to study hard, but in return, I will give them a class that they will never forget.”
“Unforgettable” is a perfect descriptor for D’Elia-Zunino’s classroom. In all of her courses, she incorporates creative and experiential learning strategies. For example, her students practice vocabulary and learn history simultaneously by dressing up to present in class. “I invite them to become protagonists. I tell them, ‘Now, it’s your turn to be that character of the Middle Ages… And so, come to class with a brief presentation, dress up for the part, share some pictures, make it interesting, because we want to really live through your performance.’”
D’Elia-Zunino brings more intimidating language topics like grammar to life by creating games to help students practice. She also facilitates global conversations and cultural appreciation for students, such as when she brought olive oil for a class tasting and arranged a call with the company’s CEO. “And there you go,” she says. “You have created an experiential way of teaching the class and giving them that kind of feeling like, ‘oh, I’m learning something that is interesting.’” That’s all part of her teaching philosophy: make class enjoyable, interesting, involving, engaging, and make her students reflect on what they are learning.
D’Elia-Zunino has also made her mark on UTK by piloting the first online learning opportunities in the Italian Program. Six years ago, she applied for a grant to build an online Italian course. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was very useful and fruitful because the class that I teach in the summer online has been offered ever since,” she says.
When the pandemic began, D’Elia-Zunino’s online teaching experience became even more valuable for the Italian program. “I was able, through this experience, to reorganize all the Italian classes for the instructors and their Canvas courses overnight when we had to switch from in-person to online,” she says. D’Elia-Zunino’s colleagues in the Italian Program admire her flawless transition to remote learning and her ability to engage online students as if they were face to face.
Creating online courses coincided with D’Elia-Zunino’s personal commitment to accessibility, which she learned about through Dr. Eric Moore, former UDL and Accessibility Specialist at UT. “He taught me how to make my syllabi and my teaching materials equally accessible to all students. So I was committed, all of a sudden, to allowing equal access to all the material I created. I had to create my syllabi and my PowerPoint presentations in a certain way. Everything had to have a reference if a student couldn’t hear or couldn’t see.”
These experiences and others helped D’Elia-Zunino transform the Italian program to be more positive and inclusive. She redesigned courses integrating topics on diversity and equity and softened the tones of recent syllabi to introduce positive psychology language. She also took the TLI Summer Course Redesign Institute on the positive psychology track to modify her classes. Now, her students share encouragement videos and other materials that new students can access via Canvas when they feel uncertain or nervous about learning a new language.
Throughout the stressors of the pandemic, D’Elia-Zunino has also worked to support mental health in her language learning classroom. “During the pandemic, I started offering yoga sessions for my students…The students not only relaxed, not only learned to appreciate these techniques of relaxation, meditation and distressing, but they also learned a lot because the yoga classes were 100% in Italian.”
Looking back over her teaching career, one experience stands out to D’Elia-Zunino that still informs her teaching philosophy. One year, she had a blind student in her class, which led her to reimagine her approach to teaching language. “I wanted this student to excel in every way, so I immediately realized that I was going to have to create opportunities for this person to learn like everyone else.”
As a professor who often incorporates visual aids, extracurricular activities, and other sensorial experiences in her curriculum, D’Elia-Zunino worked to maintain her level of experiential learning without excluding her blind student. From adapted soccer tournaments to describing the smell of a homecooked Italian meal, she sought out ways to creatively involve this student.
“It was worth it,” D’Elia-Zunino says. “We had a heritage night. And I’ll never forget, this student helped organize the event by giving us ideas of what we could prepare and how we could decorate. At the end of the evening, she took me on the side and she said to me, ‘thank you for allowing me to be who I am always.’” The experience solidified D’Elia-Zunino’s determination to make sure that every single student could learn Italian the same way, even if that meant she must adjust her teaching.
When D’Elia-Zunino thinks about the future of teaching and learning in higher education, she sees important changes on the horizon. “I think that online courses will become part of our future. I think they should be taught more towards the evening hours to allow students who are working to get off work and have a meal before class.” To D’Elia-Zunino, finding creative and flexible ways to facilitate learning and let students be themselves is the best way to move forward as a University.
Interview quotes have been edited for length and clarity