Catching Up With Carolyn Forestiere, Pi Sigma Alpha’s Faculty Advisor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Carolyn Forestiere is an associate professor of political science and department chair of the political science department at University of Maryland, Baltimore College. Pi Sigma Alpha was able to speak with her about her experiences in the filed of political science and her involvement with PSA! 

What As an undergraduate student, what influenced you to seek out a PhD in political science? 

I came of age during the 1980s in the United States, during which most of the political discourse I had been exposed to, especially during the Reagan years, could be summarized by the simple expression “capitalism good, communism bad!” As a junior in college, I did a Study Abroad program in Florence, Italy during the spring semester of 1992. I had taken courses in art history and Italian language as a freshman and sophomore in college and wanted to learn more about Italian Renaissance art (and actually see it!) and to better my language skills. However, as soon as I got off the plane I was awe-struck by all the colorful and vibrant communist propaganda displayed prominently on the city walls and billboards. It was everywhere! Clearly there was an electoral process going on (parliamentary elections were held in April while I was there) and there were several ideologically distinct contenders, all with their own colorful posters, including Socialists, Social-Democrats, Christian Democrats, Liberals, Republicans, and neo-Fascists. While we had Republicans and Democrats and some Independents back at home, it was immediately clear that the spectrum of Italian political ideology was much broader than anything I had experienced.

I was dumbstruck. How were some of these ‘extreme’ political ideologies possible in what I understood to be a democratic and capitalist country? To help me understand this, I decided to take an Italian politics course during my study abroad program. In that course, I learned that yes, Italy had a sizable communist party, but also that over time the party had softened its stance and was now more of a ‘Eurocommunist’ party. This meant that the party accepted democracy for Italy’s political system and a mixed economy, combining elements of free enterprise and state ownership, for its economic system. Nonetheless, the party strongly desired widespread protection for Italy’s workers. I was then surprised to learn that the first line of Italy’s Constitution reads “Italy is a democratic republic, founded on work,” giving primal importance to the working class. Since I had always been sensitive to issues surrounding income inequality and unequal access to opportunities in the United States, I found what I learned quite interesting and as I learned more, I realized I was hooked. I began to learn as much as I could about Italy’s many political parties (and given its use of the proportional electoral system at the time, there were definitely many parties to study!).

And though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, the early 1990s represented a moment of great political change for Italy. On the domestic front, there were many difficult challenges to Italy’s traditional political order, given the high level of political corruption that was being exposed by the Clean Hands Movement, an extensive judicial investigation led by a committed group of Italian magistrates. In addition, on the international front, the Cold War was ending, the Berlin Wall came down, Germany unified, and Russia and many of the other countries in East Central Europe underwent a democratization process. This meant that the former West European Communist Parties, and especially the Italian Communist Party that I had started learning about, experienced a major identity crisis. And then, between 1992 and 1994, the entire Italian political system imploded from these domestic and international pressures. The parties crumbled, a radically new electoral system was put in place, and all sorts of new political movements and parties emerged from the political rubble (like Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia!). It was a very interesting time to develop an interest in Italian politics!

So, after the Study Abroad program ended in the summer of 1992, I came home, declared my undergraduate major as Government, graduated in 1993, and then completed a Masters degree in Italian in 1997 before beginning a Ph.D. program in Political Science. I’ve been engaged with Italian politics ever since. 

What is the best part of walking into the classroom each day? 

Singing a ‘good morning’ song to students who grumble about the early hour (I usually start teaching at 8:30am and honestly, I can’t sing). The best part is the eye rolls! Seriously, each day is an opportunity for us to engage with the course material in different ways and one of my favorite things to do is to show students how to identify connections between what they learn and other material, like current events. I also enjoy teaching research methods so that students can learn to answer their own questions about the political world. 

Tell us a bit about what research you are working on right now:

I am working on co-editing this year’s volume of Politica in Italia (Italian Politics). This is a volume that comes out each year that reports on the previous year’s main political events. It comes out in both Italian and in English; one editor is typically Italian and one editor is typically from the English-speaking world. Given that most people who work with Italian Politics are aware of the journal, it has been an honor to participate as this year’s co-editor. I will be excited to have the volume in my hands in the upcoming months. 

You had three students take part in the Pi Sigma Alpha Student conference this year, why do you think it is valuable for students to take part in events like this?

Our top students often spend an enormous amount of time thinking about important topics and researching them to write impressive papers about political events around the world. Why let those papers sit in a computer file, never to see the light of day? I have always been a supporter of student research. It is through research that we grow within the academy and I think that students should be engaged in the research process as early as possible in their academic careers. I enjoy teaching students the techniques that enable them to answer the questions they have about the political world.

And I also enjoy watching students share what they have learned with larger audiences. This is why I encouraged my students to apply for the PSA student conference and why we have also developed our own undergraduate research conference on own campus. The students who have presented over the years consistently report that they greatly enjoyed the time they spent talking about their ideas and receiving constructive feedback from visitors. The students who come see the presentations are often inspired by their peers, too. It’s a win win for everyone. 

How does Pi Sigma Alpha fit into the department at UMBC?

Pi Sigma Alpha’s main event on campus here at UMBC is the undergraduate research conference we host each year. We have the infrastructure for a conference through which 12-14 students can present their work as posters. We have used the funding from PSA’s Activity Grants to pay for lunch for the visitors and for a top prize for the best presentation that is awarded at our Department’s annual reception. Also, many students have begun to show more interest in Pi Sigma Alpha; for the academic year 2017-2018, we had 17 new members, which is wonderful. 

If you were giving advice to a first year faculty advisor for Pi Sigma Alpha, what would you suggest?

Ask students what they would like to do. The student conference that we run was started 10 years ago when a group of students suggested to me that they would like to have more opportunities to present their work. We applied for a Chapter Activity Grant and the rest is history!

Also, the new membership system is a dream! We can now spend more time recruiting and encouraging students to join. That’s a great development.