Tonia Bock

When in Rome ... Teach (and Eat Pizza)

One coveted advantage of a teacher's schedule is summers off – free to while away three months in the sun, wake up late and do whatever moves you.

But that perk, at least for many a college professor, is a figment of society's imagination. "My summer 'vacation' usually means that my work week goes from 50 to 60 hours to around 20 to 30 hours," said Dr. Tonia Bock, a professor in St. Thomas' Psychology Department. "And it's all about projects in the summer – research projects, teaching prep projects. It is a fallacy that profs have summers 'off' – here at UST we are always needing to catch up on our research."

This year Bock, whose area of research is moral development (specifically adolescence and emerging adulthood) decided to spice up her usual summer routine. Through a summer program at John Cabot University, an American-accredited university in Rome, she taught a class of 11 study-abroad students during a five-week session in July.

JCU has been a strong draw for St. Thomas students who study abroad – attracting 19 in the 2012-2013 academic year – because of its strong emphasis on business and communications.

A familiar course in an unfamiliar setting

Bock taught "Psychology of Adolescence," a course she has taught regularly at St. Thomas since 2004 (and is teaching again this fall). But she'd never taught it abroad until July.

Syllabuswise, she structured it similarly to her St. Thomas-based course – with an emphasis on learning through case studies. Bock chose an episode of "Freaks and Geeks," the short-lived cult-classic comedy series from 1999 about the pains of being a teenager, for one such study.

The case her class studied involved two of the main characters, Lindsay and Daniel, and their dilemma surrounding whether one (Lindsay, played by Linda Cardellini) should help the other (Daniel, played by James Franco) cheat on a test for a class in which the teacher was not helpful to struggling students. Bock tasked the class with choosing a psychology concept – such as self-handicapping (setting yourself up to fail) or learned helplessness – and explaining how it applied to moral reasoning development.

Bock and her husband, Carson, on a bridge over the Tiber River in Rome.

Tonia Bock and her husband, Carson, on a bridge over the Tiber River in Rome. (Photo courtesy of Bock)

Bock had looked forward to teaching a familiar course in an international setting and admitted her only disappointment was due to her luck of the draw: all of the students, save for a sole student from Russia, were from the United States.

"I wanted the students to bring out the international diversity of the subject matter. Our textbooks don't have a significant cultural component. I was hoping the students themselves would contribute that," Bock said.

Even so, she said she couldn't have asked for a more dedicated group of learners – who, among the Americans, arrived from California, the East Coast and the Midwest. "Most were in Rome studying abroad and traveling often during the weekends, but they were highly engaged in the course, and all of them genuinely wanted to do well," she noted.

The smaller class size (Bock teaches 30 students on average at St. Thomas) also made it easier for her to strike up informal conversations so every student could participate in every class session.

At JCU, almost all classes are taught in English, and during the summer many courses are taught by instructors from various countries.

Sarah Huesing, assistant director of advising and co-sponsored programs in the Study Abroad office, and Dr. Greg Robinson-Riegler, chair of the Psychology Department, approached Bock with the opportunity last semester, believing her a good fit for the position.

“We’ve worked with John Cabot for many years and it’s one of our most popular programs for semester and yearlong study abroad students. We were excited when the opportunity arose for a faculty to teach at JCU over the summer and absolutely thrilled when Tonia was hired,” Huesing said

Bock, who lived in Argentina for a full year between high school and college as a Rotary exchange student, was plucked from 30 or so candidates from around the world and hired, sight unseen, three days after submitting her vita for consideration. The stint struck a chord with the dean of John Cabot and made Bock's credentials stand out.

"The dean told me she thought the experience would help me to better roll with Italian culture. And I understand where she was coming from. Argentinian culture has a lot in common with Italian culture … the importance and interdependence of families … and how time runs differently," Bock said.

Adventures galore

"I would have to say this was the best summer 'working' vacation. I did put in about 15 hours a week of work over five of the six weeks I was there, but it was fun work," she said. And one of the best parts? "It left plenty of time for adventures galore in Rome and elsewhere in Italy," she enthused.

Bock and her husband, Carson, who accompanied her for the entirety of her post, traveled every weekend except one. Among their destinations were Venice, San Marino, Cinque Terre and the Palermo area, including Sicily, where Bock believes she had the best food "hands down" in all of Italy, singling out Sicilian pizza with its thick, folded dough reminiscent of a calzone.

Her husband's enthusiasm for exploring the country, which rivaled her own, clearly amused her. They visited so many monuments and cultural hot spots that in six weeks' time he catapulted himself from a TripAdvisor commentator with a passing interest to one of the travel website's "Top Contributors," she noted, not without chuckling loudly.

Although Bock left all of the review writing to her husband, she inwardly took note of how, holistically, the experience left an indelible impression on her: "The experience grounded me culturally. By that I mean I became aware of so many of my cultural assumptions that I've taken for granted. While I was in Italy I was always having cultural reactions to the country. I realized that it's just different from what I'm used to. I feel like I have a broader perspective of both my students and my world view because I got to be there six weeks … in many ways it's more work mentally and emotionally to live in a country for an extended period."

Not surprisingly, Bock said if she is invited to teach again next summer, she will seriously entertain the possibility.