Katie Cline, Editor-in-Chief
Dr. Carmine DiBiase’s office looks like that of the average professor’s. A paper-smattered desk and a worn office chair are crammed into one corner, and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase packed with books and overflowing with more sits on the opposite wall. DiBiase’s personal style comes through in the snapshots of Italy that cover his walls and door and the tea things stacked on a side table. It’s like entering the very small home of an Italian scholar.
On an unnaturally warm February morning, DiBiase sat in his chair, legs crossed, with a cup of tea in one hand and talked about his life as a college professor, Shakespeare enthusiast and the son of two Italian immigrants.
DiBiase’s parents immigrated to Salem, OH from central Italy in the 1950s, shortly after the end of World War II. DiBiase is the second of four sons, and he and his brothers—Tony, Mario, and Virgil—learned English as a second language.
“They came for the reason for reason that so many immigrants come,” DiBiase said. “Italy was in a mess. It was quite a wreck after the Second War. So they came here.”
DiBiase’s father worked as a self-trained industrial photographer and printmaker, and his mother assisted him.
But growing up as the children of immigrants wasn’t always easy. The DiBiase boys were teased throughout school for not speaking English as well as their classmates.
DiBiase recalls one particular incident: “We used to go hunting pheasant in the winter, which was when my older brother’s [Tony] lunch started to go missing from his locker. This went on for several weeks before he got the bright idea of freezing a severed pheasant head and placing it in his lunch bag for the thief, who was revealed when all the girls at his lunch table, and some of the boys, too, began to scream in horror as they stared at him. He was himself in a horrified state as he held the head by the beak and the thawing blood dripped out from the severed neck and onto his lunch plate.”
Despite these initial setbacks, DiBiase remembers his family and childhood fondly and says that his parents were always very supportive of their children.
“They encouraged all of us to go to school and to get university degrees so we’d have a better life,” DiBiase said. “And I thought I had better do something practical, so I went into engineering. I enjoyed the drawing classes. I enjoyed some of the math classes, but it wasn’t for me. When the courses started to get really demanding, I discovered that I didn’t love the idea of being in engineering. And so I struggled for a year or so trying to figure out what I needed to, and I almost dropped out. But I decided that instead of doing such a shameful thing as dropping out, I would do a slightly less shameful thing and do what was easiest. So I went into English and discovered that, yes, it all came easily to me. But more importantly I discovered that it didn’t come easily to some of the other students in the class. It was really quite an enlightening thing for me to realize that the notion of doing things that are really, really hard from the beginning is not a smart thing, because the reason that they’re very, very hard is because they’re not where your aptitude lies. So it’s not a cop-out to do what comes easily to you. It means you’re capable of doing advanced things in that field, so it does become very hard, but it’s hard in pleasurable way, because you know you’ll be able to get through it.”
DiBiase finished his Bachelor’s degree in English at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, and went on to earn a Master’s in English from Wright State University in Dayton, OH. He earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1988. His dissertation was on the influence of Italian fiction on 16th century fiction.
“I couldn’t work in science,” DiBiase conceded with a smile. “In the science classes, I found myself not doing well because I was too distracted by the people in them. I was more interested in the personalities of the class, the personality of the professor, and so in that way I gradually realized that I should be in the humanities.”
Before coming to JSU, DiBiase was an adjunct instructor at the University of Tennessee. Here, he met his wife, Susan, who was working at the Knox County Health Department. The couple got married in March 1995.
“I was happily single, but I hoped to meet somebody, so I asked my friends to keep their eyes open,” Susan said. “One day I got a call from my best friend’s husband. He said, ‘I met the most wonderful man today. He is so genuine and he speaks from the heart. If I were a woman, he’s the kind of man I’d like to marry.’ Our friends threw a party so we could meet. They told me to look for him, and they told him nothing! He was really nice and talked about his grandmother.”
The DiBiases do not have children, but they do have five cats: Sebastian, Peepers, Bangles, Missy Lou and Mischief.
“We were a little older when we got married,” Susan said. “We were both a little hard to match up. But it has been so much easier because we are a good fit. We understand each other’s vulnerabilities, and we care about the same things.”
DiBiase began teaching at JSU in August 1993 and has since become one of the university’s two resident “Shakespeare experts.”
“I never wanted to specialize and focus only on Shakespeare, because life is short, and art is too grand and colorful to ignore whole centuries of it,” DiBiase admitted, though not regretfully. “I’m very, very happy to be teaching Shakespeare every semester, but I’m also very, very happy to be able to write about, for example, the influence of Shakespeare on a modern Italian writer. That kind of thing wouldn’t be forbidden at a bigger university, but I could be stepping on another specialist’s toes, and I probably wouldn’t be rewarded for it.”
A lot of DiBiase’s work focuses on translating the works of Italian authors into English and researching the influence of Italian writers on English works.
“I found myself drawn to translation studies, to the multilingual nature of some English literature,” DiBiase said. “Shakespeare has been fascinating to me from a very young age, because here you have all these plays set, for some reason, in Italy, and so you have these Italian places in some of the greatest literature that’s ever been written in English, and I thought that maybe this would be a good thing for me to study.”
In recent years, DiBiase has been studying the works of Italo Svevo, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian author who was friends with James Joyce. DiBiase published the first English translation of Svevo’s brother’s diary in 2013 in a book entitled “The Diary of Elio Schmitz: Scenes from the World of Italo Svevo.”
“He continues to impress me with how productive he is with his scholarship,” said Dr. Teresa Reed, who has been teaching English at JSU with DiBiase since 1996. “He’s doing the levels of work that people at level one research institutions normally do—and they teach many fewer classes and have much more support, so that just goes to show his passion for getting things done.”
Reed first met DiBiase when she was interviewing at the university. He was teaching a survey of Middle English course.
“Attention to detail, which can get boring and tedious, doesn’t with Dr. DiBiase,” Reed said. “He’s always going somewhere that makes the really detailed analysis of how a line was delivered or why a word was said somehow revelatory and interesting.”
In fact, this detail is one of the many things Reed says students like about him.
“He knows about his stuff,” Reed said. “He’s passionate about his stuff, and he also doesn’t suffer fools at all, which I think most students appreciate.”
DiBiase is liked and respected by all his colleagues, but he has a special relationship with Dr. Steve Whitton. Whitton has been teaching at JSU since 1973, and the two veteran professors have struck up an almost brotherly bond in their years together.
“We’re both opinionated as all get-out,” Whitton said, “and I suspect we both realize that the other person that we had just sniped at wasn’t going to fold up—and we laugh more often than we’re offended.”
The pair can often be seen teasing each other in the hallway between classes, much to the amusement—or bemusement—of students.
“The last time I saw him, he pulled his sweater over the side of his head like he couldn’t see me,” Whitton laughed, “and the last time he came in to ask me something, I had these [papers] in front of me, so I did a fake loud, ‘What?!’And that’s just kind of how we greet each other. We just get along.”
Both Whitton and DiBiase grew up with brothers, and their relationship often resembles the playful banter and jabs of siblings. Whitton, who was teaching for 20 years before DiBiase came to JSU, takes the role of older brother and is appropriately proud of the younger professor.
“He is one terrific cook,” Whitton said, “and I remember time after time going over to his house and both watching and assisting him in cooking—you know, like start to finish—and always Italian. Some of my early memories of him are sitting on the patio of his house at a little picnic table on a Friday afternoon after the week was over. And we would sit and chat. He was generous, and there were a lot of laughs.”
And Whitton made sure to point out DiBiase’s endearing, if not as well-known, qualities, too.
“For someone as scholarly as he, there is this wonderful sense of innocence about him when it comes to popular culture, and that’s where all of our laughter would come from,” Whitton grinned.
Whitton told one story of a trip to a book store with DiBiase and a group of friends.
“DiBiase [was] the absolute worst GPS in the world!” Whitton said. “You were there before he finished explaining the directions. But once we got inside, he was encyclopedic in his knowledge of what would be a good purchase and what wouldn’t be. Once we were in his rarified world, he was the best guide.”
But Whitton was clear that all the teasing is good natured on both parties’ parts.
“And all of that about him makes his friends smile, because we all have such respect for his scholarship—but we’re glad he’s not perfect,” Whitton smiled.
Whitton has had the rare opportunity to watch his fellow professor teach. Years ago, he brought DiBiase in as a guest lecturer to talk to students about “The Taming of the Shrew.” The class was studying “Kiss Me, Kate,” a Samuel and Bella Spewack and Cole Porter musical that centers around a production of the Shakespearean classic
“When he was done, he said, ‘Was it okay?,’ and I looked at him and I said, ‘Not only was it okay, I have to redo everything I have planned because you gave me so many ideas here, and I want them to see that instead of what I had planned,” said Whitton. “The students were mesmerized, and so was I.”
Part of DiBiase’s success as a professor and a scholar, Whitton believes, comes from the effort he puts into each class, including how he treats his students.
“He refuses to talk down to them,” said Whitton. “He challenges them. He allows them to think and express. And I think that with any good student, they’re going to embrace
that. He transmits his excitement, and how can you not be caught up in that?”
When he’s not in the classroom, DiBiase has a range of other hobbies, from playing violin to gardening to mountain biking.
DiBiase started playing the violin when he was young, around ten years old. He quit in his early teens, but kept the instrument with him over the years.
“I put it down stupidly because of peer pressure,” DiBiase said. “Back then, it wasn’t like it is today. Today it’s chic to be a nerd. Back then it wasn’t. It was hard. But it was my fault. I caved; I buckled. But I never sold it, because I knew it was something valuable, something that might bring me pleasure in the future.”
It was DiBiase’s wife, Susan, who moved him to start playing again, and the couple was two of the founding members of the JSU community orchestra in 1994. They have also played with the Gadsden Symphony for over 20 years; they’ve played at weddings and in a string quartet; Susan gives cello lessons, and they’ve played in the orchestra pit for several Jacksonville Opera Theater productions and will be doing so in JOT’s production of “Phantom of the Opera” in June.
“She was playing the cello and had done the same thing I had done,” DiBiase said of his wife. “She had quit playing the cello when she was a teenager and then picked it up again. And I still had my violin, and that inspired me to pick up the violin again.”
DiBiase became the student and friend of John Maltese, an Italian immigrant, nationally recognized violinist and Professor Emeritus of music at JSU. Maltese was also instrumental in resurrecting the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. The two remained friends until Maltese’s death in 2015.
“I scrape away at it,” said DiBiase. “I’m not a professional violinist, but it’s a joy to play at any level, and I do love collecting them, finding broken ones, old ones, fixing them up, testing them out, seeing if they sound better than the one I’m playing, and that’s been a great hobby. And fixing my fellow musician’s violins and bows. That keeps me involved and useful.”
DiBiase’s other great hobby is bicycling. He started road and mountain biking about ten years ago.
“Mountain biking has been a huge pleasure,” DiBiase said. “It’s been a great way to blow off steam and try to stay fit. What’s fascinating about it is that you meet people from all walks of life, and you will get along with all of them because, on some level, they’re all in it for the fitness and for the good company.”
DiBiase and his wife both enjoy biking with friends, because it lets them exercise and be out in nature. They have seen foxes, bald eagles, deer, lots of turkeys, rattlesnakes, armadillos and more while riding on trails.
“I’ve had a ten-point buck jump right over me,” DiBiase said, his eyes wide. “David Myer [another English faculty member], who happened to be with us, was behind me, and my wife was behind him. I saw [the deer’s] underbelly when I looked up; it jumped from a standing position right over me. Susan said it had to twist in midair to avoid knocking David in the head. So it’s not just cars you have to be wary of. It’s dogs and the occasional deer, and, because of this, whatever group you’re in, you’re among people who are looking out for you. So it gives you a wonderful community of like-minded people to hang with.”
DiBiase’s scholarship has included published books and essays in several journals including the “London Literary Review.” Most recently, DiBiase received the Faculty Scholar Lecturer Award in 2015 and gave a presentation in March 2016 entitled “The Globe and the Nutshell: the Actor and the Traveler in Hamlet.”
“I wanted to teach, and I wanted to write,” DiBiase said. “I’ve never wanted the kind of job that carves out eight hours of your day so that you must give those eight hours to some activity that has nothing to do with your life or what you’re most passionate about. I thought, ‘If that’s the way life has to be, I don’t care what the paycheck is going to be. It could be $500,000 a year. I don’t want it.’ I don’t want it, because those are the best hours of your day.”
Teaching, as DiBiase pointed out, doesn’t come with a big paycheck, and sometimes even distinguished professors have to fight off preconceived notions of their profession.
“Most people don’t understand it,” DiBiase said. “Most people think teachers are lazy, that they basically prance into a room and say a bunch of pretty things, spout off a few easy banalities about pretty poems and then go home and watch ‘Oprah.’ That’s not what we do. A lot of people, especially in politics, don’t seem to have the first idea about what teachers do. We work very hard, And the amount we do is very difficult to measure.”
Despite it all—the long hours, the underappreciation, the seemingly endless essays to grade that keep piling up—DiBiase thinks he made the right call in switching to an English degree all those years ago.
“So far, this job has been very rewarding,” DiBiase said. “I’ve enjoyed my time here very much. And, oddly enough, I find myself enjoying it more and more after 24 years here. I wanted to do something that would allow me to live my life while working, so it had to be something that brought me pleasure, yes, but that also made me feel like I was using my aptitudes to their fullest potential and doing something meaningful in the world, something that would make to make it a better place—or at least not worse than it was before. And so I thought some kind of teaching would be good, because it would force me to learn, too.”