One of the first things University of New Mexico adjunct faculty member Teresa Cutler-Broyles noticed about the COVID-19 shutdown in the town of Perugia, Italy, was the quiet.
“The silence was overwhelming,” she said.
Cutler-Broyles has a Master of Arts degree in Cultural Studies and a master’s certification in Historic Preservation from the UNM School of Architecture. She teaches film and cultural analysis at UNM, and creative writing at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy, where she and her husband, software engineer Robin Broyles, live part time.
Cutler-Broyles has been teaching at UNM since 2008 in the Film & Digital Arts department. She started teaching some years before that as a grad student for the English department.
“My favorite classes to teach are Cult Film, Post-Apocalyptic Film, which I was in the middle of teaching when this hit ̶ no kidding ̶ and Introduction to Film. I also regularly teach film-based classes for the Freshman Learning Community and have in the past taught film-based classes in Architecture, American Studies and Peace Studies.”
An author who has written a historical novel about 1570 Italy, and is working on a second, Cutler-Broyles noted, “I've been traveling regularly to Italy since 2000. I love this country, everything about it. The food, the art, the cities and museums and history and wine, and the people, and we have made many friends here throughout the years… Italy is a great place to write - very inspiring for me.”
Starting in 2014, Cutler-Broyles has been teaching a five-week summer class called Writing Italian Food in Perugia through the UNM Study Abroad Program at the Umbra Institute for UNM students, who get three credits for it. Seven students were lined up to come this summer until the pandemic shut down Italy and the rest of the world in quarantine.
“We arrived on February 19 intending for my husband to be here until April 28, and for me to stay through June 26, when my summer class would have been over. The lockdown started on March 9 and we decided to stay here rather than try to go back to the States with the rush of likely infected people trying to escape. So we're here in the apartment. We live on the outside wall of the city, so one side of our apartment overlooks the valley to Assisi on the mountainside about 20 miles away, and the other side looks down into the narrow twisty street... And we have a great view. That helps a lot,” she said, showing a photo of the view from their balcony ̶ a table set with a platter of Italian nibbles and two glasses of Sicilian wine ̶ overlooking the ancient city of Perugia.
The couple have rarely been leaving their home, except for an occasional trip to the grocery store or to take out the recycling.
“The other night we took the recycling down to the street and I stood in the middle of it with my arms out because being outside is a luxury now, and I wanted to feel the air on every inch. It was empty, deserted, silent. I knew that behind every door and window others sat in their apartments also in lockdown, waiting for the moment we can be outside together safely again,” she recalled.
Occasionally, the silence was broken.
“One afternoon we heard music from the street below where the night before had been nothing but one echoing set of footfalls. I went to one window and Robin to another, and people on both sides of the street went to theirs and we all opened them at the same time. We leaned on our windowsills in the sun and watched a lone man below us walk through the street playing an accordion. And the notes drifted upward and outward and somehow connected us all. As he rounded the corner and disappeared, we all looked at each other and smiled.”
The lockdown hasn’t much changed the way Cutler-Broyles was teaching but her students have faced challenges.
“I was teaching two classes online anyway, so the only difference for me is how it has affected my students. Some of them have been struggling a great deal with living situations, lack of Internet access, anxiety, loss of jobs, and more. That has changed how I'm teaching this last half of the class,” she said, noting that she is not enforcing deadlines so stringently right now.
“Every single student who is still turning in assignments anywhere should be applauded. Every one of them… I'm reading discussions from students in my post-apocalyptic film class and they are processing the films in light of events happening now in the world and their assigned readings about social and cultural and film theory, and they are brilliant.”
Italy has been particularly hard hit in this pandemic but is slowly opening up again. Cutler-Broyles took a long walk on May 4 ̶ the first day people were allowed out to do anything that wasn’t essential ̶ took photographs and saw people in the streets again. The couple will be flying home on June 3, after New Mexico, she hopes, is past its peak in new cases and hospitalizations. They’re hoping to sightsee and eat out in Rome before they leave but aren’t sure they’ll be able to.
“Either way, we'll be back in Albuquerque and planning for our son's wedding by the beginning of June. And I'm looking forward to having our garden and the foothills and the bosque to get out in when we get back.”
Cutler-Broyles pondered her experience and how it will affect her back at home and on campus.
“I am more aware of the strength of community ̶ of the UNM community and of the larger community as a whole ̶ and of connection, personal as well as professionally. From Italy we've seen how New Mexico is holding strong in its convictions, staying the course as much as possible in ways that at least attempt to keep people safe. And in Italy I've seen strength in the way the city here worked together to get through this crisis, kept each other safe by staying home, and took care of its elderly and those who needed help with food or clothing. These perspectives will inform my teaching in that I am ever more aware of the way connection and community shape who we are and how we interact with others,” she observed.
“I hope we are able to be back in classrooms in the fall, because it is there that connections and community are created; and at the same time I am worried that being too closely packed together might have a negative effect on student and faculty health if this virus has a resurgence as many expect. My overarching hope is that we, as a community, make the decisions about this that best take care of us all for both the long and short term,” Cutler-Broyles concluded.