Like many leaders in the Yale community, Raffaella Zanuttini has been tasked with steering a department of graduate students, professors and graduating Yale College students toward a virtual finish line and onto the next academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zanuttini chairs the Linguistics Department — where she served as director of undergraduate studies until last year — and teaches one undergraduate class: “Grammatical Diversity in U.S. English.” In her role as chair, Zanuttini has been meeting twice a week with other leaders in the field to troubleshoot the transition to online education and voice concerns to higher levels of administration.

Between shepherding an academic department and teaching a course of 21 undergrads, Zanuttini has encountered the gamut of challenges academic life has faced during this pandemic. A native of northern Italy, the linguist has been acutely aware of the difficulties the novel coronavirus poses and has decided to maintain a positive outlook for her leadership and the department’s future.

“I make a big effort trying to think about good things in these hard times because I feel like, otherwise I, you know, I explode,” Zanuttini said. “[We] have to fight against sadness. Sadness of the thought of people suffering … who are dying or dying alone.”

In addition to the global weight of the coronavirus crisis, Zanuttini laments how the situation will impact the semester’s final weeks for the graduating Yale College students whom she has guided for four years. Normally, she said, the department would be looking forward to celebrating the seniors’ accomplishments. There would be a series of senior presentations where they would showcase their essays before faculty and friends — now, the department will be doing this via Zoom, Zanuttini said.

Zanuttini said that the Linguistics Department will do virtual congratulatory dinners and toasts over Zoom. While it will not be the same and there will not be flowers, she said, the department will do its best to make it a meaningful — albeit virtual — experience.

For Zanuttini, the Zoom platform has been able to do more than just virtualize commencement plans. She has enjoyed seeing students continue to do their work and engage with the course even through an online interface and has been “pleasantly surprised” by the way this transition has been going, Zanuttini said.

“When the transition online began, Raffaella and I discussed different ways to adapt the course, including the relative amount of synchronous versus asynchronous content,” Zanuttini’s teaching fellow Chris Geissler GRD ’20 told the News. “Ultimately we kept the regular class meetings, to a large extent because she saw them as an opportunity for crucial human contact and normalcy in this difficult time. … Raffaella takes teaching and her students’ welfare seriously, and has encouraged me to incorporate what I have learned from the Poorvu CTL and other teacher-training workshops into this course.”

This care for students manifested itself at the beginning of what promised to be a tough transition.

Serena Puang ’22, who is taking Zanuttini’s grammatical diversity course, noted that her professor has been very attuned to students’ concerns, going so far as to ask how she could do better during office hours and then incorporating it into the way she teaches class. Zanuttini has a son in Puang’s class year, Puang said, which she thinks makes Zanuttini more understanding during these times. 

“She’s always seeking to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what helps students because she genuinely wants to help us learn and succeed,” Puang said. “Raffaella is like a mom to all of us in the Linguistics Department, and I feel lucky to be advised by her.”

Zanuttini recalls a meeting before spring break when she first learned of the possibility that Yale might not reconvene in person due to coronavirus. She said that she was so saddened by this possibility that she could “barely talk to the class.” Zanuttini said that the class assured each other they would do their best. Per her assessment, they have done that and more.

John Besche |

Correction, April 11: A previous version of this article misspelled one instance of Puang’s last name.

This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.