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The polymath professor

The disciplinary path of popular professor Marcel Danesi has taken a few sharp turns over the years, but the breadth of his intellectual pursuits is nothing short of amazing


Here are just a few of the questions that Marcel Danesi has fielded from reporters over the years: When did human models first come into the fashion world and when did they get so skinny? What was Paul Martin unconsciously conveying with his feet position as he left the prime minister’s office? Why are Sudoku puzzles so addictive? And those teenagers with their new argot every generation, what is that all about?

More impressive than the range of queries is that the 59-year-old University of Toronto professor of anthropology – and Italian, and semiotics, and communication theory – was able to answer them. His 35-year career is an exemplar of the public intellectual and of an academic who has expanded the zones of his expertise seemingly with ease.

“I always saw as counter-productive any narrow specialization which said I will do that, and only that thing in a career,” says Dr. Danesi, speaking in a rapid-fire manner that leaves a reporter’s notes a mess. He cites as his role model his good friend, Italian novelist and university professor, Umberto Eco.

“He wrote for The Espresso, the equivalent of Time. He wrote Italian recipe books. He writes academic bestsellers. What he did is very normal for an Italian professor, and I am very Tuscan,” says Dr. Danesi, sitting in a noisy cafeteria on the U of T campus. As befits a person of Italian descent who started his professional life as a professor of Italian, the spoken words are underlined and illustrated with multiple hand gestures.

When that physical energy is applied to intellectual pursuits, the results are extraordinary. Dr. Danesi has authored or co-authored not five, or 10, or 20, but 179 books on a wide range of topics that interested him.

His publishing record, which began prosaically enough with his PhD thesis on the first example of Piedmontese Italian, has progressed into a year such as 2006 when he wrote (1) A “User-Friendly” Course in Basic Mathematics (2) Brands, a book tracing the origin and development of brands and brand identities (3) Sudoku, 215 Puzzles From Beginner to Expert (4) Basic American Grammar and Usage: An ESL/EFL Handbook (5) Perspectives on Youth Culture (6) French Word Puzzles (7) Correct Your Italian Blunders and (8) Matematica e Fantasia, a co-authored and updated version of Adesso! a textbook, manual and audio CD for teaching Italian.

In 2006, he also edited the journal Semiotica and taught six regular courses and a continuing education course in learning Italian by listening to opera.

And, oh yes, did we mention that he is also a very popular teacher as evinced by a plethora of rave reviews from students? Gushed one student on “I love this prof. I was never bored during his 2 hour lectures and I’m going to take ALL HIS COURSES.”

Dr. Danesi’s method in accomplishing this balance between teacher, scholar and public intellectual is – at least in his eyes – relatively simple: if you want to become an expert on something, write the textbook in the field. “Since the beginning, I realized I had apathy to discipline. That is, I never wanted to teach the same course in the same way. All of which led me to write textbooks. My idea was, if students wanted to pass, they could read the textbook. If they wanted more, they could come to class. With the textbooks as an anchor, my courses changed every year, which made me a better teacher and allowed my own scholarship to flourish.”

Dr. Danesi took the same basic approach to trade publishing, which he first got into with books about learning and teaching Italian. Then, in the early 1980s, he was asked to teach a course on metaphor in a summer semiotics program at U of T – semiotics being the place where signs, symbols, gestures and language intersect. In short order he became fascinated with the semiotics of everyday life.

One day, for example, he overheard a friend of his then teenaged daughter trying to define – in the particular argot of teens – what it meant to be “cool.” Dr. Danesi’s ears perked up and, as he wrote in his iconic 1994 book Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence, he became “obsessed with the idea of studying the behavioral features and manifestations of coolness in the contemporary teenager.”

A completely different tack occurred when, on a month-long fellowship in Indiana, he was challenged to come up with a lecture which would illustrate semiotics’ practical use. He recalled his mother’s practice of telling him riddles and decided to take a look at how puzzles – verbal, numerical, optical and others – came into being and play themselves out in society. This led him to write several books explaining puzzles’ surprisingly central role in human affairs and culminated in the 2002 bestseller, The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life, which the New York Times’ legendary crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz described as “pioneering … entertaining and enlightening.”

One might presume that all of these intellectual pursuits would bring cheers from his workplace – especially considering he had also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. But the truth is Dr. Danesi created serious departmental problems for the university. Fundamentally, his colleagues in the Italian department didn’t share his views of the omnium gatherum career which an Italian professor – as opposed to a professor of Italian – should strive for.

“I was told at the beginning, ‘You are going to go nowhere, because you have no area of specialization’,’” says Dr. Danesi. And the work that he did do was dismissed as merely “mucking around,” he says. “I wrote for textbooks; they counted for nothing. I did the trades; they counted even less. They could have even been a negative.

“The only thing that counted at work was when I did scholarly work on the Italian language, and I did that work. I never abandoned scholarship because I didn’t see any distinction between it and the other things I was doing.”

Nevertheless, he found his situation in the department of Italian increasingly untenable. It was a department which saw as its essential role to teach students how to speak, read and write a language. This created a fundamental problem for someone who was in the process of reworking himself into an Umberto Eco-type professor of all things.

“If you are halfway through your career in a department like history, it is a lot easier to completely change research without leaving. In fact, professors can remake themselves two or three times without leaving the department,” says Carl Amrhein, dean of the faculty of arts and science at U of T in the 1990s and today provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Alberta.

The question became: was there a place Dr. Danesi could move to where he would feel more comfortable? While cross-appointments are increasingly common at universities, it wasn’t going to work for Dr. Danesi because, in Dr. Amrhein’s words, “Marcel actually changed his disciplinary identity.”

Since there was no formal department of semiotics at the university, initially, there was an unsuccessful attempt to slide him into the less disputatious department of Spanish. Dr. Amrhein then approached the department of anthropology to see if there was a better fit for Dr. Danesi there.

“Anthropology is a very broad discipline. At one end you have people who work on health and genes and changes in evolution, and on the other you have people who work on signs and discourse and religion,” says Hy Van Luong, then chair of anthropology. “So, within anthropology you can have a career where you move quite a bit. It’s not so much a question of shifting as of broadening your interests.”

This suited Dr. Danesi, and also suited the department by raising its profile within the university. “He was an extremely popular professor. He draws a big crowd wherever he goes,” says Dr. Van Luong.

But there was a slight problem: appointing a new professor of anthropology who in fact had no formal training in anthropology created credentialing issues and a perception of special treatment. “He did get special treatment and he deserved and warranted special treatment,” Dr. Amrhein responds. Academia is full of high achievers, he says, yet within that group “there is a very, very small group of people like Marcel Danesi …who vault from the high perch of academia to being bona fide public intellectuals”. They are a precious resource within society and the university should recognize the extra effort that is required to be very public in intellectual discourse.”

So, in 1999, Marcel Danesi, with a PhD in Italian, became Marcel Danesi, professor of anthropology without a degree in anthropology. “Anthropology was absolutely the right department,” he says about the move.

“There is an Italian expression, ‘all bad things don’t come to harm you.’ The bad things in the Italian department actually came to help me, because it allowed me to go into a department that actually welcomed me and encouraged me to do things.”

There is a lesson here for administrators, says Dr. Amrhein. “Relax and be flexible. Don’t be too wedded to an organizational chart that was defined sort of late-19th century. Understand that a university’s most precious resource is its professors. It is your duty to keep them happy, and then you stay out of their way and … watch spectacular things happen.”

As a postscript, Dr. Danesi recently took over the supervision of graduate students in Italian after the death of the professor he studied under. The consummate Italian professor, it seems, cannot escape also being a professor of Italian.

Stephen Strauss
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  1. Suzanne Sarah Jaravata / July 21, 2014 at 13:14

    Inspiring story! Cheers Dr. Danesi