College corner with Donna Jo Napoli

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Donna Jo Napoli is a professor in the Linguistics department and those who know her understand when we say that she is amazing to talk to. Sweet, funny, kind, and always quick witted, she told us some of the things that we’re sure some of her Facebook followers will love to hear. And to those of you who don’t know her, taking a class with her is something that everyone will remember. Maybe this interview will give you a clue as to why.

Daily Gazette: What got you interested in Linguistics?
Donna Jo: It was quite accidental. I was a math major in college and I love languages and I never knew there was a connection. I went to graduate school and I happened by chance to take a course that was taught by a linguist. And it was like, the light went on. I realized that there was this huge field there and that was exactly what I was interested in and so I switched everything. Just turned my life around.

DG: What’s your favorite part of Linguistics?
DJ: Problem solving. I love facing huge masses of data that at first seem to be a complete jumble and then making a hypothesis and seeing if I can get them to fall into some kind of nice little paradigm. It’s great.

DG: What’s your favorite class to teach?
DJ: Oh, I don’t know. I teach a very weird class just once every four years called Movement and Cognition in which we analyze folk dance from the British Isles, mainly, but also from Italy and the Balkans and Israel and a few other places and we look at it mathematically and linguistically. I really love that class. But I love a lot of things…

DG: You told me you take a lot of dance classes.?
DJ: I do! I take any modern class that I can get to and I take yoga. I take every yoga class that I can unless there’s a conflict in my schedule.

DG: You also write children’s books, right? What kinds of books are they? For example, do they have common themes?
DJ: I do indeed! Not at all, they’re really different. I’ve done a lot of historical fiction, contemporary funny stuff, really sad stuff, and I’ve done fairy tales where I will stick to, very reverentially, to the outline of the oldest version of the fairy tale that I can find and I’ll just fill in the holes.

DG: What is your favorite kind of food?
DJ: Oh, I love to eat! I cook Italian, I cook Chinese, I cook Indian, I cook Afghan, I cook Iranian. I like all those foods very much.

DG: Do you ever eat at Sharples?
DJ: Oh yea! I think Sharples has great food, I really do. If there’s ever a desert there by Dennis Delahunt, who is the “Deaf Chef,” they are fabulous- you can’t beat it. My favorite food at Sharples, well, I’ve had all sorts of different things. I think it’s good food! I think that the reason you guys don’t like it is because it’s there all the time. Like people get tired of their spouse after a while but you know, they’re still a good spouse.

DG: What’s some advice you would give all of your fans who made a Facebook group in your honor and Want to BE Donna Jo?
DJ: I didn’t know there was such a thing! Oh goodness, I wouldn’t want anybody to make the mistakes I’ve had in my life but I do have very clear philosophies about things. I think that life is too short. We are dead too long and if you want to do something do it and do it now. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I have the time,” because you may not have the time. It’s really important to recognize that perfection is an illusion. I really think that it can be a very destructive notion. Anything you can do can be done better. Just do what you want to do! Stop criticizing yourself! Do what you can and enjoy it!

DG: What’s your favorite pastime?
DJ: I love being with children of all ages. On the other hand, sometimes I want to be absolutely alone and that’s when I dig in the garden. I love digging in the garden. I love having pine needles in my hair and seeing something grow where I put it.

DG: Thanks so much for letting me interview you!
DJ: Thank you!

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