/

The Phoenix In Conversation with Professor Donna Jo Napoli

Courtesy of https://www.donnajonapoli.com/

Donna Jo Napoli is a professor of linguistics and social justice. She is also appointed as the Maurice Eldridge Faculty Fellow. 

Shinz Jo Ooi: What inspired you to go into linguistics in the first place?

Donna Jo Napoli: It was an accident. I had done math as an undergraduate, but at that time women in math were hardly heard of. No women were teaching it at Harvard so it was not a very friendly environment. Only four women in my class graduated in math — nobody was advising us since we were considered not very central to the interests of anyone there. I had grown up in an Italian-American family and my grandmother on my mother’s side lived with us, so I loved Italian. But, she died when I was only ten and Italian disappeared from the family, so I took Italian in my college junior year for fun. 

So, I was in the fall of my senior year wondering what I was going to do next, and my Italian teacher said to go to graduate school in Italian. It was a very bizarre thing for her to say since I was only in my second year of Italian and I didn’t even know what it would mean to go to graduate school in Italian and what I would be studying. But I decided to apply and got accepted to Harvard’s Italian program. I realized very quickly that going to graduate school in Italian meant doing literary criticism, and I felt like a fish out of water. It wasn’t at all why I was interested in language. By accident, I took a course taught by a linguist and realized this was why I liked language. I switched immediately to a program in romance languages and literature focused on linguistics. I graduated and I still didn’t know enough to begin teaching, so I went to MIT and did a post-doctoral year there in linguistics. 

I’m happy with my path, but I do know that I didn’t leave math willingly. I left math because I had no idea what to do next and I had nobody advising me. I was first generation and my father didn’t want me to go to college. He was worried about what would happen to the family without my income from working in a laundromat on the weekends and a grocery store at night. So, I went to college completely unprepared for what it meant to have a professional life, and my Italian teacher guiding me was an amazing thing. I’m not unhappy that I went into linguistics, but I do wonder, although not much, what my life would have been like if I had continued in math. 

At the time when I was studying linguistics, syntax was very appealing. So I taught it during my first teaching job at Smith College. After that, I went to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I couldn’t get a job in linguistics, but my husband got a job there, so I taught Italian language and math. The year after that, I was at Georgetown University, then I went to the University of Michigan and taught syntax. It was like a funnel where I was going deeper and deeper into syntax, which is wonderful because I could have kept on going deeper. 

But then Swarthmore wanted someone who would start a program in linguistics. I looked around at all the programs I had been in and I saw things that I would have liked to do differently if I were organizing a program, so I left and came here. It’s an interesting choice because I didn’t grow up understanding how the world worked in this kind of high education, prestige situation. I was a professor at the University of Michigan, and I didn’t even realize what I was giving up. Many people said to me “You’re crazy. You don’t choose a small college that can’t be focused on research in the same way as in a big university.” But I found that I changed when I came here. My students wanted everything, and suddenly, I started reading about phonology and semantics, which I hadn’t read for years because I was in that syntax funnel. It was beautiful, so I taught courses on phonology and semantics and I broadened as a linguist. My research was still syntax, but my students were pulling me into other things. 

In 1993, I had a student come to me saying she wanted to do her senior thesis on helping children who were deaf to learn to speak. She thought that if educators taught deaf children phonetics, they could speak and their whole lives would be better. It was a very naive idea, and I was ignorant so I said “Sure. Let’s find out about this.” She and I started visiting the local kindergarten. At that point, all the deaf children in Delaware County who were going to public school were funneled into one kindergarten and it was here in Swarthmore. It was an oral program, and a lot of the deaf children had hearing aids while some did not, and they were taught to vocalize. My student and I read everything we could, and by the end of the semester, she wrote a senior thesis on why it was crazy to try to make deaf children speak as though they were marionettes, and how you should focus on educating them. Instead of spending all your time trying to get them to say “ball,” teach them about how many bones there are in the human body and all the other things that children need to know about the world. 

A fire was lit under me because I write books for children. Like I said, I grew up in this family where we were not only poor but also lived a blunted life as there were no books in my house. When I finally learned to read, I just couldn’t believe what the world was. It’s like I would open a book and there was everything. The world was huge to me because of reading. So when I saw how difficult access to reading was for these deaf children, it drove me crazy, and all I wanted was to find out how to open their world through books. So I started making friends with deaf people, started learning some signing from them and ran a few conferences here at Swarthmore. 

In 2012, a deaf friend of mine, Gene Mirus, who teaches at Gallaudet University suggested that we teach a joint course in which we make bimodal-bilingual video books for parents to share with their deaf children. Enjoyment of sharing books as a little one is the strongest correlate to whether or not you become a facile reader, so we decided to create situations that would encourage shared reading between adults and their deaf children. 96% of deaf children are born to hearing adults and most hearing adults have no idea how to share a book with their deaf child. The deaf child is pretty bored of books that have static illustrations and words in a language that they don’t understand, but if you put up a video book, immediately they’re there with it. By the end of the book, they’ve gotten the signs, and they want to see it again and again, it’s just remarkable how hungry they are for it. And I was just very lucky that Gene took me by the hand. He had worked in the National Theatre Of The Deaf, which had a big focus on entertaining children, and I write books for children. So we had a passion and we shared wonderful students, you couldn’t ask for students who would care more than at these two institutions. The Gallaudet deaf students had lived through how hard it was to learn how to read, and the Swarthmore students, I’ve never seen students who are more empathetic and understanding of people in marginal situations than Swarthmore students. 

So we gave our first class in 2013 and continued for years, and in 2020 COVID hit. Gene and I looked at each other and said “What’s going to happen to deaf kids all around the world?” Deaf kids are staying at home, everybody’s wearing a mask, grandmas are not coming to visit anymore. Why? Nobody can explain to them because their parents are not always good enough signers to explain everything that’s going on. It’s really a frightening and terrible and isolating experience, even more so than for hearing children. So we wrote to deaf institutes all around the world and said “Do you want to work with us to make books for your deaf children?” and many said yes. We wrote to all of our past students [who had taken the course] that we could get hold of. It was hard to find emails for people because this was 2020 and we had taught since 2013, but everybody we reached said yes; it made me cry. They were happy to have an opportunity to do something positive during a horrible moment for the world. After that, we just kept working with deaf institutes everywhere. At the moment, we have 33 countries we work with. And when I look back at it, had I continued in mathematics, I’m sure I could have found ways to be of service; had I continued in syntax, I’m less sure, but I might have. But by coming to Swarthmore and branching out, I became a general linguist, not only a syntactician. I now work on any problem in any area of linguistics, as long as I think I have the tools to do it. I’m sure I would have found ways to be of service at UMichigan, but how lucky I am that I did come to Swarthmore, and I did meet students who pushed me in this way or pulled me, and this student in 1993 who really changed my path. 

I would encourage people whatever you decide to do, even if it’s something that takes years of study like medicine, keep your mind open to stray opportunities that come along, because life can be long and exciting. You do not have to be a specialist in only one thing, and the different things you do can influence how you do the next thing in a way that makes it unique and maybe allows you to help in a way that nobody else is helping. 

I was really lucky that the job at Swarthmore came up. I was really lucky that my husband said “Sure, why not?” which was a pretty amazing thing for him to say because he was very happy in his job. I was really lucky that our oldest child wanted to move since it was an opportunity to start over and be a new person. I expected so much flak from a kid who was just entering her teenage years, and she didn’t give it at all. I have five children, and they’re very united, so when she said “this would be exciting,” everybody else agreed. 

SJO: One interesting thing that you talked about was how you were seeing parts of mathematics in areas of linguistics, could you talk more about that? 

DJN: For example, in American Sign Language, you’ll want to describe things to people and what you wind up doing is essentially drawing shapes in the air. If you’re drawing symmetrical shapes, like a square, you use two hands to draw it, but the textbooks on sign language never define what is symmetrical. [According to the textbooks] you use one hand to draw if it’s not symmetrical, and for circles you use one hand, but they are infinitely symmetrical. So there’s something else going on, symmetry alone didn’t seem to be at the heart of it. 

I’m doing a study with a friend who is a Swarthmore alum now finishing up her dissertation in psychology at the University of Chicago. We pulled in deaf and hearing people, and we had them draw shapes in the air. We found out that symmetry does matter, but also what matters is visual predictability. You can look at only one hand since our foveal vision is very narrow, so it’s hard for the eyes to follow two hands at once but with only one hand moving you follow it very easily. If you’re drawing a curve, it’s not predictable where you’re going to go next, so you use one hand for the eyes to follow it. If you’re drawing a straight line, it’s predictable where you’re going next, so you use two hands because the eyes can follow just one and know what the other is doing. 

SJO: Circling back to Swarthmore when you first came and they asked you to set up the linguistics program, what was that experience like?

DJN: That was interesting because it was the psychology department who decided they wanted to have some linguistics. They invited me to be a faculty member in psychology but I didn’t want to do that because the field of linguistics is one of the cognitive science fields, but it is not a subfield of psychology. So, when I was offered the job, I said I wanted linguistics as a field to be able to develop as a unit here without having any commitment or responsibilities toward psychology. And so they started a program in linguistics which I was tenured in, and it is less secure than tenure in a department. But I didn’t care. I wanted this new challenge, and I wasn’t thinking about security. I was thinking about how I could make a really nice program. In my first semester, I had maybe twenty to 25 students in classes, in the second semester, 50 students in each class. People were hungry for linguistics.

It was nice, but I left the department in 2018 and am now a professor of linguistics and social justice. I love syntax, but I prefer that my teaching connects to social justice. I think everybody has their part and you may not be able to see how you connect to being of service because you’re such a small cog in the wheel. You have to step back and ask yourself “How can the whole field of linguistics be of service?” Maybe you’re in something that’s highly theoretical and not immediately connected to service, but you still can be of service in a less obvious and less palpable way to you in your day to day experience. 

I feel guilty at having such an airy life compared to the life of the family I grew up in. It’s good to feel like I can help kids, especially poor kids in particular. When I visit the children at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, I know that a lot of them are growing up in families that are not particularly privileged and maybe for these children, I am helping to open their worlds through reading. And that’s that’s very helpful to me to deal with my survivor’s guilt. 

SJO: Another thing that you mentioned was writing children’s books, and I was wondering where your interest in that came from. 

DJN: My grandmother used to tell me stories. We didn’t have books in the house but my grandmother would crochet and tell stories. I really came to love storytelling as a way to feel close to someone, and when I learned to read, I saw storytelling and books as something that could take me everywhere and put me inside of an animal or put me inside of a person on the other side of the world. Nothing happened until I started having children. I realized that I loved reading with them and, like every other parent, I did not fully appreciate what went into a children’s book. I thought those were simple and that I could do it, so I started writing stories about my children. You know your children are fascinating to you, but nobody else wants to read about your children. Everybody wants a real story and I didn’t know that. I started sending out my stories to publishing houses and started collecting letters of rejection. I had so many letters of rejection that at one point my husband said we could have wallpapered our house in them. 

Then one day here in Swarthmore, I was walking and I just heard this kid talking inside my head. I realized he was talking to his freckles, and his freckles were talking back to him. So I wrote a novel about this kid, and all the things that happened to him because of his talking freckles. It was the first novel I ever published, and after that, that editor just wanted story after story from me. 

These days, a lot of people write about children who are at the margins, and who are in trouble in one way or another. I think it’s very helpful to a child to see someone struggling with something they’re not necessarily struggling with, but they can see how the child in the book finds help and is resourceful. I don’t always leave children [in my stories] in a safe place, because I strongly believe that you can always find a way to live decently even if it’s only in your head. We can’t always change the situations around us, but we can change how we view them and what we do with those experiences internally. I’ve been heavily criticized for not ending some of my books in a happy way, but I think I am ending it in a hopeful way, it’s just that I see hope as an internal thing.

There’s people standing on a soapbox and philosophizing for children. But I think it’s very important that a story for children should teach them what literature and reading are about. It should have characters that try to resolve something either externally or internally, there should be some kind of action, and you should bring it to a close. That’s important to offer children because that’s kind of how we organize information. If you just stand up and say what is right and wrong, you’re giving information, yes, but it’s not a story and it’s probably not going to advance your child’s literacy skills.

Well, if you want to learn something about writing stories for children, take my LING 054 class next fall about how children talk to one another and how writers represent them.

SJO: Do you have a favorite class you’ve taught at Swarthmore?

DJN: Actually, teaching syntax was my favorite. I miss teaching syntax so much and I think one of the reasons I love it is it makes people look at the language they see and hear all the time, and think differently about it. It’s like every conversation you have can make you want to jot down how that person said that thing because it’s so fascinating. Language is always around you, and studying sentence structure opens people’s eyes to the world around them. I am sure that introductory courses in any field open up your eyes, but the thing about linguistics and syntax in particular is that you can’t avoid it. You can avoid thinking about ethical issues or math if you want, but language slaps you in the face in nearly every human encounter you have.

But I do enjoy this class on music and disability that Jon Kochavi and I are teaching this semester, and another on dance and sign language development over the last 50 or 60 years that Ellen Gerdes and I are teaching. I mean, I don’t teach something if I don’t love it. I’m lucky now that I’m not in a department where I’m called upon to fulfill a need. It’s good to be called upon for the needs of a department — but maybe not your whole life. 

SJO: Do you have any research or books or projects that you’re working on right now that you’re comfortable with sharing?

DJN: I work with a team on advocacy for deaf children’s language rights. We argue that all deaf children should be offered sign language immediately upon the discovery that they’re deaf.

It’s like a cognitive seatbelt. If you get a cochlear implant and speech is available to you, then that’s great, you’ll be bimodal and bilingual. But if you don’t have speech available to you, and many children do not succeed with a cochlear implant, you will have delayed language access, which has a lot of negative cognitive and psychological effects. 

I’m also working with this group in Rome that’s been studying immigrants in Italy. When an immigrant family comes into a new country, the children, particularly if they’re under twelve, will make friends with other children very quickly. Within six months, they’ll be talking just like the kids in the new country. What they have found in Italy is that there have been so many immigrants in the last twenty years that they are settling into communities together. Even though the children go to public schools and use Italian all day long at school, they still tend to play with kids in their home language, so they are not learning Italian as well. So, this group in Rome thought that maybe if the teachers, when they were speaking, were using gestures as they read books to the children, the children would get more involved in reading and their motivation for wanting to learn to read would grow. So we’re doing this whole study of whether or not using gestures makes a difference, and have published our first little paper, but we’re doing a more extensive study now. I mean, I work primarily with deaf children, but why can’t I work with hearing children? 

And I’m going to Norway in June to look at facial expressions in Norwegian sign language. A year or two ago, I did this study with someone in Brazil and someone in Germany where we compared American Sign Language, Libras — which is Brazilian sign language — and German Sign Language (DGS) on what happens to your mouth when you’re signing. One thing we found is that there is a coordination between where the hands move and what you do with the corners of your lips and with your bottom lip. Signers seem to use this coordination more when telling narratives, particularly for children, and they are not aware at all that they’re doing it, but what they’re probably doing is helping the children pay attention to what the hands are doing. When there’s two characters moving around, it’s really hard to follow them with your eyes, so if the lips repeat the information, it helps the children who are slower at understanding referents. 

SJO: One final question: what’s the greatest pride of your career so far? 

DJN: Oh, it’s going to sound awful. But I feel very proud of the fact that Gene Mirus who works at Gallaudet told me I have a deaf heart and he made me cry. Globally, deaf people have a history of being put down by hearing people, and when you deal with a community that has been so harmed, you want to be very careful to pay attention at every step. It’s so easy not to be aware of your own prejudice. Some of the best-intended people can make mistakes that hurt others, and I’m constantly learning how to pay attention to what a deaf person is telling me. My ideas of what should be done maybe aren’t their ideas at all, I constantly am aware that I’m a very poor signer and how outside the community I am. And so, the most welcoming, enveloping thing a deaf person can say to you is “You have a deaf heart.” I’m very proud of it, and it’s been hard to learn because I wanted to find ways to fix things. You need to collaborate and learn from the wisdom of the people who have been through it and know what works and what doesn’t. So, that’s a weird thing to be proud of, but I love how much my deaf friends have accepted me.

Headline: The Phoenix In Conversation with Professor Donna Jo Napoli

Writer: Shinz Jo Ooi

Donna Jo Napoli is a professor of linguistics and social justice. She is also appointed as the Maurice Eldridge Faculty Fellow. 

Shinz Jo Ooi: What inspired you to go into linguistics in the first place?

Donna Jo Napoli: It was an accident. I had done math as an undergraduate, but at that time women in math were hardly heard of. No women were teaching it at Harvard so it was not a very friendly environment. Only four women in my class graduated in math — nobody was advising us since we were considered not very central to the interests of anyone there. I had grown up in an Italian-American family and my grandmother on my mother’s side lived with us, so I loved Italian. But, she died when I was only ten and Italian disappeared from the family, so I took Italian in my college junior year for fun. 

So, I was in the fall of my senior year wondering what I was going to do next, and my Italian teacher said to go to graduate school in Italian. It was a very bizarre thing for her to say since I was only in my second year of Italian and I didn’t even know what it would mean to go to graduate school in Italian and what I would be studying. But I decided to apply and got accepted to Harvard’s Italian program. I realized very quickly that going to graduate school in Italian meant doing literary criticism, and I felt like a fish out of water. It wasn’t at all why I was interested in language. By accident, I took a course taught by a linguist and realized this was why I liked language. I switched immediately to a program in romance languages and literature focused on linguistics. I graduated and I still didn’t know enough to begin teaching, so I went to MIT and did a post-doctoral year there in linguistics. 

I’m happy with my path, but I do know that I didn’t leave math willingly. I left math because I had no idea what to do next and I had nobody advising me. I was first generation and my father didn’t want me to go to college. He was worried about what would happen to the family without my income from working in a laundromat on the weekends and a grocery store at night. So, I went to college completely unprepared for what it meant to have a professional life, and my Italian teacher guiding me was an amazing thing. I’m not unhappy that I went into linguistics, but I do wonder, although not much, what my life would have been like if I had continued in math. 

At the time when I was studying linguistics, syntax was very appealing. So I taught it during my first teaching job at Smith College. After that, I went to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I couldn’t get a job in linguistics, but my husband got a job there, so I taught Italian language and math. The year after that, I was at Georgetown University, then I went to the University of Michigan and taught syntax. It was like a funnel where I was going deeper and deeper into syntax, which is wonderful because I could have kept on going deeper. 

But then Swarthmore wanted someone who would start a program in linguistics. I looked around at all the programs I had been in and I saw things that I would have liked to do differently if I were organizing a program, so I left and came here. It’s an interesting choice because I didn’t grow up understanding how the world worked in this kind of high education, prestige situation. I was a professor at the University of Michigan, and I didn’t even realize what I was giving up. Many people said to me “You’re crazy. You don’t choose a small college that can’t be focused on research in the same way as in a big university.” But I found that I changed when I came here. My students wanted everything, and suddenly, I started reading about phonology and semantics, which I hadn’t read for years because I was in that syntax funnel. It was beautiful, so I taught courses on phonology and semantics and I broadened as a linguist. My research was still syntax, but my students were pulling me into other things. 

In 1993, I had a student come to me saying she wanted to do her senior thesis on helping children who were deaf to learn to speak. She thought that if educators taught deaf children phonetics, they could speak and their whole lives would be better. It was a very naive idea, and I was ignorant so I said “Sure. Let’s find out about this.” She and I started visiting the local kindergarten. At that point, all the deaf children in Delaware County who were going to public school were funneled into one kindergarten and it was here in Swarthmore. It was an oral program, and a lot of the deaf children had hearing aids while some did not, and they were taught to vocalize. My student and I read everything we could, and by the end of the semester, she wrote a senior thesis on why it was crazy to try to make deaf children speak as though they were marionettes, and how you should focus on educating them. Instead of spending all your time trying to get them to say “ball,” teach them about how many bones there are in the human body and all the other things that children need to know about the world. 

A fire was lit under me because I write books for children. Like I said, I grew up in this family where we were not only poor but also lived a blunted life as there were no books in my house. When I finally learned to read, I just couldn’t believe what the world was. It’s like I would open a book and there was everything. The world was huge to me because of reading. So when I saw how difficult access to reading was for these deaf children, it drove me crazy, and all I wanted was to find out how to open their world through books. So I started making friends with deaf people, started learning some signing from them and ran a few conferences here at Swarthmore. 

In 2012, a deaf friend of mine, Gene Mirus, who teaches at Gallaudet University suggested that we teach a joint course in which we make bimodal-bilingual video books for parents to share with their deaf children. Enjoyment of sharing books as a little one is the strongest correlate to whether or not you become a facile reader, so we decided to create situations that would encourage shared reading between adults and their deaf children. 96% of deaf children are born to hearing adults and most hearing adults have no idea how to share a book with their deaf child. The deaf child is pretty bored of books that have static illustrations and words in a language that they don’t understand, but if you put up a video book, immediately they’re there with it. By the end of the book, they’ve gotten the signs, and they want to see it again and again, it’s just remarkable how hungry they are for it. And I was just very lucky that Gene took me by the hand. He had worked in the National Theatre Of The Deaf, which had a big focus on entertaining children, and I write books for children. So we had a passion and we shared wonderful students, you couldn’t ask for students who would care more than at these two institutions. The Gallaudet deaf students had lived through how hard it was to learn how to read, and the Swarthmore students, I’ve never seen students who are more empathetic and understanding of people in marginal situations than Swarthmore students. 

So we gave our first class in 2013 and continued for years, and in 2020 COVID hit. Gene and I looked at each other and said “What’s going to happen to deaf kids all around the world?” Deaf kids are staying at home, everybody’s wearing a mask, grandmas are not coming to visit anymore. Why? Nobody can explain to them because their parents are not always good enough signers to explain everything that’s going on. It’s really a frightening and terrible and isolating experience, even more so than for hearing children. So we wrote to deaf institutes all around the world and said “Do you want to work with us to make books for your deaf children?” and many said yes. We wrote to all of our past students [who had taken the course] that we could get hold of. It was hard to find emails for people because this was 2020 and we had taught since 2013, but everybody we reached said yes; it made me cry. They were happy to have an opportunity to do something positive during a horrible moment for the world. After that, we just kept working with deaf institutes everywhere. At the moment, we have 33 countries we work with. And when I look back at it, had I continued in mathematics, I’m sure I could have found ways to be of service; had I continued in syntax, I’m less sure, but I might have. But by coming to Swarthmore and branching out, I became a general linguist, not only a syntactician. I now work on any problem in any area of linguistics, as long as I think I have the tools to do it. I’m sure I would have found ways to be of service at UMichigan, but how lucky I am that I did come to Swarthmore, and I did meet students who pushed me in this way or pulled me, and this student in 1993 who really changed my path. 

I would encourage people whatever you decide to do, even if it’s something that takes years of study like medicine, keep your mind open to stray opportunities that come along, because life can be long and exciting. You do not have to be a specialist in only one thing, and the different things you do can influence how you do the next thing in a way that makes it unique and maybe allows you to help in a way that nobody else is helping. 

I was really lucky that the job at Swarthmore came up. I was really lucky that my husband said “Sure, why not?” which was a pretty amazing thing for him to say because he was very happy in his job. I was really lucky that our oldest child wanted to move since it was an opportunity to start over and be a new person. I expected so much flak from a kid who was just entering her teenage years, and she didn’t give it at all. I have five children, and they’re very united, so when she said “this would be exciting,” everybody else agreed. 

SJO: One interesting thing that you talked about was how you were seeing parts of mathematics in areas of linguistics, could you talk more about that? 

DJN: For example, in American Sign Language, you’ll want to describe things to people and what you wind up doing is essentially drawing shapes in the air. If you’re drawing symmetrical shapes, like a square, you use two hands to draw it, but the textbooks on sign language never define what is symmetrical. [According to the textbooks] you use one hand to draw if it’s not symmetrical, and for circles you use one hand, but they are infinitely symmetrical. So there’s something else going on, symmetry alone didn’t seem to be at the heart of it. 

I’m doing a study with a friend who is a Swarthmore alum now finishing up her dissertation in psychology at the University of Chicago. We pulled in deaf and hearing people, and we had them draw shapes in the air. We found out that symmetry does matter, but also what matters is visual predictability. You can look at only one hand since our foveal vision is very narrow, so it’s hard for the eyes to follow two hands at once but with only one hand moving you follow it very easily. If you’re drawing a curve, it’s not predictable where you’re going to go next, so you use one hand for the eyes to follow it. If you’re drawing a straight line, it’s predictable where you’re going next, so you use two hands because the eyes can follow just one and know what the other is doing. 

SJO: Circling back to Swarthmore when you first came and they asked you to set up the linguistics program, what was that experience like?

DJN: That was interesting because it was the psychology department who decided they wanted to have some linguistics. They invited me to be a faculty member in psychology but I didn’t want to do that because the field of linguistics is one of the cognitive science fields, but it is not a subfield of psychology. So, when I was offered the job, I said I wanted linguistics as a field to be able to develop as a unit here without having any commitment or responsibilities toward psychology. And so they started a program in linguistics which I was tenured in, and it is less secure than tenure in a department. But I didn’t care. I wanted this new challenge, and I wasn’t thinking about security. I was thinking about how I could make a really nice program. In my first semester, I had maybe twenty to 25 students in classes, in the second semester, 50 students in each class. People were hungry for linguistics.

It was nice, but I left the department in 2018 and am now a professor of linguistics and social justice. I love syntax, but I prefer that my teaching connects to social justice. I think everybody has their part and you may not be able to see how you connect to being of service because you’re such a small cog in the wheel. You have to step back and ask yourself “How can the whole field of linguistics be of service?” Maybe you’re in something that’s highly theoretical and not immediately connected to service, but you still can be of service in a less obvious and less palpable way to you in your day to day experience. 

I feel guilty at having such an airy life compared to the life of the family I grew up in. It’s good to feel like I can help kids, especially poor kids in particular. When I visit the children at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, I know that a lot of them are growing up in families that are not particularly privileged and maybe for these children, I am helping to open their worlds through reading. And that’s that’s very helpful to me to deal with my survivor’s guilt. 

SJO: Another thing that you mentioned was writing children’s books, and I was wondering where your interest in that came from. 

DJN: My grandmother used to tell me stories. We didn’t have books in the house but my grandmother would crochet and tell stories. I really came to love storytelling as a way to feel close to someone, and when I learned to read, I saw storytelling and books as something that could take me everywhere and put me inside of an animal or put me inside of a person on the other side of the world. Nothing happened until I started having children. I realized that I loved reading with them and, like every other parent, I did not fully appreciate what went into a children’s book. I thought those were simple and that I could do it, so I started writing stories about my children. You know your children are fascinating to you, but nobody else wants to read about your children. Everybody wants a real story and I didn’t know that. I started sending out my stories to publishing houses and started collecting letters of rejection. I had so many letters of rejection that at one point my husband said we could have wallpapered our house in them. 

Then one day here in Swarthmore, I was walking and I just heard this kid talking inside my head. I realized he was talking to his freckles, and his freckles were talking back to him. So I wrote a novel about this kid, and all the things that happened to him because of his talking freckles. It was the first novel I ever published, and after that, that editor just wanted story after story from me. 

These days, a lot of people write about children who are at the margins, and who are in trouble in one way or another. I think it’s very helpful to a child to see someone struggling with something they’re not necessarily struggling with, but they can see how the child in the book finds help and is resourceful. I don’t always leave children [in my stories] in a safe place, because I strongly believe that you can always find a way to live decently even if it’s only in your head. We can’t always change the situations around us, but we can change how we view them and what we do with those experiences internally. I’ve been heavily criticized for not ending some of my books in a happy way, but I think I am ending it in a hopeful way, it’s just that I see hope as an internal thing.

There’s people standing on a soapbox and philosophizing for children. But I think it’s very important that a story for children should teach them what literature and reading are about. It should have characters that try to resolve something either externally or internally, there should be some kind of action, and you should bring it to a close. That’s important to offer children because that’s kind of how we organize information. If you just stand up and say what is right and wrong, you’re giving information, yes, but it’s not a story and it’s probably not going to advance your child’s literacy skills.

Well, if you want to learn something about writing stories for children, take my LING 054 class next fall about how children talk to one another and how writers represent them.

SJO: Do you have a favorite class you’ve taught at Swarthmore?

DJN: Actually, teaching syntax was my favorite. I miss teaching syntax so much and I think one of the reasons I love it is it makes people look at the language they see and hear all the time, and think differently about it. It’s like every conversation you have can make you want to jot down how that person said that thing because it’s so fascinating. Language is always around you, and studying sentence structure opens people’s eyes to the world around them. I am sure that introductory courses in any field open up your eyes, but the thing about linguistics and syntax in particular is that you can’t avoid it. You can avoid thinking about ethical issues or math if you want, but language slaps you in the face in nearly every human encounter you have.

But I do enjoy this class on music and disability that Jon Kochavi and I are teaching this semester, and another on dance and sign language development over the last 50 or 60 years that Ellen Gerdes and I are teaching. I mean, I don’t teach something if I don’t love it. I’m lucky now that I’m not in a department where I’m called upon to fulfill a need. It’s good to be called upon for the needs of a department — but maybe not your whole life. 

SJO: Do you have any research or books or projects that you’re working on right now that you’re comfortable with sharing?

DJN: I work with a team on advocacy for deaf children’s language rights. We argue that all deaf children should be offered sign language immediately upon the discovery that they’re deaf.

It’s like a cognitive seatbelt. If you get a cochlear implant and speech is available to you, then that’s great, you’ll be bimodal and bilingual. But if you don’t have speech available to you, and many children do not succeed with a cochlear implant, you will have delayed language access, which has a lot of negative cognitive and psychological effects. 

I’m also working with this group in Rome that’s been studying immigrants in Italy. When an immigrant family comes into a new country, the children, particularly if they’re under twelve, will make friends with other children very quickly. Within six months, they’ll be talking just like the kids in the new country. What they have found in Italy is that there have been so many immigrants in the last twenty years that they are settling into communities together. Even though the children go to public schools and use Italian all day long at school, they still tend to play with kids in their home language, so they are not learning Italian as well. So, this group in Rome thought that maybe if the teachers, when they were speaking, were using gestures as they read books to the children, the children would get more involved in reading and their motivation for wanting to learn to read would grow. So we’re doing this whole study of whether or not using gestures makes a difference, and have published our first little paper, but we’re doing a more extensive study now. I mean, I work primarily with deaf children, but why can’t I work with hearing children? 

And I’m going to Norway in June to look at facial expressions in Norwegian sign language. A year or two ago, I did this study with someone in Brazil and someone in Germany where we compared American Sign Language, Libras — which is Brazilian sign language — and German Sign Language (DGS) on what happens to your mouth when you’re signing. One thing we found is that there is a coordination between where the hands move and what you do with the corners of your lips and with your bottom lip. Signers seem to use this coordination more when telling narratives, particularly for children, and they are not aware at all that they’re doing it, but what they’re probably doing is helping the children pay attention to what the hands are doing. When there’s two characters moving around, it’s really hard to follow them with your eyes, so if the lips repeat the information, it helps the children who are slower at understanding referents. 

SJO: One final question: what’s the greatest pride of your career so far? 

DJN: Oh, it’s going to sound awful. But I feel very proud of the fact that Gene Mirus who works at Gallaudet told me I have a deaf heart and he made me cry. Globally, deaf people have a history of being put down by hearing people, and when you deal with a community that has been so harmed, you want to be very careful to pay attention at every step. It’s so easy not to be aware of your own prejudice. Some of the best-intended people can make mistakes that hurt others, and I’m constantly learning how to pay attention to what a deaf person is telling me. My ideas of what should be done maybe aren’t their ideas at all, I constantly am aware that I’m a very poor signer and how outside the community I am. And so, the most welcoming, enveloping thing a deaf person can say to you is “You have a deaf heart.” I’m very proud of it, and it’s been hard to learn because I wanted to find ways to fix things. You need to collaborate and learn from the wisdom of the people who have been through it and know what works and what doesn’t. So, that’s a weird thing to be proud of, but I love how much my deaf friends have accepted me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading