Meet Professor Marcel Danesi: Professor, Musician, and Romantic

In late November of 2016, I had the amazing opportunity to interview Professor Marcel Danesi, Director of the Semiotics and Communication Theory prgraom, and professor of Anthropology at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. As one of the most celebrated, respected, and beloved professors at UofT, I decided to see just how accurate students' praise and Rate My Professor comments were. Needless to say, speaking with Professor Danesi was an absolute pleasure. In my three years of being at the University of Toronto and meeting professors, Professor Danesi is arguably one of the most friendly, engaging, and welcoming. Although our conversation lasted a mere 40 minutes, I quickly realized the reason for his large student-following. Experiencing Profesor Danesi's passion for his work, for his students, and for the world is a humbling experience. 

Professor Danesi was part of a rock and roll band called The Semiotones, which he started with a group of students 11 years ago. On December 1 2016, The Semiotones hosted their final concert, a reunion concert, in the Cat's Eye at Victoria College where they played a variety of 1950s-inspired songs from 5 of their albums. For the past decade, all the proceeds from selling their albums have been donated to the Hospial for Sick Children. All five albums are available on iTunes, and to find out more about The Semiotones, watch their 30-minute documentary by Adriana Monti. 

"Someone told me, 'You're a die-hard romantic.' I said, 'So? What do you want me to be?"

1. How did you get involved in Linguistic Anthropology and Semiotics? Were they your initial disciplines to pursue an academic career in, or did you begin in a different field of study?

It’s been all over the place. My own Ph.D. is in Italian linguistics. About five, six years into my career, teaching here, I started in 1974, the semiotics program was founded. They asked me to come in and teach it. A few years later, it was better that I taught linguistic anthropology rather than Italian linguistics. And, here I am. It’s a bit of a zig-zag career.

2. As a professor who is known for his informative yet exciting lectures, do you think that there is a correlation between the success of the students and the class and lecture structure?

[When] I go into a classroom, I get an adrenaline rush. I absolutely love being there. Something happens in me, something comes alive within me and all of sudden, I tap into an energy that’s in the classroom. There are times, I have to admit in the past where I go in there and think: “Boy, do I suck. Why aren’t they reacting?”

Much later those are probably the students that appreciated the lectures more than anyone else. They just didn’t demonstrate it. I’ve learned to never judge a student, never to judge a class because you never, never know on the basis of appearances what is going on. There hasn’t been a year in my career that I haven’t picked up something new. And sometimes, something very important and new in my own field which is usually semiotics or culture studies or youth culture. It’s in the classroom where it happens. My colleagues say, “Why don’t you retire? Stay home and write.” No. I need the students. I need that dialogue.

3. If you could go back to your first teaching experience in a university setting and offer yourself one piece of advice on being an engaging lecturer, what would it be?

I never thought of the classroom as something that is separate from me: whether I write a book, or I teach a class. I’m engaged in knowledge. I’m engaged in understanding—knowledge can come and go, but understanding is different. I think that through the years, I’ve gotten to know myself better by teaching, by interacting.

I have a rock and roll band, The Semiotones, and that started in my classroom. We [a few the students and I] decided, “Let's get together. Let’s play music for the Hospital for Sick Children.” But more than anything, [it was] for us to bond. Two of my singers are 48 years younger than I am. In the classroom, it’s the same thing. The ones that came in this year [2016] were born 1998. My granddaughter was born 1998! Honestly, it’s as if I had stepped into the classroom in 1972 when I did in the US the first time. No difference. Nothing. So when people ask: “Are students different?” [I say]: “No.”

The conditions are different. The kind of information and knowledge that we’re looking for is probably different but the human imagination and human heart have always been the same to me. The mistakes I’ve made have been, someone told me, mistakes of generosity.

4. UofT is commonly characterized as a cold, isolating institution, lacking meaningful human connection. Ironically, casual hookup culture is prominent amongst many students at UofT. In your 2014 Ted Talk called “The Power and Danger of the Kiss”, you said the kiss is powerful and a sacred act that unites the physical, sexual and spiritual. Why is it that in today’s society, it seems as though we have completely abandoned the ideology behind the art of kissing, and transformed it into a purely sexual, instinctive act?

I wrote a book on the kiss: The History of the Kiss!: The Birth of Popular Culture. It started in class. I thought about it: two lips meeting and exchanging saliva and yet, it is the most romantic thing you can do. So, I went to look at how it started. It really started in Medieval Europe. It’s not universal. It never was. Sexual kissing is, of course. But this kiss is unique and it was started by women,  In the society of that era, all of a sudden you have stories of love-crossed lovers who steal a kiss at night, Romeo and Juliet come from that era. Shakespeare made it famous but it became that. Paolo and Francesca, Lancelot and Guinevere, and on and on. It’s women saying, “I don’t want to marry the man that my family or society expects. I’m going to choose my own man.”

I thought that was enormously important. It took so many years. All the movements that have occurred are based on romantic love of that kind: think of all the music, all the movies. I end with a warning: we may be losing the romantic kiss. I fear that we are going to end up going sexy. That is easy to do. But intimacy is not easy: think about all those paintings of the kiss, how they unite people and their souls. Let’s not lose that. The human race needs it. Isn't that what all societies and civilizations have striven for? 

5. You have had many publications throughout your career. Has the idea of getting your works published lost its spark? Or, is every new published work as exciting as the very first one?

All the things that I’ve written have started in the classroom. The Semiotics of Emojis: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet. also started in the classroom. I asked my students in ANT253 and said, “I need your texts.” Then I got four other students to help me analyze them. They gave me their texts gladly, a hundred of them. It’s strange because a lot of these texts were [about] love. I said to myself, “I would never have given my professor my love letters to analyze.” It was so much fun to do because I realized that emoji’s add tone, a feeling of happiness even when it’s not there, a touch of hope in communication.

If the topic [of a book] is interesting, then the onus is on us teachers and professors to tackle it. I usually tackle it together with my students--I’ve written a lot of books with students, either acknowledging them or as co-authors in articles. The most important thing in the end is, let’s document this thing. That’s what university is about. It’s also about teaching but teaching and writing are the same thing, so they call it research. I call it extension of the classroom, an extension of the dialogue that starts there according to the rules of writing.

6. The Roman Catholic Church has restored its power on an international and global scale, and instead of releasing another Index of Prohibited Books, they decided to burn every major library and bookstore in Western countries. You are granted two books to read and to keep for the rest of your life. Which books would you choose?

There are two books I would fight for. One is Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Every time I read it over and over, I find something profound in it. The other is The Catcher in the Rye. It’s about a teenager but it’s [also] about us. It’s about how the modern world is crazy, it’s hypocritical.  

7. Many UofT students struggle with the achieving academic success because of the competitive nature of the university. Reflecting on your own undergraduate experience, what advice would you offer to students who feel as though they will never succeed?

Don’t worry. Don’t panic. My first year I got a D, I got a 55% average. I said, “Wow, I passed.” I let it go. Don’t worry about it. Use the university for learning, for knowing yourself. Eventually, you will find your niche—what you’re good at and what you love. What pressure young people have today. Find something that is meaning in your life.

I really believe that you can make of the campus what you want. I am a little worried about people partying it up just for the heck of being with friends. That’s not satisfying, that’s not even pleasure. It’s frustration but also, loneliness. The world we live in, it’s alienating and lonely. And so, you seek the shelter of your peers and your company. You should be involved in the arts. When you’re involved in the arts, you don’t think of yourself as lonely. You’re living for the arts.

8. You are traveling back to your hometown in Italy, accompanied by a blind traveler. He asks you to take him to your favourite spot, and describe what you see in front of him. What do you see?

I was born in Italy. I didn’t live there, I came over when I was 2 years old. But I have been back and I still have an aunt living there. It’s a small village up in the mountains, north of the city of Lucca, in northern Tuscany. I would bring him up there. I would tell him: “We’ve lost this society, this village culture.”

There was one time my family and I stayed there for six months, and everybody knew each other. The gossip was,  at times, unbearable. But it didn’t alienate you. You were who you were and you knew who you were in that village. I would take him right in the middle of the square and say, “It’s now empty. Feel the loneliness, but at the same time, think and go back in time, this place was teeming with people interested in each other.”

9. Reflecting on your life, what memory do you cherish the most?

The night I met my wife; we’ve been together 52 years. I was at a wedding and she was there. We’ve been together ever since. If I hadn’t met her, who knows where I would be and what I would be doing. Every morning I wake up thankful that she’s there. That’s true companionship. People say, “You have to work at it.” No, you don’t. It’s there! Then they say, “People get on your nerves. They become irritable.” I tell them: “If I were ever to be without her, those idiosyncrasies are the first things I would miss. They’re not irritants at all. It’s her. It’s who she is.”

We’ve had a rough ten years together these last ten years, in her own family, and divorce happens, and so on. Divorce is a destructive force especially when there’s no reason for it. The suffering that occurs is not a physical suffering, it’s a deeper suffering. We got through it together. We’ve come out of it stronger.

10. If one quotation by any influential figure in history could define the person you are today, what would it be? 

It’s Socrates: “The unexamined life is a life not worth living.” Socrates knew it all, didn’t he? He’s the one who challenged people to know themselves. This quote means everything to me. You’ve got to know yourself and your limitations, especially.

11. You have been asked to host a dinner party. Along with a few of your closest friends and colleagues, you are given the chance to invite four historical figures of your choice. Who would they be?

Socrates. An Italian philosopher, Vico. Ludwig van Beethoven. Elvis Presley.

12. What are you most proud of as a scholar and academic?

The fact that I may have made a difference in students’ lives. I get emails from previous students who tell me, “Thank Heavens, I took that class.” That’s the greatest achievement: you made a difference.

I also think The Semiotones is an achievement. I was able to get students together and make music for Sick Kids. The music we made, people are listening to it. When things are done with love, they’re not done for yourself. They have effects.