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Giovanni Bennardo named 2021 Board of Trustees Professor

April 14, 2021

When Leila Porter looks at Giovanni Bennardo, she sees “a world-renowned linguistic anthropologist and cognitive scientist.”

Professor Giovanni Bennardo from the Department of Anthropology has been named a 2021 Board of Trustees Professor.

The chair of the NIU Department of Anthropology sees in Bennardo someone who “clearly shapes research agendas at both the national and international level,” who receives prestigious grants for his scholarship, who helps to establish new programs and laboratories and who is published widely in leading academic journals and books.

She sees a teacher who provides students with active learning experiences along with support of their professional development. She sees a committed mentor who supervises numerous graduate students in the classroom, his lab and the field.

Maybe best of all, she sees seemingly limitless energy.

“Dr. Bennardo shows no indication of slowing down the pace of his productivity,” Porter says. “Through his research, he confronts global challenges through collaborations that improve our learning, teaching and research. Through his teaching, extensive publications, presentations and workshops, he makes his research and expertise available to a wide audience.”

Bennardo, who joined NIU in 2000 and was honored in 2014 as an NIU Presidential Research Professor, now has been named a 2021 Board of Trustees Professor.

Celebrated globally for his study of the relationship between language, cognition and culture, Bennardo focuses geographically on the Kingdom of Tonga and explores topics that include conceptual semantics, conversational analysis, knowledge representations (cultural models), Pacific navigation, Polynesian kinship and social networks.

His work is, Porter says, “at the forefront” of “how core cultural models stored in the mind and shared by community members represent cultural worldviews and are responsible for behaviors.”

Yet Bennardo is quick to credit those around him, including his M.A. graduates who’ve shared authorship of articles and stages and national conferences and have gone to doctoral programs at prominent universities.

“At NIU, my investment in creative collaboration with students and colleagues – locally, nationally and internationally – has been vital to my growth as a scholar and teacher,” Bennardo says.

“For the past 18 years, I have been the only linguistic anthropologist in an historically four-subfield department. I have been solely responsible for course offerings and student mentoring in my subfield,” he adds. “This has required me to innovate and collaborate with scholars outside my department, exposing my students to other perspectives and cross-field thinking.”

Colleagues applaud his excellence and his impact on the “most fundamental questions about the relationships between language, thought and human social relations.”

Kendall Thu, president of the NIU Faculty Senate and a professor in the Department of Anthropology, says the university is “indeed fortunate to have such a dedicated and energetic scholar.”

“His work addresses the most pressing and basic issues on language,” Thu says. “According to all four of his external reviewers for promotion to full professor, Dr. Bennardo is among the top scholars in his field with the promise of even greater contributions ahead.”

Judy Ledgerwood, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, agrees.

“Across his career, Dr. Bennardo has worked locally, most often in Tonga, and theorized globally on broad issues of cognition, exploring how humans think about concepts of space, social networks and, more recently, concepts about the environment and nature,” Ledgerwood says. “His work has changed the way the academic world approaches these subjects.”

Part of Bennardo’s ongoing legacy is measurable in numbers.

  • Thirty-one separate grants, totaling nearly $575,000, to support his research.
  • Nearly $465,000 of that came during his time at NIU, and 86% from external agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and Fulbright.
  • Fourteen research trips to villages in the Kingdom of Tonga.
  • Six books published (while at NIU), along with 26 articles in top-tier journals and 21 chapters in edited books.
  • Fifty-six papers read at professional meetings.
  • Thirty-four invitations to present on his work.
  • Thirty colloquia and panels organized for conferences and workshops.
  • More than 13,200 sets of eyes on his articles posted on ResearchGate, the professional network for scientists and scholars to share, discover and discuss research, which as of this week have resulted in 471 citations and an interest score of 356.1.
  • Five new classes launched, four in his department and one Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts and Sciences course.

He has served as a member of six Ph.D. committees – two at NIU, three in his native Italy and one in India – and six M.A. committees. He has mentored students from the United States, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Ukraine and Tonga, has served as advisor for nine master’s theses and is currently advising three Huskie graduate students with another two arriving this fall.

Yet NIU undergraduates also benefit from Bennardo’s commitment to foster learning.

During his first year at NIU, he helped to create the minor in Cognitive Science in collaboration with colleagues from the departments of Computer Science, English and Psychology.

Students in the Linguistic and Cognitive Anthropology Laboratory he established in 2001 find equipment to collect and evaluate audio and visual data in real-world settings.

The technology he makes available has been used, for example, to generate 3-D digital replica of a Tongan village, to reveal implicit models of mental illness in care contexts in Illinois and to extract themes of civic participation and corruption from Soviet and post-Soviet narratives in Ukraine.

“Students engage holistically at all stages, from generating questions to designing and implementing projects,” Bennardo says. “They learn methods that are taught at only a few institutions worldwide. They analyze and store their project data using software they wouldn’t encounter elsewhere.”

His years at NIU also have allowed 12 students to flourish under his guidance in the NIU Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, resulting in one best poster award and one runner-up for that distinction, while two Research Rookies collaborated with him.

Behind all the accolades and accomplishments is a compassionate soul.

NIU alumna Siniva Samani came to DeKalb from Tonga in 2007 on a graduate assistantship to assist Bennardo in his research and translation of Tongan into English. She believes her former professor knew that his invitation would prove positive for all involved, including her homeland.

“Apart from being a brilliant academic who has and continues to make significant contributions  to research, Professor Bennardo is also a genuinely kind and compassionate human being. While I lived with his family, I was always respected and cared for,” says Samani, now a senior risk analyst at the Tonga National Qualifications and Accreditation Board. “He has a kind heart and soul – one that continually gives.”