Joe Elder looks back at 60-year journey

As noon approached, the seats in Ingraham Hall, Room 206 – a frequent venue for scholarly lectures on international topics – filled quickly.  This audience had come to hear a speaker who easily could deliver a extensive series of academic talks, but, on this day, they had come to celebrate the individual, his distinguished career and legacy.

Joe Elder
Joe Elder

Joe Elder circulated around the room, greeting old friends and colleagues, members of the university community, and others as they arrived for his program, titled “Sixty Years of Asking Questions.” Meanwhile, staff from the Center for South Asia, which sponsored the March 13 event, began distributing pieces of cake – yet another sign that this was no ordinary scholarly lecture.

In his talk, Elder led the audience on a journey through his career, particularly the earlier days. In typical fashion, he spiced his narrative with humor and humility.

Elder, a professor of sociology, languages and cultures of Asia, and integrated liberal studies, has taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1961. Hundreds of students have enrolled in his classes each semester to learn about life in world cultures. This semester is Elder’s last.

His legacy extends well beyond longevity and popularity in the classroom. Over the course of his 52 years at UW–Madison, he has built a global reputation in the field of international studies.

Almost as soon as he set foot on the Madison campus in 1961, Elder took the lead in creating one of UW–Madison’s longest-running study abroad programs, which has sent well over a thousand students to India to do field research, learn Indian languages, and experience Indian culture.

One of those former students – Rachel Weiss, assistant director of the Center for South Asia – introduced Elder’s talk on behalf of another former student – Joan Raducha, associate dean emerita, Division of International Studies – who was unable to attend.

“The many lives touched by Joe’s teaching and research is striking,” says Weiss, reading Raducha’s words. “Over his career, Joe has been the major professor for 60 Ph.D. and 75 master’s degree students – these numbers do not include the many other dissertation and thesis committees on which he was a member.”

In addition, Raducha points to Elder’s commitment to students studying abroad: “Joe has personally met and advised more than 1,600 undergraduate students, often giving them life-changing experiences. He spent his winter breaks, his personal time, in India and Nepal, holding one-on-one meetings with each of those students, advising them on their fieldwork projects.”

Joe Elder 03.13.14 023Elder begins his talk a decade before he came to Madison, when he and his wife, Joann, traveled by ship to India to teach English in high schools in Tamilnadu.

That journey marked the start of a long relationship with India and South Asia – experiences that also shaped not just his academic work, but also the Elders’ family life. He showed a photo of the tents in which the family lived, and where two of their three children were home-schooled.

As reimbursement for teaching English in India, the Elders received a free year of graduate study at Oberlin College in Ohio, so Joe Elder drew from his initial experiences to develop a question for his master’s thesis: “What happens to the caste system among Indian Christians – given the Christians’ formal denunciation of the caste system and the Christians’ lack of belief in reincarnation (the moral justification of the caste system)?”

While billed as a celebration, Elder’s talk did offer a couple of important lessons.

First, disparate events and timely developments can profoundly influence the paths we follow. Elder cites several that guided his path, including the Boxer Rebellion and the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik.

Several Oberlin College theology students doing mission work in China were among those killed during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association was established to memorialize those students, but then evolved into an organization that sent Oberlin students abroad to teach English at partner sites in Asia – for example, sending Joe and Joann Elder to India in 1951.

Joe Elder 03.13.14 051Years later, alarmed by the Soviet Union’s launch of the satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in an effort to ramp up American education. The NDEA made some money available to promote instruction in strategic languages and area studies. The University of Wisconsin used some of its NDEA funding to develop a South Asian studies program, for which Elder was recruited.

Explaining why UW sought him out, he notes, “Not many sociologists had lived in tents in India.”

He also mentioned that the Ford Foundation began offered Foreign Area Studies Fellowships “at exactly the right time,” which further enabled him to continue his research in India.

Second, ideas that initially sound great sometimes prove wrong. Elder cites a couple of his own research hypotheses that, when tested, collapsed. But such missteps aren’t fatal. Lessons are learned, and life goes on.

For instance, he spoke about his dissertation research on the impact of a large sugar factory on a small village in India. He went in with the idea that factory work was incompatible with Hinduism.

His observations, however, didn’t support those expectations, he says. “This notion of incompatibility began to wane.”

Some of his initial impressions about India’s caste system also didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

“Great idea, Joe, but it crashed,” he says. “I had to rethink what Hinduism was, what the caste system was.”

What also came through Elder’s talk was his great affection for India, the people and culture, and for the American students he has helped to send there. His pride shows when talks about collaborating with his students to produce a series of 20 documentary films about South Asia.

And what came through at this event was the great affection that colleagues and former students have for Joe Elder.

— by Kerry G. Hill