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Sociologist celebrates 50 years of teaching at UW–Madison

September 27, 2011 By Stacy Forster

On a research trip to India several years ago, UW–Madison sociology professor Gay Seidman was eavesdropping on other visiting faculty sharing their struggles to set up international study abroad programs when a familiar name came up.

Joe Elder, professor of sociology, holds a lecture session with students in his Sociology 252: Civilizations of India-Modern Period class in the Sewell Social Sciences Building on Sept. 20.

Photo: Bryce Richter

“I heard one say, ‘You know what Joe Elder has done at Wisconsin, he’s been doing this for years and we’re just all imitating him!’” Seidman says.

Elder, a professor of sociology, languages and cultures of Asia, and integrated liberal studies, has not only established a global reputation in the field of international studies, he’s also built a long-lasting legacy at UW–Madison.

This fall, Elder is marking a rare milestone, celebrating his 50th year of teaching at UW–Madison. He’s educated generations of students — including the many who currently line up to meet with him during his daily office hours.

What is it about teaching that keeps him in the classroom?

“Learning from the people you’re working with, having them ask questions — it’s just extraordinarily refreshing,” Elder says, adding with a smile, “I even enjoy committee meetings.”

Elder hasn’t confined himself to just one role at UW–Madison.

During those 50 years, his wife, Joann, was undergraduate adviser in the sociology department, while he’s been involved in preparing students to spend a year abroad in India or Nepal; mentoring struggling doctoral candidates; starting a certificate program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies; producing documentaries about South Asia; and teaching hundreds of students a semester about life in world cultures.

He’s done it with a steady presence, generosity, high standards and ethics, and good humor, his colleagues say.

Erik Olin Wright, professor of sociology and president of the American Sociological Association, called Elder the “moral conscience” of the department.

“Joe Elder has always been a model for me of how deep moral concerns for peace and social justice can be fully integrated into academic life,” Wright says.

Elder’s colleagues from the Department of Sociology and the Center for South Asia are collecting stories and photos of Elder’s 50 years on campus from students and colleagues through a website, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. Many of them will be shared at a dinner in honor of Elder at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Madison Concourse Hotel.

“He’s so loved by all the students, it wasn’t enough to have just one dinner, but what can we do for the thousands of former students who maybe took one or two classes with him and remember Joe and how awesome he is?” says Michael Kruse, a lecturer in the Division of Continuing Studies who teaches a summer class with Elder on the thought of Gandhi and who also works at the Center for South Asia.

Helping students find a path

Elder came to UW–Madison in the summer of 1961 from Oberlin College, where he had been teaching, excited about the prospect of teaching more about India and possibly sending students to India to study.

Elder and Joann had spent two years teaching in India directly after graduating from Oberlin. They went back to live in an Indian village for two more years while he gathered material for his Harvard doctoral degree in sociology.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Elder was in front of a class of 80 undergraduates in a class on modern Indian civilization, lecturing about Islam and its role in India. The classroom in the William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building where they were meeting has been around campus about as long as Elder, its green chalkboards and worn wooden seats still filled with another group of students absorbing Elder’s passion for Indian politics, society, history, culture and religion.

Former student Rachel Weiss first heard about Elder during a study-abroad program in Nepal, which she attended before starting college, and came to UW–Madison to study with him. Weiss is now senior outreach specialist for the Center for South Asia

“I remember being moved in his first lecture in Civilizations of Modern India class by his remarkable personal stories,” Weiss says. “He was funny and engaging and made it seem like his life adventures were possible for everyone, which makes him especially approachable for undergraduates. He exuded a sense of excitement for learning and openness to living a full life.”

Once he arrived at UW–Madison, Elder was drafted almost immediately to lead a new College Year in India program, which has now sent more than 1,000 students to India to spend a year doing field research, as well as learning Indian languages and other elements of Indian culture.

“Joe is committed to finding a path for students,” says Joan Raducha, associate dean emerita and former director of International Academic Programs in the Division of International Studies. “The student in the end has to travel that path, but Joe’s commitment to finding, and, if necessary, creating and building a path, is a hallmark of his dealings with students over the years.”

Colleagues are also helping solicit gifts in Joe’s honor to support graduate student studies in South Asia — a cause important to Elder.

“I never could have gotten an education without scholarships,” Elder says. “Almost all of us in academia owe other people for that.”

For more information about the dinner to honor Elder, visit To participate in the celebration and contribute memories, visit