The house was big enough to be a dormitory, with a wall safeguarding its occupants from the masses. Foreigners had lived in the compound during the British Raj, and there was more than enough room for the young couple staying there in 1951.
But Joe and Joann Elder were eager to move out. They had come to Madurai, a large city on the Vaigai River in southern India, to teach English and conduct research for their master’s theses. And they wanted to live among the people to get an authentic taste of life on the Indian subcontinent.
Finally, a missionary family in need of lodging arrived, and the Elders left the stifling walls for an authentic Indian house.
“The life bustled around us,” Joe Elder recalls. “It was much more like actually being in India.”
That two-year stay sparked an interest in India that stuck with Elder for the rest of his far-reaching career. Elder, one of the preeminent scholars on South Asia in the United States and an influential voice on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus since 1961, is retiring at the end of the school year. The professor of sociology, languages and cultures of Asia, and integrated liberal studies has forged a reputation as a caring instructor who taught through his stories and helped students experience India and Nepal firsthand through rigorous study abroad programs.
But beyond his academic contributions, Elder is regarded as a humanitarian who has pushed for social justice on campus and a Quaker peace activist who has mediated major conflicts across Asia.
“He’s a wonderful person,” says Professor Gary Sandefur, a longtime colleague in the Department of Sociology. “He’s a very thoughtful individual, very energetic. He’s less influenced by prestige or money — he seems not to care about any of it. One of our previous department chairs joked that he wasn’t sure that Joe knew how much money he actually made. That’s the kind of person that he is.”
And the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to spend a year and a half with his wife, 3-year-old daughter Shonti and 1-year-old son John (the Elders later had another son, Ed) in a remote Indian village, living in an old Indian army tent under a grove of mango trees the locals believed to be haunted — which he did for his dissertation research from 1956-58.
Elder believed that to study India — a nation in an ancient region that has fascinated him with “contradiction after contradiction after contradiction” over the years (such as the coexistence of vigorous democracy and the hereditary caste system) — he needed to learn languages, experience cultures and communicate with many different people.
Shortly after Elder arrived at UW-Madison in 1961 following a two-year stint as a faculty member at his alma mater, Oberlin College, he began shaping the newly-established College Year in India program to provide students with a similarly immersive experience. Henry Hart, the political science professor who recruited Elder to UW-Madison, created the program, the first of its kind in the United States. Elder took over as faculty coordinator in its second year and established it as a model for other universities around the country.
Students preparing for their year in India used to receive a letter from Elder that included the line, “Welcome to the toughest study abroad program that’s been invented.” In addition to requiring two years of foreign language study, the intensive curriculum included a summer orientation with Elder and a yearlong independent research project.
And nearly every year, from 1962 through last January, Elder has traveled to India over winter break to visit students, many of whom have gone on to their own scholarly careers.
“The experience of living in India for a year shaped and confirmed my abiding interest in India,” says John Cort (B.A.’74, M.A.’82, South Asian Studies), who spent the 1973-74 academic year in Varanasi, later served as a student monitor in the study abroad program and is now a professor of Asian and comparative religions at Denison University.
“That year was my first taste of fieldwork, which is still a central element of my research today.”
In the classroom, Elder, the longtime director of the Center for South Asia, has taught courses on Indian civilization and social structure and has developed others on Gandhi, Muslim societies and global cultures. Students arriving at Elder’s office to turn in take-home exams have often found him waiting with Indian samosas, tea or other treats.
“He makes people feel that they are worth something, and in a big university, that’s something that’s very appreciated,” says Joan Raducha (B.A.’72, Anthropology; M.A.’76, South Asian Studies; Ph.D.’82, Buddhist Studies), a former student and longtime friend of Elder’s who served as director of International Academic Programs in the Division of International Studies from 1995 to 2005.
Elder hasn’t been afraid to confront contentious issues, either. He led a challenge of the ROTC policy of discrimination by sexual identity in the late 1980s and created a certificate program in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies in 2003. And his influence extended beyond campus and, even, the United States.
“He makes people feel that they are worth something, and in a big university, that’s something that’s very appreciated.”
— Joan Raducha, former director of International Academic Programs
Born to Presbyterian missionaries in Iran, he became a Quaker in college and got involved with conflict mediation in 1965, when he was part of an international team carrying messages between India and Pakistan after bloody clashes in the Kashmir region. He’s since worked on Quaker peace efforts in Vietnam, North Korea and Sri Lanka.
“He’s just a humanitarian, through and through,” says Rachel Weiss (B.A.’94, Art History and South Asian Studies; M.A.’98, South Asian Studies), a former student who is now the assistant director of the Center for South Asia.
Now, though, Elder is ready to spend more time with his wife, a longtime undergraduate advisor in the Department of Sociology, and turn his focus to several writing projects, including belatedly turning his dissertation research into a book. He plans to continue serving as a faculty fellow for Bradley Learning Community and the International Learning Community on campus.
He says he’ll miss daily interactions with students, the challenge of distilling complicated ideas into coherent lessons, and the constant search for new lecture material. After 53 years at UW-Madison, he’ll no longer have a readily-available, sit-down audience.
“Fifty-three years seemed to go fast,” he says with a smile.