Be the little kid in the candy store: An interview with Michael Schatzberg

By Kathryn Mara

I venture up the massive stairs leading to the back of Bascom Hall and climb down the slope of Bascom Hill to find North Hall. A plaque informs me that this simple, tan-brick structure was the first erected on the University of Wisconsin campus. Once I enter, I am greeted by narrow hallways and the countless offices of the Political Science faculty, which were once dormitory rooms. This is my first visit to a building other than Van Hise for an interview with an African Cultural Studies faculty member, and Dr. Michael Schatzberg’s office location affords me the opportunity to learn about campus history.

The only means of transportation in North Hall are the stairs, so I climb to the fourth floor, and I find Dr. Schatzberg’s office with ease. Even though his overhead light is on, I sit on the chair outside his office door. I am five minutes early for our scheduled interview time, and I do not want to disturb him prematurely; however, not long after I sit down, a man approaches me from down the hall.

“Kathryn?” He inquires, as he grows nearer.

“Yes,” I say, gathering my backpack and following Dr. Schatzberg into his office at his invitation.

Once settled on either side of a long table, I ask him if he minds if I record the interview.

He responds jokingly, “Everything I say is on the record anyway.”

I laugh, before beginning in my customary fashion, “So, how long have you been teaching in the Department of African Cultural Studies?”

“Six months,” he answers quickly.

“And you’ve been in the Department of Political Science…?” I say inquisitively, allowing my question to trail off.

“Since 1991,” he states, finishing my thought.

“And what kind of classes do you teach in African Cultural Studies?” I ask.

“Well, at the moment, the only class I am slated to teach is a new course, which is going to be offered in fall of 2016, called ‘Cultural Practices of African Soccer,’ or ‘African Soccer as Cultural Practice’ (African 405),” he explains.

“Oh. Okay,” I ask before adding, “Are you familiar with Peter Alegi’s work?”

“Yes. Very much,” he replies with a nod of his head.

“I was his T.A. at Michigan State, when I was there,” I explain before returning to the interview. “What advice would you give to potential or prospective graduate students to the department?” I ask.

Dr. Schatzberg carefully considers the question, before stating, “I’d want them to study as broadly in African Cultural Studies as they absolutely can. I mean, their presence here is a remarkable opportunity for them. And while one can and, at a certain point, should concentrate one’s focus in graduate studies, it does seem to me that one of the advantages of a department like this is that it is so extraordinarily broad and diverse. So, I would, for a year or two, at any rate, be the little kid in the candy store. Just pick and choose.”

By now I have heard this advice quite a bit, and the only course of action that remains is to follow it. Wishing to broaden my focus accordingly, I ask, “Out of curiosity, what are you reading right now?”

“What am I reading? Good lord,” he says, laughing. “Well, as always, I am trying to keep up with my students, so I am reading this book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, which I assign to ‘Africa: An Introductory Survey’ (African 277). The reason I assigned it is because it has an unusually optimistic take on what’s going on on the continent, and I think things like that are necessary correctives right now.”

Wishing to make a segue, I ask, “Where is your favorite place to go outside of Madison, and why?”

“Huh!” Dr. Schatzberg exclaims. “My favorite place to go outside of Madison and why. Probably Door County, up North, because I’ve always found it very peaceful and very restful there.”

I nod my head before stating, “I see this little sign. It’s red with a skull and crossbones. What’s the story behind that?” I ask, pointing to the ominous warning behind him.

Dr. Schatzberg turns his head to see the sign I am describing. “That was a gift from a student of mine, who was returning from the field,” he explains. “He was studying in Mozambique, and it is a sign designed to keep people out of minefields that haven’t exploded as yet.”

“Do you know what the language is?” I inquire interestedly.

“Uh, Portuguese…” he answers confidently, before trailing off. “And I’m guessing Makonde, but I don’t know.”

 “May I take your picture by the sign?”

“I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but sure,” he jokes, posing for a picture by the post anyway.

As I thank Dr. Schatzberg for the interview, I take in the sight of his office once more, ceiling-to-floor bookshelves filled with African Studies scholarship and various mementos collected by him and his students through travel to the continent. The experiences I imagine to be contained in this office alone amaze me: the history and culture he reflects on in his scholarship surely, but also the stories he’s developed for himself. For me, it is intriguing to see the impressive career that is reflected within his office space, but it’s equally inspiring to dream of the kind of career I hope for and recognize that the stories I will have are already in development.