Meet people, ask questions: An interview with Tejumola Olaniyan

By Kathryn Mara

(Part of our “Get to Know us Better” series.)

I walk down the African Cultural Studies wing of the fourteenth floor of Van Hise Hall, in search of Dr. Tejumola Olaniyan’s door. I find it open, and I find him, a tall figure at his standing computer desk. I have wanted to talk to Dr. Olaniyan for some time, but I could never think of a reason to knock on his door. What was I going to do: visit his office hours and gush like an academic fan-girl about Arrest the Music! or, even worse, ask him directly if he wanted to be on my dissertation committee without even taking a class with him? No, this interview was the perfect excuse.

With assuredness, I knock on his door. He turns to greet me, and before I even introduce my purpose, he offers me a chair. I explain to him that I am talking to faculty and teaching assistants in the department, in order to get to know them better, as well as to promote course offerings on the department website. For my purposes, I explain, I think Dr. Olaniyan, as the department chair, is an excellent person with whom to begin, should he be willing to answer five simple questions. With a warm smile, he agrees.

“So, Dr. Olaniyan,” I begin, nervously, “how long have you been teaching in the department?”

He thinks about the question, considering it, at first, with a pronounced Aaah. “Since 2001,” he concludes, and then performing the calculation in his head, “So 15-14 years.”

“Okay,” I say. “I understand that you’re not teaching this semester, but, historically, what courses have you taught in the department?” Dr. Olaniyan responds in his booming, but measured, voice, “I’m fifty-fifty in this department and the English Department, so generally in the department here, I’ve taught courses like African and Caribbean Drama (African 413). I’ve taught courses like Theory of African Literature (African 402) and, also, I have taught the Introduction to Yoruba Life and Culture (African 230). I’ve also taught seminars on the African state.”

I nod my head and ask, “Do you have any advice for either incoming or prospective students to the department?”

“Ah. Advice,” He restates my question out loud, deliberating his response carefully. “General advice, you know, is for them to meet people. Ask questions. They can begin by meeting with students who are already here and asking about professors, asking about the experience of those students in courses. And, also, at the second stage, meeting faculty. Generally, it’s better if they already know something a little bit before meeting the faculty. It would be good for them to familiarize themselves with the faculty in the department, you know the work of the faculty in the department. They can do that simply by going online or reading the books, but just seeing the areas they are covering or the last courses they taught, the recent courses they will be teaching. So, you know, two things immediately: the first thing is be very forthcoming and talk to students who are already here about their experiences, about their courses, and secondly, meeting professors. The first, immediate things.”

I take careful note of his advice. Perhaps I can visit his office hours to briefly talk about Arrest the Music! and hope, as conversations do, that ours will evolve to include his current research, my anticipated dissertation topic, and any possible overlap between our trajectories. Collaboration will come later when I take his class or ask for advice, or one day, many days from now, ask him to be on my dissertation committee.

“Okay,” I respond, hiding my delight at this new knowledge. Switching topics, I ask, “On a more personal level, where is your favorite place to eat in Madison?”

“Ah. It has changed over the years, you know. I liked Husnu’s a lot,” he states. I later search for it online and discover it is closed. “But now, mostly at this end of the campus, I do Steenbock’s on Orchard at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. So, on the other end of the campus, I do Kabul, but on this side, I do Steenbock’s on Orchard.”

“Okay. As a final question…,” I begin. He jokes, “I thought you said five!” He remembers my promise to ask five simple questions. “Was that not five?” A good-natured smile spreads across his face, as we both laugh.

“This is five now, I promise,” I assure him, before I proceed to my final question, “I see this, I’m not sure what to call it, but this fabric,” I say, pointing to the colorful spread on the wall behind him. “What’s the story behind this fabric?”

“Yeah. I bought this at a street market in Nigeria,” he explains, examining the fabric intently now. “I mean there are all these street artists, and it seems to me— I thought at the beginning that there was this festival going on, but later on I realized that this is just a combination of scenes, you know, from so many festivals, so many events, and activities mostly from Yorubaland. You can see the masquerades, you can see the men and women dancing, and then the particular kinds of instruments and then even some of the facial marks. So, it’s a tableau. At the beginning, I thought it was an event, and that’s why I bought it, because I wanted to go and figure what kind of tableau this is, but later on, I discover that, no, it’s not. I wanted to figure out what scene from what festival, but it turns out it’s just a collection of different scenes from different places. Yeah, and I like it a lot, and I thought it might distract people that come to my office with that. And it might distract myself from time to time.”

Before I leave, I make one final request of Dr. Olaniyan: a picture in front of his “distracting” Yoruba art. He graciously agrees, but before posing, he minimizes some windows on his computer and opens his website, dedicated to his current research: African political cartoons. At first, I think his an aesthetic concern, but then I realize it’s just good advertising.

I thank him for his time, but as I exit his office, I know I will be back again.