Reading Different Kinds of Things: An Interview with Matthew H. Brown

By Kathryn Mara

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

Dr. Brown’s was the first office I visited upon my admission into the department of African Cultural Studies. In fact, our first introduction occurred even before the orientation for new students, as he wished to discuss my teaching assignment in the African Storyteller (African 210), an online course of which he is the instructor-of-record. I was struck then by his willingness to assist me in adjusting to the department, offering concrete advice from his time as a graduate student here just a few years ago, as well as critical guidance from a faculty perspective.

Today, Dr. Brown is equally helpful. Indeed, though anxious about the upcoming symposium he co-organized on campus, “Forms of Informality: Textual Analysis & Popular Culture in the Global South,” he agrees to be interviewed, considering all my questions carefully and deliberately.

First, I ask him how long he has been teaching in the department, and he responds, “I’ve been teaching two years.”

“And before that, as a teaching assistant in the department, correct?” I clarify.

“That’s true,” he says, chuckling slightly. “My case is unique. I got my PhD in this department and went straight to being a faculty member, so technically, I have been teaching courses with this department for about ten years.”

Surprised, I inquire, “And what kind of courses do you teach for the department?”

“Well, I have been teaching the African Storyteller (African 210), which is one of the department’s longest running and most popular courses,” he begins. “It was originally designed by Professor Emeritus Harold Scheub, and it enrolled hundreds of students every semester for over forty years. When he retired, I took on the course, not simply to keep it alive, but also to transition it into a new phase of its existence as an online course. And I’ve been working with a team of fantastic TAs for the past couple of years, putting it together as an online course and delivering it, and it’s going very well,” he says, looking to me for agreement as one of the aforementioned TAs. I nod my head and smile, equally proud of the innovations we are making not just structurally, but also through the content.

He continues, “Besides the African Storyteller, the courses I specialize in are ones that deal with media in Africa.” These include literature courses, he says, adding, “but I think of literature as one of many media that are produced and consumed on the African continent. I also teach a course on screen media (African 605). When I teach courses on modern literature (like African 453), I tend to teach a variety of media. I also currently teach a graduate seminar on melodrama (African 901) in which we explore a variety of different media.” I’m enrolled in this course now and have enjoyed discussing films, soap operas, and popular fiction with Dr. Brown and my classmates.

Changing gears, I ask, “And what’s your current research project?”

“I am currently writing a book about the history of motion pictures in Nigeria,” he states. “It’s a book that is, first and foremost, about Nollywood, which is what people have been calling the Nigerian film industry for the last fifteen years. In trying to understand the emergence of Nollywood, which is a kind of film industry that uses a kind of media that is only about twenty or twenty-five years old, I look at the long history of motion pictures in the country from colonial cinema through state television and, finally, the ways that people who were involved in state television played a huge role in the emergence of Nollywood.”

“Following along that trajectory, what kinds of graduate student work would you be interested in supervising?”

“I am interested in all kinds of graduate student work in areas of African cultural studies,” he begins. “I have significant training in literary studies, and I teach courses in literary studies, but I obviously am very interested in film and visual culture studies, and would be very interested in working with students who are dealing with film, television, video, and visual art such as political cartoons. I have also published a little bit on popular music and could work with students who are interested in those kinds of projects. Generally, anything that deals with forms of cultural production in Africa, or in a broader conception of the African world, and with some attention to the political and social contexts out of which those forms of cultural production emerge would be interesting to me,” he eagerly explains.

“And on a more personal level, what’s your favorite spot either on campus or in Madison?”

“Absolutely,” he says, perking up, “I mean, I think the gem of this town is also the gem of campus, and it’s the Union Terrace, which, in recent years, has been under construction, may not be fully opened, and, of course, it’s a kind of seasonal thing, because it’s an outdoor place. But to sit by the lake in Madison with the greater campus community and the greater city-wide community, to enjoy food and beverages and live music, and the boats and all that, I think is fantastic.”

“What are you currently reading?” I ask with curiosity.

“Wow,” he exclaims to himself. “I am currently reading two different kinds of things. I am really digging into a book that’s part of the class I am teaching, The Making of the Pentecostal Melodrama, but I am also doing a lot of reading lately on the political philosophy associated with liberalism, its emergence in Europe, but the ways in which it has been dependent on the African continent for its emergence, the way that various projects, understood as liberalist projects or even neoliberal projects, have come out of the western world and have either used the African continent as an experimental place or have depended on ideas about Africa for their own self-fashioning. And I am re-reading a classic text right now, Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject, which takes that subject up in very interesting ways.”

 “And as a final question, what advice would you have for incoming or prospective students to this department?”

“I’m thinking of the best way to frame it,” he starts. “It won’t seem very profound, but it’s intellectual open-mindedness simply. But more specifically, this department is unique, and any student coming into it as an undergraduate or a graduate student knows that they’re getting into something unique that they can’t necessarily find anywhere else, which is to have a very solid grounding in at least one African language and use that solid grounding to think about literary and cultural production. The idea is to really think, from a very specific place, region where a language is used, or a part of a nation where a language is used—but then to think as widely as possible from that perspective out into the globe and all of the kinds of processes that can be seen from that perspective. So, I think that means reading in a variety of disciplines. It means doing a lot of listening and a lot of looking around, and on this campus specifically, there’s one of the oldest and most robust African Studies programs in the nation where people are doing all kinds of interesting work from all kinds of disciplines. And there are things happening on campus every week,” he says, visibly proud of the University of Wisconsin’s vibrant community of scholars, of which he is very familiar as a regular attendee of “Africa at Noon.”

He continues, “Ideally, every student should be listening to and thinking from that very grounded perspective of the linguistic region that they’re studying in great detail but really thinking outward to the whole continent and into a variety of different disciplines. I think it’s great, generally, for graduate students to do a lot of listening and absorb a lot and internally synthesize, you know, because there’s just so much going on that you could almost never possibly have a handle on before you get here. And a significant amount of time just absorbing it all could be really beneficial before you start really producing and putting your ideas out there into that world.”

At the close of our meeting, Dr. Brown asks if the interview is going to be used for a class, as he was once required to interview Dr. Harold Scheub for a graduate seminar. I clarify that it isn’t an assignment, but merely a reflection of my interest to know the faculty better.  Although I didn’t think to say so then, I now realize I am already following his advice: I am taking an opportunity to listen to those around me and absorb what is said, before I develop my own scholarly profile.

As I leave, I tell him that I will see him at the “Forms of Informality” symposium, another opportunity he has created for graduate students to listen, but more importantly, to learn.