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  • Recollections and Introductory Comments Dedicated to Harold E. Scheub
  • Robert Cancel

The story is pretty much the same for most of his students. First came the jarring experience of seeing this compactly built white guy achieve an almost spontaneous incandescence when lecturing on African oral traditions. In the earlier years he'd briskly stride into the class, hardly acknowledging anyone in the room, and dramatically read hypnotically erudite lectures on the art and dynamism of oral narrative performance. At the end of fifty minutes, he'd end his lecture and stride out the door again, leaving in his wake a slew of entranced students, wondering, in part, what had hit them. The allure of the material became intoxicating to those of us who grew to see the beauty and intricacies of verbal arts. Like many a rising campus academic "star," Harold Scheub would invariably spawn small groups of acolytes who would spend time discussing his ideas and speculating about his origins in the discipline and his adventures during fieldwork in South Africa. Inevitably, the test of the student/teacher relationship came when you handed in your first essay assignment, full of trepidation and hope that you'd been able to muster a fraction of Scheub's insights and passion for the material. Then the icy cold waters of reality slapped you in the face when the paper came back attached to one or two typed pages of scathing single-spaced comments shredding your every idea, your every sentence in a clinical, sometimes sarcastic, penetrating critique. As the saying goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Indeed, many budding acolytes fell by the wayside, leaving a much smaller group of hardened, rather dazed students bent on surviving the onslaught and coming out the other side as scholars.

Anecdotes of this sort were offered from the podium and from the audience at an event in Madison, Wisconsin, commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Department of African Languages and Literature in April of 2004. Former students who now teach at fine universities and colleges shared laughter and sheer amazement when recalling their time of graduate studies in the Department and in particular how the specter of Harold Scheub still lingered over their shoulders, questioning if their work was really up to par and driving them to push their own students to do better. The Department's celebration coincided with the annual meeting of the African Literature Association, and that particular year the conference conveners introduced a new seminar format to go along with the regular structure of contiguous panels. [End Page 1] Participants were invited to explore a topic in greater depth by soliciting related papers and presenting them over at least three separate sessions during the meetings. A number of Harold Schueb's old students felt this could serve as a long overdue vehicle, within and outside of the University of Wisconsin community, for honoring their mentor. We titled the seminar "The Circumcised Baboon," after a Xhosa story that Scheub used to delight in recounting to generations of students, barely containing his own laughter as he detailed the graphic, humorous events of the tale wherein a farmer tricks a bothersome baboon into going through the male initiation rite. Personally, organizing the seminar was as much fun as actually presenting it at the conference because it led me to seek out many old classmates, some of whom I'd last had contact with in the late 1970s. It is a tribute, at least in part, to the quality of the Department, that most of us hold academic, government, or NGO positions, still, for the most part, engaged with Africa and its many issues: development, translation into and from African languages, US policies towards Africa, teaching African humanities and social sciences in honest and innovative ways, etc.

The articles in this cluster are mostly written by alumni of the Department of African Languages and Literature, with a couple of collegial fellow travelers added on. Readers will note a wide variety of approaches and conclusions in these pieces, united mostly by the quality of their presentations and depth of scholarship. Donald Cosentino, an early Scheub student who has written highly praised works on...


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