Written by: Katie Vaugh, Arts & Humanities
Collaboration and respect for other opinions not only played an ongoing role in Steve Stern’s career — they also helped shape a division of the history department where he worked for 38 years.
As he prepares for retirement at the end of this semester, Stern, the Alberto Flores Galindo and Hilldale Professor of History, attributes much of his success to working with colleagues who together built the reputation of the Latin American history program. He also credits the students he’s mentored over the years with impacting his work.
A first-generation American born in Brooklyn, New York, Stern was a “math and science guy” with an interest in social issues in 1969, when a history class at Cornell University took him by surprise.
“That turned me on to history and historical ways of thinking,” he says from his office on the fifth floor of Humanities. “One of the values of a liberal arts education is you fall in love with things by accident.”
Stern joined the UW-Madison history department in January 1979, starting out studying indigenous people of the Andes region, and then shifting his focus to women in rural Mexico. “One reason I got into that was some of the best and brightest graduate students at the university were interested in women’s studies,” he says.
It was colleague Tom Skidmore, a prominent scholar of Brazilian history, who helped Stern understand the importance of working as a team. After Skidmore left UW in the late 1980s, Stern found synergy working closely with his wife, Florencia Mallon, who focuses on modern Latin America, and Francisco Scarano, now an emeritus professor of history who specializes in the Caribbean and Latin America. The three partnered to create undergraduate curricula and guide graduate students through advanced research in Latin American history.
“Steve, Florencia and Francisco worked so closely as a team that it’s hard to think about them individually,” says history department chair Laird Boswell. “They served as joint co-directors for all their students, and set an example of collaborative mentorship that is now being adopted by a growing number of faculty. They founded and sustained one of the nation’s top three programs in Latin American history — one that has trained a generation of Latin Americanists and that has been crucial to the history department’s reputation and influence.”
Over the years, Stern’s teaching evolved. Once he received tenure, he began experimenting more, especially in his large Introduction to Latin American History course. He’s lectured in costume, played music for students and even staged skits acted out by graduate students.
He’s also seen more Latino and African American students enroll in his classes, which improved not only discussions but also his teaching. “It had less to do with me and more with what they brought to the table,” he says.
Outside of the classroom, Stern has traveled often to Latin American countries and been involved in human rights work.
“Since the mid-1990s, I’ve devoted most of my work to human rights, social repair and legacies of atrocity in Latin America, especially in Chile after the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and in Peru after the civil war fought between Shining Path insurgents and the state,” he says.
Stern has written books and articles about life in these places and times, highlighting the ways citizens have responded to unequal structures of power.
This past summer, he served as an expert witness in a major human rights case in the U.S. Federal District Court in Florida. A former Chilean Army officer was tried for the torture and killing of an iconic musician following the military coup of 1973 that brought Pinochet to power. Stern worked with a legal team on behalf of the singer’s family, and the jury ruled in their favor.
While Stern will continue working in human rights issues, researching, mentoring and traveling to Latin America, it’s on-campus interactions that he’ll miss when he retires.
“I would not be the historian that I am, the teacher that I am, the person that I am, if not for the colleagues and students I had here who shaped me,” he says.