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Spotlight on Matt June, Narrative-Challenging Historian and Teacher

Modified: October 2, 2015

When Matt June, a sixth-year PhD student in the History department, decided to leave Southern California to start his PhD at Northwestern, a lot of people questioned his decision, primarily for weather-based reasons.

“The joke that everyone made when I got in was, ‘are you really interested in moving from San Diego to Chicago?’” he says. “I visited in March, which everyone who lives here knows is not the most front-page-of-the-catalogue worthy time.”

Despite the less-than-ideal weather, Matt loved Northwestern from the moment he arrived. “I was impressed from the start – and this hasn’t changed, five full years later – with the collegiality both among graduate students and between students and faculty. Before I even got back on the plane to San Diego I knew I was going to come here.”

Matt’s interest in history originally came out of his interest in the narratives surrounding politics. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Matt studied political science, and found himself thinking less about politics and more about the history that created them.

“The underlying question that I always had was about the historical basis for politics, and the stories we tell about ourselves and our political endeavors,” said Matt. His interest was strengthened by the political moment that coincided with his time at Penn: “I was there right when we were going into the Iraq war, so it was a really interesting time to think about ideas like freedom, and the way they were being used and discussed.” A professor of Matt’s suggested he read Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom, a book that he says “connected the dots between questions I had about politics and history.”

This interest in the intersection between history and politics led Matt to a master’s at San Diego State University, and then to Northwestern. Working with his advisor, Michael Allen, Matt began studying the liberal movement for pharmaceutical regulation in the mid-1960s as an unexplored origin of the conservative War on Drugs, a topic that appealed to his interest in the narratives that shape politics.

“If you look in any book, or if you go to the New York Times today, nine times out of ten you’re going to see that the War on Drugs started with Nixon in 1971, and that it’s largely a conservative project,” Matt said. “I’m trying to tell a less-known story in that history, which is that this started as a liberal project to protect consumers and became a conservative project to police drug users.”

Matt sees his attempt to challenge the narrative of the conservative War on Drugs as important to contemporary political issues.  “With a better sense of how we got here, we are better able to change where we are at the moment, especially when it comes to issues like prison reform and drug reform laws. We’re not always addressing all of the underlying causes of these issues, or the underlying history of how we got here.”

In addition to his research, Matt completed the Searle Center’s teaching certificate, after which he worked for two years with the program as a Graduate Teaching Mentor, and is currently a Graduate Teaching Fellow. Matt also served as the Graduate Assistant for Northwestern’s Residential College program, and worked with the history department and The Graduate School to administer a Teagle Foundation grant. He also makes time to play the occasional round of pub trivia with a group of other students in the History department. Matt’s involvement in these programs (minus the pub trivia) stems from his love of teaching. The culmination of his teaching experience came this past summer, when he had the opportunity to teach his own course, History of the 1960s.

“The actual act of teaching the class, though it’s a lot of work, was just such a fulfilling experience for me; I think of my research as another way to get to the meat of the subject, which is teaching, and challenging students to think about things in new and different ways.”

For Matt, the chance to teach his own class was an indication of what he loves about Northwestern. “It was really reflective of the phenomenal opportunities that the history department and Northwestern offer us here; especially within history, they’re great about letting graduate students teach their own classes.”

Teaching History of the 1960s allowed Matt to bring his interest in challenging narrative to the classroom. “The 60s are so narrative-heavy,” he said. “Everyone comes in with their own ideas about what the 60s were, and I felt like I did a good job of shaking that up some.”

The evaluations that Matt’s students turned in suggested they agree. One student’s feedback in particular stood out, saying “with a general focus on recognizing the 'standard narrative' of the 1960s and the overall Sixties cultural moment, Matt shows how to look beyond the narrative and generate your own understanding.”

For Matt, getting such a good evaluation from a student was a high point of his time at Northwestern. “I’ve won teaching awards from both the history department and Weinberg, and I was very honored by both of those awards. However, it’s comments like these that are the most meaningful to me, particularly because I think it reveals that "Aha!" moment we all want our students to achieve.”