PhD Candidate in Political Science
Matthew Nelsen is a PhD candidate in political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His research explores the ways in which civic education courses shape the political attitudes and behaviors of high schoolers along the lines of race and ethnicity. He is currently a chair on the Graduate Teaching Committee within the Department of Political Science and serves as a graduate teaching fellow through the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. Matthew’s work has been featured in Political Behavior, the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics and GenForward’s Race and Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research explores the ways in which civic education courses shape the political attitudes and behaviors of high schoolers along the lines of race and ethnicity. More specifically, I argue that critical pedagogy—an educational philosophy that centers the local knowledge and grassroots political action of marginalized groups—has the ability to close the civic empowerment gap between white youth and young people of color.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
As a first-generation college student, I entered college with a limited sense of what it meant to pursue anything beyond a bachelor's degree. Additionally, I intended to pursue a trumpet performance degree, so when a political science professor made a passing comment during a first-year seminar that I would do well in graduate school, I turned to a friend and was like "What is graduate school?" Flash forward seven years, I found myself explaining graduate school to family members who were like "So, what do you do with a PhD exactly?" I think ending up in academia is a pretty dramatic twist for any first-generation college student.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
During the 2012 Presidential Election, I was an enthusiastic, 23-year-old fifth grade teacher within the San Antonio Independent School District. I was teaching a very romanticized lesson about the value of elections and political parties, but my students were giving me this look like "Who does white dude think he is? Politics does not work this way for us." To be clear, these kids were not politically apathetic and possessed a great deal of political knowledge, especially about housing and immigration. However, they had never seen the political process work for them or their parents. I learned that in order to make civics (and education more broadly) meaningful and empowering for my students, I had to center their own experiences in the classroom. The reality check my students gave me on Election Day 2012 continues to shape my research agenda to this day.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
Reading Cathy Cohen's work changed the way in which I taught in the classroom and continues to shape how I approach research. She takes on big, normative questions, embraces the complexity of the human experience, and centers the lived experiences of those who have been marginalized by the political process. Cathy was my MA thesis adviser while I was at the University of Chicago, served on my dissertation committee, and will oversee my work as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
I always told myself that if I was going to leave the classroom to pursue graduate school, it would have to be research that improved the lives of young people and was accessible to those outside of academia. These values continue to push me to be a passionate researcher and advocate and an accessible writer. That said, there is this sense of wanting to get the work right, especially as a white dude who studies race. This means reflecting critically on every word that gets put on the page, listening deeply, and being open to learning from any mistakes I may make.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
If we get to a place where political pundits can no longer write a hot take about low voter turnout among young people, I've done my job.
When I moved to Chicago in 2014, I knew I was home. As a researcher and a resident, this city pushes me to reflect upon power and privilege while navigating spaces from Howard to 118th. I couldn't imagine pursuing my research agenda in another city and the faculty at Northwestern have allowed me to embrace that inclination fully.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Board games, great theater, live music, and what Netflix describes as "slice of life dramas with a strong female lead."
What books are on your bedside table?
I try to read a bit of fiction at the end of each day. As someone who aspires to have a narrative quality to the research I produce, I think reading fiction pushes me to be a more engaging and accessible writer. Currently, I am re-reading George Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo.
What inspires you?
Seeing folks fight for equity.
Published: August 11, 2020
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