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Youth Education’s Influence on Civic Activities

Before Northwestern Ph.D. Matt Nelsen started observing schools and neighborhoods as platforms of democratic processes while working as a fifth-grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas. When the 2012 presidential election happened, Nelsen said he remembers learning from his Black and Latinx students about how their lived experiences differed from the civic education they were taught in classes. Nelsen now asks: “What happens if we lean into the anxieties that my students had, rather than doing the traditional civic education approach, which is kind of convincing them that the system does work?” The NU Department of Political Science interviewed the scholar as he prepares to start his newly appointed position as a tenure-track assistant professor within the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Q: You received a doctoral degree at Northwestern in 2020 with the dissertation “Educating for Empowerment: Race, Socialization, and Imagining Civic Education.” How did your interests shift or develop during your time at Northwestern? How did this inform your dissertation?

Matt Nelsen: When I came to Northwestern to start my PhD, I had already written a thesis about civic education. It was something that I cared a lot about. I had always gotten the advice that if you start a PhD and you have the same research interest that you entered the program with, you haven't worked hard enough. So when I came in, I was like, “I can't study civic education anymore because I've already done this. I need to show that I've worked on a new topic.” And consistently the faculty in the department said, “This question you have about civic education is actually really interesting and you should pursue this further.” So I actually think people at Northwestern really encouraged me to continue pursuing a topic that I cared a lot about but is not a topic that political scientists spend a lot of time writing about, at least not in the past several decades.

Q: Your recent research, particularly “Cultivating Youth Engagement: Race and the Behavioral Effects of Critical Pedagogy” and ​​“Teaching Citizenship: Race and the Behavioral Effects of American Citizenship Education” emphasize the link between civic education and youth political involvement. How do you envision this research impacting your pedagogy as a professor in a majority young adult classroom? 

MN: I think a lot of the themes that I advocate for in those papers, which are focused on high school students, are still very much relevant at the college level. One thing I always talked about in graduate school is I felt as if being an elementary school teacher gave me a lot of great tools to use as an instructor at the undergraduate and graduate levels, in that people want to come into the classroom to learn but they also want to make sense of the content that they're learning through the lens of their own lived experiences. So the ways in which I approach teaching at the college level are similar to what I advocate for in those articles in the sense that I'm trying to teach topics, and American politics specifically, through the lens of marginalized groups. And I think this is really important and pedagogically useful, because it not only requires that we understand the foundations of American government, such as the three branches of government, how it is that people participate, but through the lens of these individuals who have tended to write and act from the margins we gain great insights into the critiques of those systems. 

Another thing I advocate for in my research is open conversations about politics and making sense of the content through one's lived experiences. I find that this is a way to not only foster a conversation, but it's also the foundation of teaching critical thinking skills and critiques of these academic theories. If you're an undergraduate student and you read an article and you don't necessarily think it makes sense, part of the reason why it doesn't make sense to you is probably that it reflects a worldview that does not represent your own. So, a student's own positionality and reading of an article can actually be the foundation of a really strong critique or counterargument that pushes the discipline forward. 

Q: In June 2020, you published in the Washington Post your research that reported students are more likely to join civic activities if exposed to classroom materials that showed people in their own communities partaking in collective action. What is the importance of this research in regard to the American education system and how do you envision this research being implemented in classrooms? 

MN: The ages of 14 to 17 is such a unique time in a young person's life in terms of how their thinking about the world develops. That's not to say that your thinking about the world is not challenged at the college and university level. But high school, in particular, is just a very unique period of someone's life. In which case, I don't know that you would necessarily see such striking findings at the college and university level from a developmental perspective. But the counterpoint to that is a lot of the literature that I use to build my theory about why the content of this kind might be really meaningful for high school students, actually comes from studies that have been done at the college and university level. We're in a different period now where I think the introduction of Ethnic Studies programs is becoming more common at the high school level, but for a long period of time, individuals in the realm of Ethnic Studies talked about how for a lot of students coming to college and universities, this was the first time that individuals were learning, for example, Black history, or Asian American history or Indigenous history. So there is some evidence to show that even content of this kind at the college level can be really powerful. 

Q: You studied racial inequities in the Chicago Public Schools system, examining different neighborhoods and communities. How do you consider your own racial or economic positionality as you study race and youth education?

MN: This is something that I think a lot about as a race and ethnicity scholar. I am a white person who studies race, but I truly believe that it is impossible to give a comprehensive account of American politics in the United States, without taking the importance of race and ethnicity seriously. I really do believe that every scholar of American politics should be well trained in race and ethnicity. I believe that studying race and ethnicity should be required regardless of your area of specialization in American politics. 

That being said, in terms of my own positionality, I always try to approach these topics by first coming to the table as a learner, and as someone who is going to ground the observations that I make about racial inequity, using the insights of other scholars, specifically, people of color who have done this work for generations and whose work I'm using to develop the theories that are embedded into my own research. 

In terms of just conducting this research as well, I made sure every step of the way working with Chicago public schools that I was partnering with the district. I did not at any point want to be perceived as the external researcher that was ruffling feathers or going in without being able to deliver information or something that would benefit the district. So the research that I conducted in Chicago Public Schools was done in partnership with the Social Science and Civic Engagement Office. So I had several meetings with district representatives within that office to be like, “Hey, these are the research questions that I'm interested in. They seem fairly well aligned to your stated mission, but if there are any questions that you want me to ask students, I can then report the answers back to you.” So that was also very much part of this process, this value of reciprocity where I was collecting this data, but then I would analyze it and send it to the district even before I sent it out to a journal to review. I wanted to make sure that the time that the district and teachers and students were giving me was actually information that could hopefully benefit the school district as well.

Q: Are there any accomplishments or papers the NU political science community should be looking forward to?

MN: Monique Newton, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern, and I are looking at the recent reparations bill that passed in Evanston. And we're interviewing city residents to better understand the process through which they came to develop their opinion on this initiative. 

I'm working on a project with Kumar Ramanathan, who is a Ph.D. candidate in the department, and Tom Ogozalek, who previously was a faculty member at NU, about the political preferences of gentrifiers in Chicago, how it is gentrifiers have distinct policy preferences from longtime residents of neighborhoods.

And then my book manuscript. The two articles that we've already discussed are part of that book manuscript, but then also additional chapters about students and teachers in Chicago public schools. That manuscript is complete, it's under review at a university press currently, so, knock on wood, hopefully, in the next year or so I'll be able to announce that the book will be coming out.


Interview by Yunkyo Moon Kim (WCAS '22)