About Matt


49898937_10155856769660703_4905791166810685440_nI am a PhD candidate within the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. My work is featured in Political Behavior, the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics and GenForward’s Race and Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago.

My dissertation 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 find 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. This work utilizes a mixed-methods approach that includes the following:

  • Archival research
  • Statistical analyses of a nationally representative survey of 15-25-year-olds
  • A survey experiment distributed to nearly 700 high schoolers within Chicago area classrooms
  • Observations of 24 Chicago high school classrooms
  • Statistical analyses of an original survey of 300 Chicago high school social studies teachers
  • In-depth qualitative interviews with 30 high school social studies teachers
  • Focus groups with Chicago high school students

This research is informed by a diverse set of academic literatures including race and ethnicity, political behavior, socialization, urban politics, and education policy.

I have received a number of awards and grants to support my research including a research grant from the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, three Minar Summer Grants, three department research grants, and Northwestern’s Graduate Research Grant. In 2018, my masters thesis, “Teaching Citizenship: Race and the Behavioral Effects of American Civic Education,”  received the department’s best research paper award. In 2019, I was honored to be the Department of Political Science’s nominee for Northwestern University’s Presidential Fellowship.

I believe that research is most powerful when it is placed into the hands of individuals who are entrusted to institute policy change. As a public scholar, I  have contributed to research at  a number of organizations including the Obama FoundationGenForward, and the American Bar Foundation.

In addition to research, I am deeply committed to teaching. As a former public school teacher and a first generation college student, I am committed to ensuring that students can leverage the knowledge and skills they acquire in the classroom to play an active role in shaping their communities and the decision-making processes of elected officials.

At Northwestern, I have served as a teaching assistant for Intro to American Politics and Government, Environmental Politics, and Political Parties and Elections. I have also advised dozens of undergraduate research projects as a teaching assistant for the department’s Undergraduate Honors Thesis Seminar and Jamie Druckman’s Studying Public Opinion course. Additionally, I currently chair the Graduate Teaching Committee within the Department of Political Science and serve as a Graduate Teaching Fellow through the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching.

Prior to beginning graduate school, I worked as a 5th grade teacher within the San Antonio Independent School District. In 2014, I received the district’s Rising Star Award, given to exceptional first-year teachers within the district. I am an alumnus of Teach For America and have tutored dozens of students through Nurturing Wisdom Chicago.

I received bachelor’s degrees in political science and Asian Studies from St. Olaf College in 2012 and a master’s degree in social science from the University of Chicago in 2015.

Publications

Peer-Reviewed Publications

Nelsen, Matthew D. (Forthcoming). “Cultivating Youth Engagement: Race and the Behavioral Effects of Critical PedagogyPolitical Behavior

Political scientists attribute gaps in participation between whites and people of color to unequal access to political resources, political efficacy, and weak affiliations to political parties. I argue that the content of civic education courses also matters.  I theorize that if courses were to incorporate critical pedagogy – an educational approach that centers the agency and grassroots political action of marginalized groups – that young people of color would be more likely to participate in politics. I test this theory using an experiment distributed to nearly 700 14-18-year high schoolers in the Chicago area. I find that critical pedagogy dramatically bolsters the willingness of Latinx and black youth to pursue multiple forms of political participation. Such an educational intervention provides one way to prepare an increasingly diverse generation of young people for active participation within American democracy. It also reveals how civic education in schools can play a crucial role in processes of political socialization and engagement.

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Nelsen, Matthew D. (Forthcoming). “Teaching Citizenship: Race and the Behavioral Effects of American Citizenship Education.” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics

Political scientists have identified how resources, attitudes, and mobilization impact political participation across racial groups. However, the role of civic education has largely been overlooked in shaping these trends. I develop a theory that suggests exposure to civics curricula yields heterogeneous effects on the political participation of youth across racial groups. I test my hypotheses with data from the Black Youth Project’s 2005 Youth Culture Survey, supplemented by two original data collections from 2017-2018. I find that civic education courses are associated with higher rates of external efficacy among white youth, but not for black and Latinx youth. Contrastingly, civic education courses appear to increase acts of public voice among black and Latinx respondents, but not for their white peers. Rather than viewing civic education courses as a panacea for low rates of youth political participation, scholars and policymakers should pay closer attention to the ways in which the content of civic education courses contributes to heterogeneous effects across racial and ethnic groups.

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Nelsen, Matthew D. 2019. “Education, Unequal, Policy, and Visions for Equity” in Race & Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago (Genforward at the University of Chicago): 24-35

Neighborhoods play a formative role in shaping the educational opportunities available to young adults in Chicago’s educational landscape. The white Chicago natives in our study overwhelmingly attended exclusive, selective enrollment, and private schools located on the city’s North Side. As a result, these young people discussed the challenges facing Chicago Public Schools from a more abstract perspective, having benefited from funding policies that prioritize mixed or majority white, North Side schools. While some of the young people of color we interviewed also gained access to exclusive schools, they tended to discuss the ways in which pursuing educational opportunities outside of their neighborhoods created a sense of distance between them and the communities in which they grew up. Still, many young people of color, especially African Americans in Englewood, experienced the day-to-day challenges of educational disinvestment in Chicago’s neighborhood schools first-hand. Faced with geographical isolation and limited educational mobility, young people of color, and Black youth in particular, possessed a deep sense of distrust in local government and a sense that city leadership does not care about communities of color. While many of our interviews with young adults about education in Chicago were critical in nature, interviewees also pushed back against the notion that young people are apathetic about local politics. Young adults across Chicago articulated tangible policy solutions that should be considered by city leadership in order to address the educational challenges facing the city. These solutions include reinvesting in neighborhood schools; adopting a more equitable approach to funding that takes preexisting racial, ethnic, and geographic inequalities into account; developing a pipeline to recruit and retain well trained, culturally aware, and passionate educators who are invested in Chicago; and increasing access to free after-school programs that allow young people to explore their interests, obtain additional academic support, and prepare for college.

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Nelsen, Matthew D. “Places of Freedom, Safety, and Joy” in Race & Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago (Genforward at the University of Chicago): 116-126

Chicago is frequently portrayed as a city of deficits: gang violence and homicides capture the attention of media outlets and the entertainment industry alike; bond-rating firms label the city’s credit as “junk;” and schools are portrayed as “crumbling” and “failing” despite academic gains. These challenges are real and worthy of scrutiny. However, our conversations with young Chicagoans allow us to identify stories that typically go unrecognized; they remind us that individuals living on the city’s South and West Sides continue to experience joy, exercise agency, and possess a great deal of pride in their communities even in the face of harsh inequities. Alternative representations of what it is like to live on the South and West sides of the city not only complicate our image of Chicago but lend important insights to policymakers. As the city grapples with continued population loss, city leadership should be attuned to the emotions young people ascribe to their communities. Freedom, agency, and feelings of safety and joy play an important role in how young adults envision their futures in Chicago.

Research

The underlying theme of my research is that the study of political behavior must pay careful attention to racial and ethnic identity as well as institutional and geographical contexts. These contexts fundamentally shape how people participate in politics. Continue reading my research statement below or download it here.

Teaching

My research addresses the ways in which education can enhance the vitality of American democracy. In particular, I focus on ways to ensure that young people (including those from marginalized backgrounds) can play an active role in shaping their communities and the decision-making processes of elected officials. My experiences as a public school teacher and a teaching assistant at Northwestern University have taught me that the classroom is an important environment to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to achieve these ends. Continue reading my teaching statement below or download it here.

Teaching Assistant, Northwestern University

  • Political Parties and Elections (undergraduate), Prof. Tabitha Bonilla, Spring 2019 (course evaluations)
  • U.S. Environmental Politics (undergraduate), Prof. Kim Marion Suiseeya, Winter 2019 (course evaluations)
  • American Politics and Government (undergraduate), Prof. Thomas Ogorzalek, Fall 2018 (course evaluations)
  • Studying Public Opinion (undergraduate), Prof. James Druckman, Spring 2018            (course evaluations)
  • Honors Thesis Seminar (undergraduate), Prof. Andrew Roberts, Fall and Winter 2018

Fifth Grade Teacher, San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD)

  • August 2012-June 2014
  • Rising Star Teacher Award Winner (Awarded for excellence during the first year of teaching)

Fifth Grade Teacher, The Israel Program for Excellence in English (TALMA)

  • June 2014-August 2014

High School Entrance Exam and ACT Tutor, Nurturing Wisdom Chicago

  • September 2014-present

Additional Training

  • Teach For America, June 2012-June 2014
  • Texas Teacher Orientation and Preparation Program, June 2012-June 2013