IA Interviews Alex Olson, PAGE Fellow and Cross Scholar

By Imagining America | January 19, 2012

Imagining America congratulates Alexander Olson, IA PAGE Fellow, and one of eight recipients of AAC&U’s 2012 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award. A doctoral candidate in American Culture at the University of Michigan interested in engaged pedagogy, Alex is being recognized for his exemplary promise as a future leader of higher education, his demonstrated commitment to developing academic and civic responsibility in himself and others, and his work’s emphasis on teaching and learning. Please see his bio here.

Next week, Alex and the other Cross Scholars will be acknowledged at the Opening Plenary at the AAC&U’s 2012 Annual Meeting, and will be discussants in the session, “Faculty of the Future: Voices from the Next Generation.”

IA interviewed Alex via e-mail.

IA: Tell us about your interest in non-traditional classroom spaces, your dissertation topic. What sparked it? Would you like to see non-traditional classrooms expand, and if so, where would you like to see them take root, with what populations, and supported by what infrastructures?

Alex Olson: I’ve been interested in non-traditional classroom spaces ever since my undergraduate years at Stanford, which strongly emphasized residential education. I spent all four years in the same residence—Ujamaa House—and I remember being struck by the critical role of this particular space in fostering conversations and experiences that often seemed far more relevant to our lives than what was happening in our classes. At the same time I was learning about environmental history with my thesis advisor Richard White and had access for the first time to new ways of conceptualizing place and space. So there was a synergy that I found very exciting.

At my home institution of the University of Michigan, the Residential College is a great example of a program that integrates curriculum, student life, and public engagement. But I also think we need more radical innovations in response to the fact that, as David Scobey noted in his 2011 IA keynote address in Minneapolis, four-year, full-time, in-residence education is increasingly becoming a luxury good that few can afford. At U-M the percentage of first-year students coming from families making $200,000 or more per year has increased from 14.8% in 1997 to 27.6% in 2010. Until state funding priorities move back in the direction of supporting higher education (and I think advocating for this shift needs to be a major priority), the student loan burden is only going to increase, disproportionately impacting students of color and those who are the first in their families to attend college. In this context, I think non-traditional classrooms can make an important contribution to addressing issues of access. On the other hand, the proliferation of for-profit online institutions with abysmal graduation rates should raise red flags about seeing non-traditional classrooms as a panacea.

In my class on “Making a Difference: The History of Public Scholarship,” I assigned readings on the Freedom School organized by students during the walkout from Detroit’s Northern High School in 1966. The Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit staged a play about this in collaboration with U-M’s Stephen Ward—I think it is a great example of students taking control of their own education despite social injustice in traditional classrooms. Today we can look to the Freedom University in Georgia, which was formed as a response to the decision of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents in 2010 to ban undocumented students from selective state colleges and universities. Other examples include the Free University of San Francisco and College Unbound in Providence.

IA: As the recipient of an award for future leadership, in what arenas would you like to play such a role?

Alex: First and foremost, I want to use my research and teaching as a historian to better understand how people create, inhabit, and transform the spaces and places around them. I very much see myself as a public historian and have been mulling over approaching my next project as not only an academic monograph (although that too) but also something wholly different in form and authorship—perhaps a collaborative public history website along the lines of the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project at the University of Washington.

I am currently working with Julie Ellison on a project called Citizen Alum, which, as part of the American Commonwealth Partnership, is building a network of institutions committed to alumni civic engagement. We are seeking to counter the “vision of alumni as ‘donors’ with one conceiving of them as ‘do-ers,’” as Sarah Robbins of TCU so nicely put it. The project is now in a listening phase to learn more about how various institutions are already engaging with publicly active alumni, but I am excited to see how this network develops over the next several years.

IA: What is your response to the devaluing of the humanities in recent years? What do you see as strategies to reverse it?

Alex: One major blow to the humanities over the past several decades has been the reconceptualization of higher education in terms of individual utility rather than public good. If the worth of a college degree is measured by earning potential, the public disinvestment in higher education and the shifting of financial responsibility to the student would seem to be wholly justified, particularly in the humanities, which are rarely cited along with science and math as urgent public priorities. I believe IA and the public humanities can play a critical role in reversing this trend. The values and skills fostered by the humanities—creativity; critical thinking; effective communication; interrogation of power; supporting arguments with well-chosen sources; the awareness of diverse people, cultures, languages, and ideas—are precisely those that can help students approach their careers as civic professionals acting in the public good as members of communities. In the long run, this work can change the conversation to emphasize the social value of the humanities, and thus increase the range of people who see higher education as a worthwhile public investment.

IA: In what direction(s) would you like to see IA grow?

Alex: I found David Scobey’s IA keynote address to be a sobering reminder of how the current economic crisis is transforming many of the things we take for granted in higher education: the academic calendar, tenure, credit hours, departments, and more. On the other hand, I am heartened by the work of the Tenure Team Initiative on Public Scholarship to bring the protections and responsibilities of tenure to publicly engaged scholars despite the broad structural changes facing the academy. John Dewey recognized, rightly, that academic freedom and economic security go hand in hand, so if David Scobey is correct that tenure is increasingly a thing of the past, I would like to see IA find ways of reaching out to adjuncts and other non-tenured educators without adding to their already excessive workloads.  Also, as my PAGE colleague Alexandrina Agloro has noted, IA has much room to grow in terms of bringing the community into its meetings and having a deeper conversation about what and who counts as “the community.” I think PAGE itself is a great example of IA’s potential to foster new and exciting networks while preserving the agency of participants—in this case graduate students.