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Informing Activism with Political Scholarship

When Alix Olson, a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, decided to pursue a Ph.D., UMass Amherst was the obvious choice. “I knew I needed a place that wouldn’t blanch at my queer and feminist commitments and political investment in subculture and grassroots activism.” The Department’s expertise in feminist politics aligned squarely with her interests and professional goals. “As soon as I researched the faculty at UMass, particularly Barbara Cruikshank and Fred Schaffer, I felt like I had found scholars—and scholarship—I would be proud to attempt to emulate.”

Transitioning into academia, however, was an unexpected step for this internationally known and award-winning spoken word artist and activist. After graduating from Wesleyan and moving to New York City, Olson was drawn, at the suggestion of her African American Women’s Poetry professor, to the Nuyorican Poets Café. As soon as she stepped in the Café door, she experienced “hundreds of people from every possible political, religious, ethnic, you-name-it persuasion—with poems shoved into pockets and tumbling out of mouths—all ranting and raving both at each other and with each other simultaneously. All with respect and time limits and thundering laughter.” It was not clear until several years later that this spoken word community would lay the ground work for an academic career. “In retrospect, all these questions about the common good, about multiculturalism and minority rights, identity politics versus building coalitions, arguments over representation, gender deconstruction, challenges to universal feminist claims … were all being interrogated, exploded, quite literally performed, right there.”

Since her time in New York City, Olson has graced the covers of Ms and Curve magazines, collaborated with Eve Ensler, toured with the Indigo Girls and Pete Seeger, and been interviewed by countless magazines, newspapers, blogs, and websites across the globe. In short, she came to UMass a very experienced—and successful—artist. This transition into academia, Olson says, was “moving from a decade of translating the world through metaphors and pentameter to learning a whole new lexicon of theory.”

Although demanding, the opportunity to understand core political questions from the two lenses of activism and scholarly research has been “a gift,” says Olson.  “I lived in the thick of one particular breed of activism for a long time, and I felt I needed to take a step back in order to ask some of these questions with clarity. I also knew that I couldn’t do it alone, that I have always done my most fruitful and honest thinking in conversation with others. So, graduate school was a gift to myself—in so many ways—and one that has grown exponentially working with the faculty at UMass.”

Olson has also found many similarities between these artistic and scientific cultures: “the work I was doing—particularly when I traveled internationally—was thinking through, investigating, asking questions about power and authority. So my poetry was already in constant dialogue with political theory in some ways.” Moreover, the questions about “who gets to categorize, to exile, to limit, to take, to punish, to reward, in essence to define the terms of existence —and why and how” have all transitioned well from the stage to the classroom.

Olson’s decade of performance and activism also cultivated a love for teaching. Having an opportunity to teach in a formal classroom setting was a way for Olson to “get grounded” and merge her political past with her political science present.

Although currently a full-time student, Olson still finds time to tour. She will be speaking at Rutgers University in May and at Syracuse University in September.

To find out more about the vast range of experiences and research of graduate students in the Department of Political Science, visit the Political Science website.



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