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Honors College at WKU

Dr. Alexander Olson

Alex Olson


Phone: 270.745.4201



Assistant Professor, Honors Academy
Ph.D. in American Culture, University of Michigan


Ph.D., American Culture, University of Michigan, 2013

M.A., History, University of Washington, 2005

B.A., History, Stanford University, 2002

Areas of Specialization

U.S. History since 1860; American Studies; North American West and Borderlands; Cultural and Intellectual History; Public Humanities; African American History; Native American History.

Current Book Project

The People’s Classroom: American Modernism and the Struggle for Democratic Education, 1860-1940

This monograph, currently under revision, tells the story of activists and intellectuals in California who put forth competing visions of democratic higher education and its relationship to public culture between 1860 and 1940. Just as aesthetic modernism upended the conventions of the poem, novel, and painting, so too, I argue, did intellectuals in California experiment with the formal elements of education—classrooms, laboratories, disciplines, and other technologies of expertise—to imagine new spaces of learning, or what I call “people’s classrooms.” This manuscript also examines how and why the mantle of democratic education was appropriated so widely. Virtually all involved in building the University of California claimed to be acting on behalf of the “people” in a spirit of public service—even when their ideas about the purpose of higher education explicitly clashed with the demands of working class groups such as the Grangers who called on the university to adhere to the democratic spirit of the Morrill Act of 1862. This monograph is based on my dissertation, which received an honorable mention for the University of Michigan’s ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2013, placing it in the top twenty of more than 800 dissertations produced at Michigan that year.

Selected Publications

American Studies: A User’s Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming 2017-2018). Co-authored with Philip J. Deloria.

“Muybridge in the Parlor,” Journal of American Studies. Available on Cambridge Journals Online 2015 doi: 10.1017/S0021875815000018.

“Citizen Stories: A New Path to Culture Change,” Public: A Journal of Imagining America 3, no. 1 (Spring 2015). Co-authored with Elizabeth Gish and Terry Shoemaker.

“‘You have rescued me from academicism’: Selections from the Correspondence of Henry Nash Smith and Mary Hunter Austin,” Southwest Review 96, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 50-65.

“Heritage Schemes: The Curtis Brothers and the Indian Moment of Northwest Boosterism,” Western Historical Quarterly 40, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 159-178. Winner of the Bert Fireman Award from the Western History Association.

“Our Leschi: The Making of a Martyr,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 95, no. 1 (Winter 2003/04): 26-36.

Courses Offered

Honors 251: Citizen and Self

Honors 300: California in Experience and Imagination

History 352: American Borderlands and West

History 622: Graduate Seminar in American Borderlands and West

History 630: Graduate Seminar in Native Peoples of North America

What Brought Me to the Honors College

I was drawn to the emphasis of the Honors College on student engagement. I believe students and faculty should be partners in the learning process and that undergraduate research is the bedrock of a successful college education. I am also committed to the public humanities and am currently working with a team of students, faculty, staff, and community partners on a public history initiative based on oral histories of Jonesville, an African American neighborhood that was demolished in the 1960s to expand Western Kentucky University. Originally from Seattle, I live in Bowling Green with my wife Nicolette and son Igor.

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 Last Modified 12/2/16