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Nelson excited to help Monmouth students realize potential

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Michael Nelson’s career has taken him from coast to coast in the United States, as well as to Africa. But these days, the new Monmouth College political science professor likes life in the heartland.

“I’m enjoying the students,” said Nelson, who began teaching at Monmouth last fall after serving as chair of the African Studies Department at Wesleyan (Conn.) University. “I like that a lot of the students we have here at Monmouth are right on the edge of being able to take off. I enjoy the opportunity as a teacher to see that potential realized and to play a role in that.”

Nelson realized he might want to become a teacher during graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Like most graduate students, teaching was part of my responsibilities,” said Nelson, who earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in political science at Berkeley. “I very, very quickly found that the times I was teaching were the happiest moments for me.”

Nelson’s interest in political science goes back to growing up in what he called a “very diverse neighborhood” in Pasadena, Calif.

“On our block, we had Mexicans, Armenians, Vietnamese,” he said. “I remember going to a rally for (former Democratic presidential candidate) Jesse Jackson and seeing Benjamin Weir speak. He was one of the hostages during the crisis in Beirut (in the mid-1980s). Those were some moments that got me interested in politics and the world.”

Nelson soon found himself experiencing the world as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana. He had been studying the Pacific Rim and learning Mandarin Chinese, but a different door opened, and he took it.

“They told me, ‘We have this opportunity in Ghana,’” he said. “I went and I fell in love with it.”

Nelson said political science is a great fit for him because “I’m curious about why things are the way they are and whether there’s any role I can play.”

Although he’s chosen to focus on the academic side of the subject, he is also involved in the discipline through research and consulting. He published a book, African Coalitions and Global Economic Governance, based on his doctorate research, and he’s consulted for the State Department and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Nelson will introduce a new course at the College next year, “Africa in World Politics,” a course “that really aligns with my core interests,” he said.

Among this year’s courses, he especially enjoys his “Political Philosophy” class.

“I just love digging into those old texts,” he said. “I love talking about how we constitute a good society or the ideal form of governance. There’s no perfect answer, but political philosophy shows us what’s possible.”

That branch of political science was also a favorite of the late Monmouth emeritus professor, Ira Smolensky.

“We’re really going to miss Ira,” said Nelson of the department and the College. “I was picking up some really good ideas about teaching here from him. He had some really good insights.”

When Nelson was a child, the possibility existed that he wouldn’t go into either teaching or political science. Through some “really cool opportunities” provided by the musical director at his father’s church, Nelson appeared as a vocalist on the soundtrack for the 1987 movie Empire of the Sun, which starred Christian Bale and John Malkovich. The film was directed by Steven Spielberg with an original score composed by John Williams. About a year later, at the age of 12, he was part of a Randy Newman album.

“I was also in some open productions in Los Angeles,” he said. “I thought about going into music full-time, but I knew it wasn’t an easy pathway. And then I got excited about what I was doing in political science.”

For now, Nelson keeps it simple, singing only to his 8-year-old daughter.

“At some point, maybe I’ll get back into it,” he said.