Let's Talk: Connecting Across Polarization

November 28, 2022

Written by Sommer Wagen, UHP Communications Intern

Mathew Krelitz is a third-year UHP student majoring in Sociology with a quantitative emphasis, with minors in Italian and Business Law. He is also an undergraduate research fellow for the College of Liberal Arts Public Life Project. The Public Life Project seeks to remedy the effects of  an increasingly polarized society on campus through promoting rational debate, community engagement and active citizenship, among other skills that are necessary for a “just, equitable, and antiracist society," according to its website. It aims to do so through courses, co-curricular activities, teaching workshops, research and public events.

Mathew's involvement with the Project began after he took a signature "Topics in Sociology" course last fall —"Wonderful/Wretched: Reading MN’s Racial Paradoxes" with Professor Doug Hartmann. He remembered having an excellent rapport with Professor Hartmann. 

“I sent him, as he loves to tell people, ‘one of the longest emails’ he has ever received after the class ended about my thoughts on the course and what I wasn’t able to say,” Mathew said.

Professor Hartmann, who is the director of the Public Life Project and chair of the Department of Sociology, thought Mathew stood out in the course. Even after the course was finished, he said that Mathew continued to write to him “about all the challenges of conflict and difference he saw–or didn’t see–in our class and all over campus.” The Public Life Project’s goals of fostering rational and thoughtful communication and breaking down the barrier of polarization take dedication and a real vision to make the world a better place. Professor Hartmann said that it was not long before he realized that Mathew was perfect for it.

Mathew, who has been working on the Project since May, said that he greatly values his experience so far and that it has given him the opportunity to observe the ways people think differently in real life and learn how to engage with others respectfully.

“I’ve always wondered why people are so divided,” he said. “I’ve always tried to have respectful conversations with people who I disagree with, and the Public Life Project is all about promoting that and teaching people how to do that.”

Mathew also described how he tries to admit when he does not know something instead of letting emotions fill the rhetorical gap in an argument.

“That took a long time to be able to do,” he admitted. “But after many conversations with people, I think I’ve been able to develop the skill of saying, ‘I don’t know about that actually, I don’t think I could say.’”

So far, Mathew has primarily been helping organize the Project’s series of events known as “Can We Talk?” These events center around two professors discussing their opposing views on a given topic before opening the floor to audience members for their commentary. Two of these events have taken place this fall–“Is Populism Popular?” and “Can Money Buy Happiness?,” and the next event (scheduled for December 1st) is "Can We Talk About Religion?"

Mathew said he was very happy with the greater turnout and engagement at the latest talk, “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Along with the satisfaction of seeing hard work pay off, he expressed feeling like a difference was being made.

“I really enjoy seeing people care about some of the same stuff I do,” he said.

“Can We Talk?” events provide the unique opportunity for students to contradict and connect with professors in an open setting, which can prove to be challenging in the classroom or lecture hall. The purpose of these conversations is to deconstruct the imagined authority between students and faculty that can make rational discourse feel intimidating. For Mathew, this is one of the best parts of “Can We Talk?” events.

“It's really fun to see people engaging respectfully in this context and watch them kind of butt up against professors in a setting where that's totally allowed!” he said.

Mathew also worked at the Public Life Project’s booth at the Minnesota State Fair this summer, asking people what they think are the most divisive issues today. The responses, he said, were “myriad.”

“The most common were politics and climate change,” he explained. “But there were some surprising ones like ageism and mental health, which I hadn’t really thought of.”

With the mission of studying and combating polarization in society, the Public Life Project directly ties into Mathew’s area of study, sociology. Through his ethnographic work at the State Fair – asking people about social issues and recording their responses – he was able to witness the social aspects of politics play out in real life, something he said he had previously only read about. 

Mathew initially wanted to major in political science, but he found he was more drawn to the social aspects of policymaking instead of the governmental aspects of it. “Studying why people do the things they do in the framework of society is something I've thought about for a long time,” he said.

He did not know sociology was a major until his advisor told him about it. Once he heard about it, he said, “I decided it was perfect for me!”

Mathew has also enjoyed the connections he’s been able to make through the University Honors Program. During his first year at the U, which began in Fall 2020, his only in-person class was his Honors Seminar.

“It was basically the only way I met people,” he said.

In general, Honors Seminars have been very important to Mathew’s college experience. He expressed a particular passion for HSEM 2512H: Mathematics of Elections and Social Choice, which he said was a great intersection of his interests in math and sociology. It introduced him to a completely new way of thinking and demystified how familiar concepts actually operate in real life.

“Now I could talk your ears off about rank choice voting or how to apportion House districts at the federal level,” he said.

Similarly to his experience with the Public Life Project, Mathew has appreciated the connections he has been able to make with faculty members. He named this as a perk of the Honors sections of some classes, which are smaller and provide more of an opportunity for connection with professors.

Mathew’s thoughtfulness, intelligence, empathy, and eagerness to learn make him a great fit for the Public Life Project and a wonderful ambassador for the University Honors Program. We love to see our students so passionately pursuing a variety of interests and making deep connections with faculty and the campus and larger communities.

Along with the Public Life Project, Mathew also competes as a member of the Mock Trial team. Outside of academics, he is an avid rock climber as well as the president of the University Ninja Warrior Club, in which members train on obstacle courses featured on the TV series American Ninja Warrior. He also plans to go to law school in the future.

Finally, Mathew’s advice for undergraduate students interested in research: “If you find something you like, do it!”