Busy city intersection with street signs that read "Someone" and "You Know?"

What’s in a Name?

It may be more important than we think

When Jolie Matthews walks down a street or into a building, she can’t help but think of the prominent person it’s named for—and all that implies. The same thing happens when she’s watching a superhero movie, reviewing a history textbook, or scanning social media for reactions to a hit TV series.

Who, Matthews continually asks, gets represented in the public sphere? Who gets left out? And why? An assistant professor of learning sciences at SESP, Matthews is fascinated with what’s called the historical imaginary—how the past is represented by educational institutions, museums, and other cultural influences such as movies, novels, memes, family stories, and even the names of the buildings, streets, and monuments that surround us.

A fan of everything from Marvel movies to Doctor Who and The Tudors, she is part of a growing field of research that explores how connections among diversity, history, and pop culture shape our understanding of the past, present, and future. 

“We internalize a lot from popular culture,” explains Matthews, who earned her doctorate in learning sciences and technology design from Stanford University. “What do our media and history narratives communicate about different people? What does it mean to have diverse representation?”

These questions are part of what makes Matthews’s teaching at Northwestern popular with students, says psychologist David Rapp, a learning scientist and director of SESP’s undergraduate programs. By looking closely at the media people constantly consume, Matthews applies a “theoretical lens to topics that people think about every day,” such as race, diversity, education, politics, pop culture, and communication, he says. “She’s hitting a lot of issues. It’s compelling work, and she’s on the cutting edge of it.”

“A past that never was”

As an undergraduate at New York University, the California­-born Matthews concentrated on ancient, medieval, and Renaissance studies and initially considered history for her graduate career. She then earned a master’s degree in writing at the University of Southern California.

“I’m a huge fan of popular culture, especially historical dramas and pseudohistorical fantasies, and how people talk about a past that never was,” she says. For example, while watching fantasy TV shows set in fictional historical worlds, some audiences have no issue with dragons and magic, yet “they will say it’s historically inaccurate to put a person of color or a woman in a certain role.”

In a recent paper, Matthews and her coauthor, SESP graduate student Dustin Tran, delved into superhero films. They explore how even shows and films with seemingly diverse casts still promote problematic stereotypes and tropes concerning race and gender.

Those observations are part of what makes working with Matthews exciting, Tran says. “I am always surprised by her knowledge of pop culture and how she’s able to connect it to our research interests. As graduate students, we often like to separate school from our social lives, but Jolie asks us to make connections between them and think about media differently.”

Name a prominent American

In another ongoing study, Matthews is surveying a broad range of Americans about the 10 people they view as the most important or famous in US history. In addition to questions about their in-school and out-of-school experiences, participants are asked to list five important or famous Americans from each of the racial and ethnic categories used by the US Census: Asian; Black; Latino or Hispanic; Native American or Alaska Native; Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian; and White.

Inspired by a similar 2008 survey (which didn’t focus on racial or ethnic groups), Matthews structured her study to include respondents from across the US in three categories: people ages 18 to 22; the general adult population aged 23 and up; and educators from the pre-K to college levels.

So far, many participants have struggled to list even a few Native Americans or Pacific Islanders, and those they name often come from the 19th century or earlier, she says. The listed Black, Latino, and Hispanic figures were associated with civil rights and immigration or modern entertainment, sports, and politics. In the Asian category, participants knew no one, or they named celebrities, martial artists, politicians, or activists. 

“Only white individuals named came from a range of business, science, exploration, arts, leadership, and other areas,” Matthews says about her study, funded by SESP’s Venture Research Fund, which helps jump-start timely faculty projects. “This is a problem because Black people and other racial groups have made major contributions to the US in all areas.” And since teachers’ responses were similar to those of most other participants, that lack of knowledge affects what students learn about diverse representation.

White inventors make the list, for example, but why isn’t Frederick McKinley Jones, the Black man who invented the portable refrigeration technology that helped the US carry food and blood during World War II, a household name? Has anyone heard of Marie Van Brittan Brown, the Black woman who came up with the first home security system and closed-circuit television?

“My work highlights the ways that thinking about racial and ethnic groups remains narrow and rather stereotyped,” Matthews says. “When groups of people are only thought of in particular contexts, it denies them the chance to be fully multidimensional and really, fully human.”

Some survey participants were surprised by the gaps in their own knowledge. “People commented on how little they were taught about different groups in school,” Matthews says. “One person wrote, ‘I’m embarrassed that I don’t know more and that it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know.’”

Still, some signs are literally pointing to change. In 2019, Congress Parkway was renamed Ida B. Wells Drive, giving Chicago its first major street named for a Black woman. And in 2021, the city’s Lake Shore Drive was renamed for Jean­-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, an immigrant and trader from Haiti and the area’s first non-Indigenous permanent settler.

“Once you’re aware of the way the past is represented through textbooks, fiction, pop culture, and other vehicles,” she says, “and how it’s shaping what you know and don’t know, you can make active changes and say, ‘Maybe I need to push myself to engage and read and think beyond what I thought was ‘diverse.’

“Maybe pick one thing every day and just ask, ‘Why do I know what I know or believe what I believe?’ If we challenge ourselves to pick one thing to question, then self-reflect, it will push all of us forward.”

–By Gayle Worland