This week marks the launch of the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester, a unique opportunity for teaching and learning about free speech and the exchange of ideas, democratic engagement from a global perspective and what it means to be a member of a democratic society.

The theme semester will link courses and events from across the University of Michigan and incorporate online learning opportunities, as well as voter engagement through the Big Ten Voting Challenge. Programming will emphasize the importance of active engagement in the democratic process, and will integrate discussions about current events and social movements.

“There is no shortage of societal problems that demand the attention of an engaged academic community,” President Mark Schlissel said. “I hope we can use the time running up to the election to have substantive discussions on issues such as immigration, equitable economic prosperity, health care, education and systemic racism.”

The semester will also connect the campus community with people across the nation and the globe to promote intellectual frameworks and the practical skills necessary for active civic engagement.

“I’m really excited for the upcoming launch of the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester. It will let students, faculty and staff engage in pressing issues of the day,” said Michael Barr, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said the theme semester will encourage responsible participation in democracy through speaking up, taking action and voting.

“As our society grapples with such fundamental problems as the realities of systemic racism, the theme semester encourages our community to think collaboratively and creatively about how we can make long-term, sustainable societal change through the political process,” Sellers said.

Theme semesters are not a new concept at U-M, and have been used at LSA for years, most recently focusing on the Great Lakes and women’s suffrage. This semester will be unique, however, not only because it will involve the entire university, but also because of the programming offered through Michigan Online.

The Michigan Online Democracy & Debate Collection will include online opportunities designed to help learners understand the context, dynamics, implications, processes, rhetorical strategies, policies and issues at the center of the democratic process.

It will consist of a range of digital assets to help prepare learners for civic, political and community engagement, and will provide a curated range of educational materials for use in residential courses across campus, student gatherings, and alumni and community events.

“Our goals are to have as many collective explorations of the facets of democracy as possible in ways that highlight multidisciplinary knowledge and insights and research,” said Angela Dillard, Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, and professor in the Residential College and of Afroamerican and African Studies in LSA.

Activities will be focused around a wide range of areas, including racial justice and inequality, public health and poverty, and climate change and environmental justice.

The theme semester launch includes the inaugural Democracy Café — We Hold These Truths: Living Up to Our Declaration, A Conversation with Danielle Allen — on July 3, which will feature a timely conversation about living up to the truths and promise of the Declaration of Independence, and how it applies to the social movements occurring across the nation to combat systemic racism.

Allen is a renowned political theorist, Harvard University professor, winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity and author of “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.”

Watch this video of the full “We Hold These Truths” discussion from July 3.

The Democracy Café series provides resources for members of the U-M community to organize conversations in public spaces and cyberspaces around topics of general interest in this year’s presidential election season. Cafés will be conceived as opportunities for virtual engagement — each with an accompanying “tool kit” of documents and texts, supplemental resources and activities.

This week’s launch also marks the first session for artist Sheryl Oring’s I Wish to Say project, curated by Stamps Gallery and co-presented by U-M and Wayne State University. Individuals using typewriters invite participants, via Zoom, to dictate a postcard to the future president. The cards — which will be mailed to the president after the inauguration Jan. 20, 2021 — will form a virtual exhibit at Stamps Gallery, part of Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.

In a related initiative of the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester, composer Lisa Bielawa’s musical work “Voters’ Broadcast” will weave together selected texts collected through“I Wish to Say.” The piece, launching in September, will be performed in installments as it is created throughout the fall.

The Michigan Minds podcast also is releasing a miniseries focusing on how U-M is constructing the curriculum around democracy and debate to incorporate current issues, pathways to civic engagement on campus and how historical politics relates to the social movements occurring across the nation today.

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