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Educator Spotlight: Angela Dillard on the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester and Providing Context for Current Political Conversations

Parnia Mazhar, Communications Student Fellow

Angela Dillard
Angela Dillard

Angela Dillard, PhD, is the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican & African Studies, History and in the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She serves on the advisory board for the Center for Academic Innovation, and created a playlist in the Democracy and Debate online collection for the center modeled after her residential course, Democracy and Debate Across the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). The playlist covers a variety of topics regarding the current and past political climate within the U.S. and across the globe. Each video features experts from across U-M who discuss matters that are central to understanding a democratic society. 

We asked Dillard about her journey working with the Center for Academic Innovation to develop and grow the playlist, as well as her inspiration for the course. 

1. What inspired you to create a course on Democracy & Debate?

Democracy & Debate Across LSA was created for the eponymous Fall 2020 theme semester, which, in turn, was originally envisioned as a way to generate campuswide voter engagement and civic education around the October presidential debate. Although the University of Michigan was ultimately unable to host what would have been the second of the three presidential debates during the 2020 election cycle we decided that the theme semester ought to proceed. Hence, my course was one of over 100 theme semester-related classes offered across various schools and colleges. 

2. Why do you think courses about democracy and debate are especially beneficial during these times and the current political climate? 

I think what this moment cries out for is context — political and historical and sociological, economic, legal and so forth. This is a time in American democracy in particular and Western liberal democracies in general during which a number of traditional political and electoral institutions have been placed under enormous strain. At such moments, being able to provide students and other learners with perspectives that make the dynamics of our system more intelligible is a profoundly important aspect of public and campus-based education. For these reasons, from the very beginning civic education and public engagement have been central in our aspirations for the theme semesters’ courses, signature initiatives, and events. 

3. What impact do you hope your Democracy & Debate Across LSA playlist will have on students and learners from not only the U.S. but from potentially across the world?

The playlist is designed to take some of the best aspects of my on-campus, online course — especially its interdisciplinary nature and the visits by members of the LSA and U-M faculty — and preserve them for subsequent use in other courses and conversations and learning environments.  The University of Michigan is an engine of knowledge production, which means that those of us on campus have access to some of the finest thinkers in the country and the world. The videos that have become part of the playlist were pre-recorded specifically for my individual class sessions.  as a way to bring this intellectual energy into my classroom. As it became clear that the majority of our classes were going to have to be Zoom-based because of the pandemic, the playlist served both as a mechanism for bringing intellectual energy to my students and as a platform to harness faculty contributions in an accessible format for those well beyond the confines of Ann Arbor and even our virtual campus.

4. Why did you want to collaborate with the Center for Academic Innovation for the Democracy & Debate collection?

The Center for Academic Innovation was an essential partner in the creation of the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester; we knew from the outset that we wanted to generate and preserve the widest possible variety of educational resources, using multiple learning platforms and modalities. The CAI brought a curatorial perspective to these digital assets that redounded to the benefit of individual faculty members like myself. 

The collaboration with CAI colleagues on the Democracy & Debate Across LSA playlist provided me with the tools and practical assistance necessary for such a project. We worked together on a variety of aspects, from the basic design of the contributions, to the best questions to pose to faculty guests, to the video editing and subsequent packaging.  

But on a more expansive level, the collaboration with CAI also gave me the confidence to think beyond the boundaries of a typical syllabus and the confines of an ordinary teaching experience. 

5. How has your previous experience influenced your views on the importance of this collection? 

During my years as LSA’s associate dean for undergraduate education I was always at least tangentially aware of the efforts of CAI to reach and engage learners in new and innovative ways. I had also participated in a conversation or two about ways that the Center might come to play a larger role in pursuing more equitable and inclusive frameworks for students and other learners. Yet it was the context of the Democracy & Debate theme semester — as it evolved in the midst of the pandemic as well as the summer Black Lives Matter protests– that provided me with a new level of appreciation — and involvement — in these efforts. Indeed, I was an enthusiastic contributor to the summer Teach Out on Police Brutality. Looking back I am deeply impressed by the degree to which themes of justice, racism, equity, nonviolence, democracy, debate, public engagement and our partisan divide informed so much of planning for the hard and good work we did together — and in concert with so many other talented and committed members of the university community.

6. What does the future hold for you? Do you hope to produce more online content for CAI on similar or even different topics in the future?

Yes, I think I have been bitten by the bug and hope to find equally creative ways in the future to enrich my classroom teaching while simultaneously engaging learners locally, nationally, and internationally around those topics that I care about as a scholar and a teacher as well as a citizen and member of multiple communities.  

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