ANN ARBOR—Once thought to be largely on the way out, authoritarian rule has found its way back into world politics, even in places political historians and other observers thought of as bastions of capitalist democracy, like European countries and, to an extent, the United States.
This resurgence, along with an increasingly polarized political climate here and abroad, are what prompted Professor Arun Agrawal to offer the first University of Michigan teach-out March 31 on the edX platform.
Agrawal hopes learners across the globe will join as he and six other history and political science experts, including U-M professor Juan Cole, lead a discussion called "Democratic to Authoritarian Rule."
Teach-outs are modeled after the historic U-M teach-ins of the mid-1960s. Faculty who wanted to express concern about the U.S. government's role in the Vietnam war opted to use an educational event rather than a walkout to share their opposition.
In much the same way, U-M's teach-out series will bring learners together around important, timely topics, including fake news, the Affordable Care Act and understanding science.
The teach-outs, similar to the teach-ins, will offer systematic and thoughtful discussions to any interested learner, and they are free of charge. The difference is that these learning experiences are offered on a digital platform, allowing learners everywhere to take part on their own time within the week the teach-out is posted.
Agrawal sees it as a university's role to engage with the world, offering the kind of discourse and engagement opportunities that students experience in their campus classes.
"University professors and university researchers, this is what they do. They work with students in the effort to educate, provide information, and to engage and inspire," he said. "And the teach-out is an expression of that goal and ambition that institutions of higher learning, universities and researchers stand for when they are at their best."
Agrawal said an increasingly social media-driven culture means that many people are relying on learning facts through 140 character tweets and fleeting images. Without context and story these short bursts of information are at best incomplete, and most often polarizing, he said.
"What we're offering instead in the teach-out is a story, a narrative," he said. "It's a way of thinking about and connecting different facts so that they make sense. And I think there are many people who are hungry for this kind of engagement and thoughtful conversation."