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Priorities and pathways for civic caucusing: The Michigan Student Caucus

Jeremiah I. Holden, Jeff Stanzler, Michael Fahy, and Jeff Kupperman

The Michigan Student Caucus (MSC) is a civic platform representing the interests of Michigan’s K-16 students. As educators, we recognize schools advance select civic priorities and participatory pathways (while concealing others). A civic platform may be defined as a set of valued issues, or priorities. Politicians, for example, craft agendas envisioning economic prosperity or improved educational opportunities. A civic platform also facilitates expression and engagement, or pathways. In this sense, a platform could be an organization (perhaps a school), a mobile application (like Twitter), or a Smartphone. The curricula of schooling’s civic priorities arise from textbooks, socialization to consumerism, and preparation for social productivity (Willis 1977). Schooling’s civic pathways are also bounded; from student government to mandated community service, such engagement too frequently becomes an impoverished exercise in search of authenticity. MSC challenges how school—as a civic platform—engages and values the everyday interests and concerns of our students.

New media—characterized by low barriers for participation, and unconstrained by time, space, and authority—have the potential to reshape robust civic priorities and pathways 

(Benkler 2006; Jenkins 2006; Squire 2011). Our design and facilitation of MSC emerges from related critical curiosity: Under what conditions might a multifaceted civic platform validate schooling while embracing nascent priorities and pathways? How might related trajectories of civic engagement meet the needs of students and communities?

Unaffiliated with partisan politics, MSC is a partnership among the University of Michigan and the Michigan House of Representatives Special Commission on Civic Engagement. What began in 2001 as a high school program, became by 2005 a regional collaboration that has since involved thousands of undergraduate students in state governance. MSC situates students in Michigan’s legislative affairs through membership in a group passionate about politics (a caucus), and through ongoing debate and action (caucusing). In this case, we describe how a civic platform like MSC blends priorities and pathways via creation of public policy across school, community, and online settings. Furthermore, we suggest that MSC serves as a model for scaffolding student trajectories toward legislative authoring and legislative advocacy.

How does MSC advance the civic priorities of Michigan’s students? MSC is facilitated primarily as an undergraduate course through the University of Michigan’s Interactive Communications and Simulations Group. Every semester, over 100 undergraduates participate in online debate, community-based service and research, and town hall meetings featuring issue experts and local stakeholders. These activities seed students’ creation of public policy in six topic areas: justice and equity, arts and culture, human development and welfare, environment and health, economic policy, and community revitalization and social entrepreneurship. Drawing upon community experiences, interactions with experts and service providers, the Michigan Compiled Laws, and the State Legislature’s proposed bills, our students use a custom website (figure 1.1, to craft their platform of civic priorities through brainstorming, resolution building and discussion, and voting.

Figure 1.1: Homepage of Michigan Student Caucus website

The process whereby students craft policy begins with a brainstorming phase. In the Winter 2014 semester, for example, the justice and equity topic area featured 39 discussions (figure 1.2). Via asynchronous written commentary, students debate how legislation protects the civil, economic, and human rights of both Michigan’s students and the public good. A typical justice and equity discussion, “Seat belt laws: Should everyone wear one?” generated 47 comments over two weeks.

Figure 1.2: Justice & Equity topic area, with list of brainstorming discussions

Following brainstorming, students individually and collaboratively author proposals. The seat belts discussion resulted in “Changing Seat Belt Laws,” one of 29 proposals authored within justice and equity. 364 were constructed across all six topics areas. As proposals are authored, so too are they discussed and revised. Each section of a proposal—the pre-ambulatory clauses (“Whereas…”), operative clauses (“Be it resolved…”), and consultation clauses (supporting opinions from experts)—is iteratively refined until the final voting phase begins (figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3: Example of proposal authoring, including options
for adding clauses and commenting features

Utilizing a weighted, issue-driven voting mechanism, students select two proposals per topic area; the 364 proposals became a final platform of 12 legislative recommendations (pdf here).

The creation of students’ civic priorities is complemented by MSC’s facilitation of civic pathways. Each semester concludes with students attending a session of the Michigan House of Representatives Special Commission on Civic Engagement at the State Capitol in Lansing. The authors of platform proposals testify publicly before elected representatives (figure 1.4, sample video), answering questions, sharing additional research, and advocating for legislative reform. 

Figure 1.4: MSC students testifying before the Michigan House of Representatives Special Commission on Civic Engagement, April 2014

In 2008, for example, testimony about juvenile life without parole sentencing resulted in the adoption of a bipartisan House Resolution (pdf here). The success of testimony results from pathways that have connected teaching and learning across campus, community, peer, and online settings: academic studies align with community service throughout Southeast Michigan; peer-supported mentoring groups meet across campus; and the MSC website mediates flows of discourse and policy scaffolding students’ learning trajectories toward legislative authoring and advocacy.

Like any political process, MSC is a complex endeavor with endemic conflict.  We manage tensions of course administration given university norms. We struggle to balance teacher- and student-guided learning. And our grading of students’ research and “caucusing” is never easy. Institutional, pedagogical, and assessment challenges demand working solutions every semester.

Much has been opined about Millennials’ participatory zeitgeist, political urgency, and civic media fluency. Yet our experiences suggest a more nuanced appreciation for how students identify civic priorities and navigate civic pathways. A reflection by one recent student, someone old enough to have voted in the previous presidential election, captures the delicate need for civic platforms engendering agency toward political systems and personal self-efficacy:

Legislators want to help the people, and they need the younger generation to speak up and share their ideas and concerns so that the legislators get a better perspective on the most important issues in their state.  I was truly honored and privileged to be a part of this amazing community and opportunity.  Moving forward, I will never shelter an idea of mine for fear that I am too young to make a difference.

MSC models a civic platform whereby contingent formations of media, information, and people open pathways of interest-driven priorities, reflecting and advancing the well-being of Michigan’s students.


Barron, Brigid. 2006. “Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective,” Human Development 49 (2006).

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gordon, Eric, Jesse Baldwin-Philipi, and Martina Belstra. 2013. “Why We Engage: How Theories of Human Behavior Contribute to Our Understanding of Civic Engagement in a Digital Era.” The Berkman Center for Internet and Society, no.21 (October).

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry, K. Clinton, R. Purushotma, A. J. Robinson, and M. Weigel. 2006. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, An occasional paper on digital media and learning.

Kligler-Vilenchik, Neta and Sangita Shresthova. 2012. “Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics,” A Case Study Report Working Paper, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (October).

Squire, Kurt. 2011. Video games and learning: Teaching and participatory culture in the digital age. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Willis, Paul E. 1977. Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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