12 Inclusive Syllabus Suggestions from the Critical Digital Pedagogy Workgroup, Plus…

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

Our syllabi are among the first points of contact with our students.

And if the scholarship showing that students’ first impressions of our courses typically last for the entire semester, then we should pay attention to how the syllabus is a crucial document. An ad-hoc group of 21 faculty and staff met at the Inclusive Campus Engagement Breakfast drafted a set of suggestions for inclusive syllabi. These suggestions were inspired by last year’s post from Dr. Angela Benson, Reclaiming My Syllabus. Their hope is that we might use these suggestions to take charge of what syllabi communicate about our courses and ourselves as teachers.

The group’s discussions included a variety of topics:

  1. Language, style, tone.
  2. Online resources from other institutions.
  3. Proposed content for UA syllabi that might, one day, be adopted across the campus. These were compiled under “syllabi” on the Teaching Hub’s external resources page.
  4. Suggestions for making syllabi inclusive beyond a diversity statement.

12 Suggestions for an Inclusive Syllabus

The general tone of your syllabus is positive, respectful, inviting, and directly addresses the student as a competent, engaged learner. Using resources adapted From U. Virginia, Brown U. and St. Louis U., here is what you can do with your syllabus:

  1. Clarify all aspects of your course without depending upon sterile and/or authoritarian language.
  2. Convey a positive, respectful, inviting tone.
  3. Use personal pronouns like you, we, us (rather than “the students,”“the course,” or “they”).
  4. Explain your course with active verb that focus on what you and your students will do (rather than passively saying “this course will…”).
  5. Balance descriptions of learning and possibilities with the required institutional policy statements.
  6. Frame the course in terms of a “promise” or “invitation” that will be fulfilled through a mutual effort by the entire class if everyone meets the learning goals and objectives.
  7. Signal a learning environment that fosters positive motivation as a vehicle for learning.
  8. Incorporate content representing a diverse set of perspectives.
  9. Show your awareness that the academic world encompasses a wide range of social identities.
  10. Consider how the range of students social identities might affect their experience of your course.
  11. Prioritize supporting all your students by integrating universal design into your course (rather than relying on the official accommodation statement at the end!)
  12. Articulate the norms and/or hidden expectations that you might assume everyone “just knows” (because, often, students do not…).

Plus…

Revise your office hours (from Brown U.):

Try renaming them as “student hours,” which sends a far more welcoming message to your students.

Make transparent what your “student hours” are as well as why and how to use them (i.e. not when they are, but what they are)

  • A forum to raise questions beyond your course (e.g. interest in your discipline, other courses like yours, careers in your field, internships, and opportunities)
  • A safe space to explore confusion about a topic or assignment.
  • Normalize office hours and consider offering incentives.

Have a plan for class discussion etiquette:

Recommended (but not required) for syllabi – or to be mentioned in class – it would be good to encourage faculty to engage students in coming to an agreement about discussion etiquette.  The Teaching Hub already has a faculty blog post about how to create a “class constitution” with your students.

Add to the standard disability statement:

My course is intended to be inclusive for all University of Alabama students.  If you have any kind of disability, whether apparent or non-apparent, learning, emotional, physical, or cognitive, and you need accommodations or alternatives to lectures, assignments, or exams, please feel free to contact me to discuss reasonable accommodations for your access needs.  If, at any point in the term, you find yourself not able to fully access the space, content, and experience of this course you are welcome (and not required) to contact me by email, phone, or during office hours to discuss your specific needs.

I also encourage you to contact the Office of Disability Services (Office of Disability Services, 1000 Houser Hall; 205 348-4285; 205-348-3081 – TTY; ods@ua.edu).  If you have a diagnosis, ODS can help you document your needs and create an accommodation plan. By making a plan through ODS you can ensure appropriate accommodations without disclosing your condition or diagnosis to course instructors.

Make a statement on respect for diversity and inclusion:

One of the University of Alabama’s greatest strengths is our diverse student body.  Together we represent regional, international, racial, gender, physical, cognitive, socio-economic, cultural, and religious diversity; bringing these diverse perspectives together in the classroom is a valuable resource and opportunity for us to understand and learn from our campus community.  To ensure that all perspectives/identities/worldviews are respected and valued in class, please note the following:

Please let me know if something said or done in the classroom, by either myself or others, causes offense or discomfort. Likewise, please let me know if something outside of class is preventing you from fully engaging with the course.

Please offer your viewpoints!  If you have a question or concern, chances are another student in the class is having a similar experience.  By speaking up (either in class, privately via email or office hours, or anonymously) you are potentially helping your classmates.  If you do not feel comfortable discussing the issue with me, please notify your advisor, a trusted faculty member, or a peer.  I encourage you to advocate for an inclusive experience at the University of Alabama.

Should you need assistance in acquiring or accessing course materials (technology and books, for example) please see me.  I am happy to provide assistance so that all students have access to required materials.

Consider including UA’s Strategic Plan Goal #3:

Enrich our learning and work environment by providing an accepting, inclusive community that attracts and supports a diverse faculty, staff and student body.

Objectives:

  • Establish a position for an equity, inclusion and diversity officer that is responsible for the organizational oversight and assessment of plans, programs and activities that enhance equity, inclusion and diversity.
  • Enhance the recruitment, hiring and retention of diverse faculty, staff and administrators.
  • Strengthen the recruitment, matriculation, retention and graduation of diverse students.
  • Expand diversity and inclusiveness education and training.
  • Provide structural resources, policies, practices and oversight that foster transparency in all campus groups and ensure diverse and inclusive participation.

Include a basic needs statement

Aligned with the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice and the national #RealCollege movement spearheaded by Sarah Goldrick-Rab, it might be useful to include language about supporting students who are facing food and/or housing insecurity. Also, there was an excellent suggestion to include a statement about affording books and other course materials. The following are two suggestions of such a statement provided by Dr. Goldrick-Rab:

  • Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.
  • Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

Welcome!


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences