On the Importance of Inclusive Course Policies
Yesterday, as the horrific news rolled in from Charlottesville, VA, I put out a simple call to my fellow white academics:
In the first tweet, I was talking primarily to white humanities academics, yes.* Often (though certainly not always), those of us in the humanities tend to have more flexibility in the content of our syllabi; if our syllabus for Intro to American Literature or Wars of WWII or Modern Art History only features white voices, that is not an accident. That is a choice, and one we have to face, and understand, and change.
*I speak directly about white academics here because I am one and because I believe it is vital to address the complicity of white academics in maintaining the status quo. I also do so because the burden of changing academic culture should not be on those who are fighting simply to be allowed to exist within academia.
But I also believe non-humanities academics need to acknowledge the choices that build our curricula in those fields, as well. If our economics classes do not address how, for instance, issues of systemic inequality affect “basic” economic principles, why not? If all authors listed on our chemistry textbooks are white, why? If our computer science classes do not discuss the silenced history of women of color in the development of the field, why not? This is an academy-wide problem, and once we are all responsible for solving.
For this post, however, I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the second idea I raised—that of reviewing our course policies to ensure they are as inclusive and equitable as possible. I hope that this is an idea that is not new to any of us, but I want to offer some suggestions for how to accomplish this just in case.
What’s below is not—and is not meant to be—an exhaustive or innovative discussion. Nor do I want to assume all of us have the same latitude to change policies and assignments. Every department in which I have worked has had some degree of shared, departmental policies that must be followed; many dictate the kinds of readings and assignments you must use. Graduate students and adjuncts in particular may have to consider their relative positions of power with care. But to the extent that you are able given your situation, here are some issues to consider as you finalize your courses.
What assumptions are you making about your students?
Here at Georgia Tech, multimodality is part of our first-year composition curriculum. This allows for a lot of creativity in designing assignments; my colleagues have had students make podcasts and design movie posters and write essays and film videos. But in designing these kinds of assignments, it can be easy to fall into assumptions about what our students do and don’t have access to and what they do and don’t know.
As an example: this fall, I am asking my students to do an assignment using Instagram. Instagram is among the most popular social media platforms among young people today, and many of my students undoubtedly are already intimately familiar with how the platform works. But I have made a point of including an article that explains Instagram on my syllabus anyway—if even one of my students has never opened the app before, that lack of experience can introduce an unfair disadvantage if I don’t offer a means of counteracting it.
Moreover, I cannot safely assume that all of my students have equal access to a smartphone capable of downloading the app. As such, the assignment sheet includes information about desktop emulators they may choose to use, as well as the opportunity for an alternative, offline version of the assignment if they are unable to use the app itself. This solution is not perfect, and it does not inherently guarantee an equal playing field for everyone—but it does make space for students to come to the class with different backgrounds and experiences and still succeed.
How can you help ensure your students’ safety?
To continue using my Instagram assignment as an example, one of the other major factors I have had to consider in designing it is the fact that it has the potential to be public-facing. While I firmly believe in the importance of helping students learn how to tailor their writing for different audiences and to be aware of the consequences of entering the public space, I must also be aware of those consequences. Online culture can often be toxic, and I cannot know what experiences my students will have had in the past. They may have entirely legitimate reasons for not wanting to connect their work with any public audience, and I want to be sure to respect those reasons.
As such, the assignment sheet reminds students they do not have to connect their accounts to their real names; I also have informed them they can keep their identities anonymous from their classmates, if they prefer. If a student finds this to be insufficient, they also have the option of pursuing the offline version of the assignment I noted above.*
*I don’t use the example of this assignment to brag about how thoughtful I am; I am sure the assignment remains imperfect. I merely use it as a case study of how multiple areas of concern can collide in one place.
In short: consider what you are asking your students to share of themselves, and provide as many opportunities to protect students is vulnerable situations as possible.
How can you balance course policies with empathy?
“All of the course policies exist for a reason, and I will enact them firmly across the board,” my syllabus notes. “However, I recognize that life does not always fit neatly into course deadlines.”
Listen, I know how so many of our course policies have been borne out of exhausting, frustrating experience. And I am in no way suggesting that we shouldn’t have rules, or that we should not enforce them. (Especially for those teaching five or six sections at a time, or whose classes are filled with hundreds of students.) Among the most important lessons our classes can teach is the value of being mindful about responsibilities and the need to see them through.
Sometimes, life will go awry for our students. Sometimes, even the most dedicated, attentive student will become so overwhelmed by depression that a deadline turns impossible. Sometimes, a student will have to choose between writing a paper for our class or feeding their family.
Consider, then, how you might be able to build class policies that can be both firm and empathetic. One of my colleagues, Rebekah Fitzsimmons, has a clearly defined late work policy—but she also allows her students to have one free, no-questions-asked extension on an assignment if they need it.
Does this approach fix all problems a student might have? No. But it does have the potential to offer a spot of grace for a student overwhelmed by life. That is what an empathetic course policy can provide: not a free ride without consequences, but an opportunity for continued success when challenges arise.
Are you recognizing your students’ personhood?
Every semester around midterms or finals, some professor writes a snarky post about all the grandmothers that have mysteriously died in such a short span of time. In theory, the purpose is to call out those students who would rather invent family emergencies than be truthful about why they haven’t been able to do the work for the course—but more often than not, the commentary implies that students are inherently dishonest and manipulative. That kind of criticism ends up creating a false divide between the student as transparent liar and the professor as an all-knowing arbiter of truth. More importantly, it encourages instructors to operate from a position of doubt when their students reach out to them. If a death in the family happens the last week of the semester, then it cannot be real.
Except: of course it can. Of course personal emergencies happen at inconvenient times. Of course a student can lose two grandmothers in a single semester. Of course a student can have more than two grandmothers!
Are those emails always true? I’m sure they’re not. But many of them are, and some of them might actually be lies that are easier than the truth. Invoking the loss of a relative might be a simpler story to tell than that of a sexual assault, or an illness society has deemed “embarrassing.”
So perhaps instead of approaching students as entitled children out to get what they want without working for it, we could approach our students as adults with fully realized lives. That means recognizing that they are no different from us: some of them are hard workers and some want to skate through; some are ambitious and some are content with what they have; some will follow the rules and be honest whatever the cost and some will fall back on easy lies and half-truths to avoid consequences. Hell, some will be all of those things in the span of the same week, because they are people.
Our syllabi and course policies are the first chance our students have to decide whether they can trust us to trust them. When we design our courses and interact with our students, then, let’s ask ourselves what it costs us to operate from a baseline of respect and inclusion. My guess is it will cost us nothing—and our students will have plenty to gain as a result.