Tip #1 from the Syllabus Challenge

Update your terminology and phrasing.

Some of you may be familiar with a pedagogical tool I began developing back in 2017. This living document continues to evolve four years later and will continue to evolve. In fact, I edited it this morning.

The Syllabus Challenge provides critically reflective questions and practical ideas for inclusive teaching in action. After all, the goal of being a more inclusive educator and creating learning spaces that decrease systems-related equity gaps in student success sounds great. But when we try to move from this theoretical goal to action, it can feel like the line to HOW to make it happen is missing. When I first began collecting the ideas for this tool, my main goal was to get from lofty pedagogical goal to detailed practical applications. In other words, what behavioral changes can we make as we design our syllabi and courses? This may be a good time to mention that the Syllabus Challenge speaks not only to the syllabus itself, but also the broader course design such as questions of assessing student learning.

With all that in mind, let’s start with a change that any of us can easily implement. No matter the discipline, this one could apply to you.

Tip #1 = Update your terminology and phrasing

Trust me, I get it. Terms change all the time, and we may not yet know about the latest and greatest. At the same time, we have all been guilty of having a syllabus, or at least some parts of a syllabus, that we have not edited in years. For example, as gender terminology has shifted, I know sections of my syllabus still included gender binary phrasing like “she/he” or “the student will submit his or her paper.” 

One simple way to update your syllabus for more inclusive language is to check for some specific terminology and make updates as needed. The thing about terminology is that it can pop up anywhere throughout the syllabus. So this one requires a close reading to check for the following.

Update ideas for terminology and phrasing:

  • Updated terminology referring to social identity groups.
    For example: BIPOC, Latinx, gender fluid, Indigenous, students with disabilities (vs. “disabled students”)
  • Avoid generic use of male pronouns in your phrasing. Many educators still use “he” to refer to all students regardless of gender. This is something easily updated. 
  • Push past phrasing that promotes the mythical gender binary of man/woman. You can use the now much more accepted singular “they” instead of “him/her.”
  • Check for cultural phrasing that may not translate for English learners or some international students. Students from another state or region may not know local phrases. When I moved to Virginia, it took a while to figure out NOVA meant Northern Virginia. Examples:
    • barking up the wrong tree
    • cram for a test
    • piece of cake
    • take a raincheck
    • knock on wood
    • it’s not rocket science

How did that feel? Does this feel doable? My favorite way to make these edits is to print the full syllabus (not eco-friendly though), grab my sea salt caramel flavored iced coffee, curl up on the couch, and mark in purple the spots I want to change line by line. 

If you decide to give it a whirl, let me know how it goes!

Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies.
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