Tip #6 from the Syllabus Challenge

Increase policy transparency

The Syllabus Challenge provides critically reflective questions and practical ideas for inclusive teaching in action. Check out Tips 1-5 here. Tip #6 asks you to consider course policies as a source of inequity in our courses. Policies are generally accepted as neutral, though I am guessing this crowd applies critical analysis to policies more than most. So let’s take our advanced critical skills and turn to how course policies are far from neutral. They definitely do not impact all students in the same way. In fact, course policies can be a major structural factor in marginalized students success or lack of success. 

Tip #6 = Increase policy transparency

You may have heard this one before. As a junior psychology major at a research university (UTK- Go Vols!), my approach to surviving the unknown culture of college was to follow my syllabus down to each letter. I mean I read and reread, highlighted, made notes in the margins, converted it all over to my main semester calendar. For all of us who feel like students do not read the syllabus, I was the DREAM student soaking it up like my life depended on it. 

The syllabus meant so much to me because it felt like the ONLY lifeline to how to navigate a course, meet the unique professor’s mysterious expectations, learn what I needed to learn, and yes- get the A. The grade was not my only goal, but GPA mattered, too. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of that 19 year old Kim who assumed the syllabus was the contract, as all of my professors claimed. She assumed the syllabus was accurate, true, to be believed, and definitely not something to be questioned or challenged. How could she ever dream up the idea that the syllabus, and the policies as stated, were theoretical and could be bent for some students when asking for exceptions? She would never even have that thought cross her mind!!

At the same time, students with family who had attended college or felt entitled to their educational place in the university, or came from particular privileged positions of race, gender, and social class, assumed the opposite. They seemed to operate under a different assumption = “Policies are flexible because I deserve to be the exception.” In my upbringing, this would be considered arrogant as well as an unthinkable violation of communal and interdependent values.

The impact of course policy

My Personality Psychology course professor had a policy of no makeup exams. He was wonderful, and I mean no disrespect or criticism as I am certain he did not realize his course policies could lead to my not so great experience. In the last 4 days leading up to the exam, when I had intended to study for the final, I got the worst flu and slept about 21 hours per day. Then I got out of bed, somehow drove myself to campus, and took the exam with 104 degree fever. I tell this story often because it still bothers me that no one told me I should not have to take an exam in those conditions. My assumption that “the syllabus is the syllabus and you follow it end of story” did not serve me well when I truly needed support.

Fast forward to my first TA role in my doctoral program. Students began asking for extra time and various violations of the syllabus policies. Most of their requests were granted! This is how I found out that my college experience was quite different from students with more privilege, more access to the hidden curriculum, and more mentoring and background cultural knowledge of the academy. All of this adds up to inequity. 

Policy interpretations

I tell that story not to whine about the past (I aced that exam because I am a badass), but to hopefully provide some insight into how your own syllabus policies will not be interpreted the same way across students. First individual differences will result in various interpretations. Second, social location, privilege, cultural mismatch between home and higher education, and more will result to massive variations in how students perceive your policies. All this to say, perhaps we can make some strides to increase policy clarity and transparency for more equitable practices. 

Questions to consider

My example was about not knowing you can ask for help. Some of the questions below also address classroom discussion guidelines and a broader set of policy considerations. As you will see in the “okay, it’s your turn” section, there are 2 pages within the Syllabus Challenge with even more ideas and reflective questions for you

Maximize course policy transparency and support

Are there guidelines for respectful participation, such as disagreeing with a position, but NOT attacking an individual?

Do the discussion guidelines address student awareness of how much time they take up talking in class (too much; too little)?

What if a student must miss class for an unexpected work or family obligation? Do they lose points even though privileged students would not face these systemic obstacles?

If a vocal student requests an extension, do you then make that extension known to ALL of the students? No doubt there are more students (many from marginalized groups) who will benefit from that extension, but would never ask you.

Can you include welcoming wording for students to contact you even if they have not gone through official accommodations channels? Some students will not be able to acquire the approvals for specific accommodations but would benefit from your working with them to promote their learning.

What if a student in poverty or a low-income student does not have a smart phone, home computer, reliable wifi, or software needed for your course? Does your policy explain how you will help them meet the technology needs?

okay, your turn!

If you are feeling like a 100% overhaul of the policy section is a bit much for the limited time you have, how about start with one policy? The attendance and late policies may be the most urgent in terms of policies that create the greatest equity gaps. Could you tweak one of those and make it more transparent? Could you rewrite one of those in language that students both understand and view as welcoming?

In the Syllabus Challenge, open the link and skip down to slide #11-12. These slides provide ideas and reflective questions for increasing transparency in your current course policies as well as consideration of some policies you may want to add for improved clarity and reduction of equity gaps. 

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Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies, including two modules on anti-racist pedagogy.
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