[This week I start what is unquestionably the most distinct and strange semester of my 20+ year teaching career. So for my annual Fall previews, I’ll be discussing some of the ways that my classes will and won’t be different this time around. I’d love to share some of what you’ve got going on in a crowd-sourced Fall 2020 weekend post!]
On the most important paragraph I’ve ever written in a syllabus.
I’ve always tried to make clear to students that my most consistent policy, the one that both underlies and takes precedence over any and all other class policies, is for them to keep me updated on things so I can be fair and responsive to what’s going on with them and in their (very busy and complicated) lives. But while I have always meant that and have tried to honor it on each and every occasion where it applied, my syllabi have nonetheless featured other policies as well, basic class expectations and rules for issues like attendance, late papers, and the like. I’ve gone back and forth over my 15 years at Fitchburg State and 20+ of teaching overall on whether to keep including policies for each of those issues, but have tended to feel that they are necessary both to make my classes fair for all students and to help students maximize their experience and success in the class.
Not for Fall 2020, though. For all five of this semester’s undergrad course syllabi I replaced my usual Policies spiel with this short and sweet paragraph: “This is normally the place where I write about attendance and late paper policies and the like. I’m not going to do that this semester, though, because I really only have two such policies: be safe and take care of yourselves first and foremost; and keep me updated on everything so I can help make the class and semester as successful and productive for you.” That new paragraph builds on my aforementioned underlying policy of open communication and flexibility, but takes it a significant step further: doing away with any set policies or rules for things like attendance and late papers, making each and every case by default one where the student and I will figure out together what makes sense and works, what is necessary and helpful, what will help them not just stay safe and healthy this semester (although of course) but also have the most meaningful experience possible.
Adding that explicit statement into my syllabi has made me think more about expressing and communicating such a policy of care even in less overtly fraught times. Of course caring about students has always been my #1 priority, as I hope that underlying policy has made clear and as is the baseline of my student-centered pedagogy. But I don’t know whether that priority, that emphasis on care, has been quite present enough—and certainly it has not been quite clear enough—in my syllabi. Perhaps that’s not an issue for in-person classes, where I can start communicating it clearly from the first day on; I now worry that it has been somewhat of an issue for online classes, and will work to address that in particular moving forward. But even for in-person classes, many students look at syllabi before a semester starts, they sit with them for at least a few minutes before the first class begins, and of course they return to them (we hope, anyway!) across the semester, often at times when we are not together as a class. So working to express and communicate that policy of care more fully and thoughtfully in my syllabi will be I believe a meaningful goal in every type of class, and one this most unusual semester has helped me identify.
Next Fall preview tomorrow,
PS. What are you teaching or working on this Fall? Let me know for the weekend post!