Inclusive Practices: Syllabus and Day One

I’m on leave this year to be visiting faculty at Smith College. As a result, I get to rethink all of my teaching. It’s a new context, so in general it feels like a great time to take stock. Smith is also a college founded on goals of justice in educational access, which both challenges me to be my best and makes me feel a bit more licensed to push these issues. [For example, one of my mathematics colleagues, whom I believe to be cisgender, spontaneously normalized talking about pronouns in the context of mathematics without any of the buffering discussions I’ve seen around these moves in other contexts!]

So I get to [and feel inspired to] (re)write and re-imagine my syllabi. I took this as an opportunity to collect the recommendations about inclusive practices for syllabi. In practice, it was hard to separate the syllabus from the work of the first few days, so there is some boundary flexibility, but it’s my personal belief that it’s best to do most of these things live and collaboratively (such as in class on the first day) but also to make sure that these values are made explicit informal elements of our courses (such as the syllabi). This post is my attempt to list the ideas of which I’m aware.

I posted much of this list on Twitter and Facebook a few days ago, so some of it has been modified or expanded based on the ideas contributed by others in comments there. Thanks #MTBoS (math twitter blog-o-sphere, I think).

 

Inclusive practices for a syllabus and start of a course:

(1) Making explicit statements about supporting an inclusive classroom. I think it’s better to build norms with students [reiterated by Chrissi von Renesse], but there are things we can pledge and that they can expect from us. The “Big 8” socially constructed identities are race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality and socioeconomic status, but other dimensions of difference might also be salient in your context, including intended major/concentration and prior experience with the course concepts. Hanna Bennett reminded me that explicitly naming mental health, including depression and anxiety, as legitimate dimensions of difference can help overcome the stigma a little and allow students to engage more proactively. Courtney Gibbons suggested referencing the AMS Welcoming Environment Statement. While I’ve never used this document, I like that it broadens the discussion to the whole discipline, which could be a powerful symbolic difference for some students.

(2) Normalizing the inclusion of our identities to show that this space does not demand that we lock away ourselves. For me, that would probably be best done by being open about my queerness but also making my love of kittens and singing salient to the classroom. I certainly acknowledge that this move does not set me up to be unduly burdened with emotional labor or boundary challenges like it might for, for example, women of color faculty. Perhaps the rest of us doing this would be a way to counteract some of that structural imbalance. On the flip side, I do know that spaces that purport to be neutral (eg “sexual orientation is irrelevant”) can feel extremely hostile to me as a queer person, so silence on this is not neutral for anyone.

(3) Affirming that all students can excel in the course. Making this real by helping students understand their pathways to excelling. Undermining the potential interpretation of courses as filters for past experiences or weed-out contexts. Perhaps normalizing your own past struggles along the path to success.

(4) Setting a constructive narrative about resources. Avoiding only legalistic language about accommodations. Making sure students know about Title IX and our support of it. I’ve heard that naming resources like counseling services and food pantries can be life-changing as nudges for students to be aware of and use the resources they need. It’s also important to make sure that using these resources is not traumatizing or shaming in practice; similarly, it’s important to make sure that the student tutor demographics represent the students so that we do not implicitly teach an exclusionary message about who can excel in our efforts to support students with these resources.

(5) Helping students understand the course questions, value those questions, and see themselves represented in the curriculum. I got this idea initially from Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do”, but it took me several iterations to have these guiding questions structure my whole syllabus. However, my personal definition of “inquiry” is that the classroom discourse is guided by questions being asked by (or least made sense of from the perspective of) the learners, and these ideas align well. While this item may not read as overtly about inclusion, I think it addresses some of the differences in cultural capital between students, and it undermines otherwise potentially authoritarian and dehumanizing aspects of the educational system.

(6) Replacing hard-line attendance and submission policies. Especially if there is no reason for them from the learner’s perspective. I think we often think this is necessary tough love, and I just don’t think that mechanism works that way. This is related to the growing movement towards standards-, mastery, or outcomes-based grading. For me, if the goal is that the students get where they need to be, I shouldn’t grade them on whether they took the one path I imagined they might before I met them. On the other hand, if there are deadlines that are about supporting learning, I think there can be a place for some of this. For example, students often have PreWork for my class meetings that is due before those class meetings. Not doing it before class means they can’t engage the ways they need to and it impacts their peers, so I have a deadline, but I also evaluate this as a whole in a way that lets them stumble sporadically without it “loosing points”. Mike Gagliardo suggested that we explicitly give students permission to advocate for themselves if policies are not working for them; feeling that this is an option or feeling safe in taking this option is related to cultural capital, and stating this explicitly might reduce the differences in that capital.

(7) Giving students some choice. For examples, laying out a few possible assessment paths and giving a time for the class to pick a path or asking students to ratify the syllabus after having a chance to discuss and improve it. Ron Taylor reminded me that we can even give students some flexibility to have a personal grading scheme, perhaps by letting each individual student pick weights for course items in their weighted average within a range. Lost of people in the standard-based grading community identify core standards while allowing students to pick which of the more peripheral standards they want to engage most deeply.

(8) Acknowledging your institutional context. Don’t over-generalize about students, but be honest about where you are and why. If your students are mostly commuting and working, naming and planning around this could be powerful in practice and as a gesture. Perhaps a land acknowledgement is appropriate. Both of these ideas might be more effective live rather than in a document, but perhaps not for you.

(9) Making the document accessible. I don’t think I understand all of what this means, but certainly take into account the reader! Will it be legible in the tools used by people with visual impairments? Have you made the guiding principles accessible to students (perhaps with diagrams)? I’ve recently learned that Adobe Acrobat has an option where you can save pdfs so that screen readers are a lot more effective. Search for the term OCR (optical character recognition). Anne Ho pointed out the some learning management systems have the ability to check uploads for accessibility, which I was excited to learn!

(10) Positioning students with ownership and for creation. Making pathways for their cultures and histories to be part of the curriculum, which serves as windows for some and mirrors for others. Broadening the definition of living mathematics, done with bodies/emotions. This is a very short summary of Rochelle Gutiérrez’s Rehumanizing Mathematics framework that pushes us beyond some of the less liberatory interpretations of “equity”. You can find Gutiérrez discussing this framework with the participants at PCMI here: Part 1 and Part 2. Gutiérrez has pointed out that Rehumanizing Mathematics is related to the potential goal of decolonizing mathematics, but she reserves that term for efforts that more intentionally center indigenous voices. It’s important to think about the ways in which our syllabi and course designs perpetuate the invisibility of a hegemonic view of the discipline that has contributed to colonialism and its ongoing impacts, work we can all do as we build syllabi, but Belin Tsinnajinnie pointed out that we need to be careful not to strip the term decolonizing of its meaning by using it as a broad metaphor.

 

As I learned at the new faculty orientation, Smith College “educates women of promise for lives of distinction and purpose”; “distinction” and “purpose”are both compelling and generative terms for me. In contrast, the term “promise” cues for me both beliefs in the innateness of potential and the accumulated impact of privilege because of how we might assess that potential, but this orientation included critiques of both the (gendered and racialized) myths of genius and meritocracy. In the end, I’m reminded that students know themselves, and we should give them space to be partners in their education to reach the promise in all of them, and this list is about listening to students and meeting them where they are.

I hope you found this list helpful. It’s not filled with the citations or references to readings that have generated these ideas, but I want it to be clear that I’m not claiming to have invented these approaches. I also don’t think I could possibly have been exhaustive in the list. Moreover, these ideas overlap and intersect and may not all be appropriate for all contexts. If you have other ideas, PLEASE comment below to share.

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