Despite so much uncertainty, here’s what we do know about this next semester: the university will begin and end classes remotely, and technology will factor heavily into how courses are organized and taught. For those courses that may eventually feature onsite instruction, measures to enforce social distancing will likely alter the familiar dynamic of physical learning spaces. Now more than ever, community and engagement—essential elements for successful teaching and learning across the disciplines—will be nurtured by attending carefully to our language and our modes of communication.
This semester, the Teaching with Writing Blog will offer suggestions for how instructor and student writing in online and socially distanced classrooms courses can be used to build and sustain community and engagement. For this first post, let’s consider the syllabus, perhaps the most important document an instructor creates for their students.
The role of the syllabus
Whether we are teaching online, onsite, or in hyflex mode, the syllabus remains a foundational document, a place where students find important information about course assignments, contact information, due dates, and other essential matters. Though it may be chock-full of policies and procedures, the syllabus does not need to read or look like a legal contract. It is a powerful way for you, the instructor, to welcome students into an online or socially distanced learning environment.
Five suggestions as you fine-tune your syllabus
1. Consider ways to convey a promising learning atmosphere.
In What the Best College Teachers Do, Howard Bain uses the word “promising” to describe syllabi that (1) present courses as learning opportunities through the use of invitational language (e.g. “you will have an opportunity to explore some of the exciting research being done on biological clocks”); (2) offer practical advice on how students can engage in specific and successful ways to learn course material; and (3) provide clear criteria for how students and instructors will support one another. Research on syllabus design has shown that syllabi featuring warm rather than cold language can have a significant impact on student engagement.
2. Design your syllabus so that it models and promotes an accessible learning environment.
Anne-Marie Womack and her colleagues at Tulane University have created a terrific resource for designing an accessible syllabus that (1) fosters community and engagement by honoring diverse student abilities; (2) promotes an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable discussing their unique abilities; (3) presents material visually with clarity, consistency, and navigability in mind. Another terrific resource, sponsored by the Office of Equity and Diversity, is Accessible U, which offers guidelines for cultivating “more inclusive—digitally accessible—experiences.”
3. Provide students with information about how writing and communication will function specifically in your course, and what role writing plays in the discipline or field of study.
By decoding the discipline for students, a syllabus clause can deepen student engagement. It describes effective approaches and roles involved with online and socially distanced writing instruction, thereby revealing new possibilities for connecting with the material and with each other.
Here is an example from an Art History syllabus:
You will be writing throughout this course, in different ways and fulfilling different functions. Sometimes you will be writing as a way to learn (for low-stakes “attendance and participation” points in class). Sometimes you will be writing as a way to demonstrate your mastery of historical and art historical information (in the midterm and final exams). And sometimes you will be writing as a way to advance your own original research and ideas (in the three short papers).
Like all disciplines, Art History has a unique perspective on what “good” writing is. For instance, writing about images demands that Art Historians write descriptively and precisely, so that readers can “follow along” in the illustrations provided in the text. In fact, this sometimes means that Art Historical writing is structured “upside-down”: facts and observations are offered first, with interpretations and arguments coming last. You’ll also notice that writing in Art History tends to be a hybrid of (you guessed it) “Art” and “History.” Art historians often write creatively, using poetic language and narrative, story-telling styles. But they always ground this creativity in research: providing the reader with heavily footnoted information about the past. and understand the challenges and rewards of Art Historical writing. If you’re confused, intrigued, or want to learn more, just visit us during office hours or make an appointment!
4. Keep in mind that while a syllabus may be read by other members of the university community, it is, first and foremost, a student-facing document.
As such, it is an early opportunity in the course to establish a powerful and authentic connection with your students and to signal your support for their success. Providing links on your syllabus to campus-based resources is easy and effective. Even better is including descriptive information about these resources. For example, a link to Student Writing Support, which averages over 5,000 one-on-one consultations a semester, can include this helpful and welcoming language:
Student Writing Support (SWS) offers collaborative one-to-one writing consultations to help student writers develop confidence and effective writing strategies. Writing consultants will listen to writers' goals and concerns, read and respond to their written work, pose questions that help them clarify and articulate their ideas, and affirm the experiences and abilities that they bring to their writing. SWS values writers' life experiences and languages, and SWS seeks to provide a supportive space for them to share and develop their voices.
Consultants work with writers at any stage of the writing process, such as brainstorming and organizing ideas, developing a thesis statement or line of argument, creating cohesive paragraphs, revising sentences, and documenting sources. A consultation is often focused on a specific assignment or writing task, with the goal of supporting writers as they develop more effective and productive writing strategies to apply to future writing projects.
For fall 2020, all consultations will be online and by appointment only. For more information, go to writing.umn.edu/sws.
In addition, SWS offers a number of web-based resources on topics such as avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources, and planning and completing a writing project.
5. Present your syllabus to students.
Occasionally, instructors claim with frustration that students have not read their syllabus. Give your students a compelling reason to do so by recording a short video on your Canvas site where you offer syllabus highlights, and invite a deeper reading and discussion of the course at the outset. A video accompaniment to your written syllabus can demonstrate the invitational, inclusive, and supportive environment that will help you and your students build an engaged community this semester, despite our physical separation.
Along with our TWW tips, we are pleased to consult with you on writing assignment–related matters. You can schedule a Zoom consultation, or you can take advantage of our new Writing Assignment Hotline by sending a draft of your writing assignment to [email protected] with specific questions you would like us to consider.
I really appreciate the suggestion that we invite students to join a class’s (and discipline’s) intellectual community. Thanks for helping me think about how an online syllabus can do so.