Now is an opportune time to work on your course syllabus. As you do so, we invite you to consult with a colleague in the Writing Across the Curriculum Program. Whether you are creating a new syllabus, dusting off an old one, or making substantial adjustments to a recently inherited one, we’re here to support your efforts to craft a syllabus that fosters an atmosphere of academic belonging for your students and for yourself. Such a syllabus—one that presents a course in welcoming and inclusive language, includes detailed information about core writing tasks and assessments, and provides information to support students—can do much to establish a productive and engaged teaching and learning environment that can be deepened throughout the semester.
Ways You Can Support Academic Belonging
Students experience a sense of academic belonging when they are able to envision themselves in the course, actively engaging in the content and participating in the intellectual and professional work in the field or discipline. Here are five suggestions for how instructors can promote academic belonging in their syllabus:
1. Be personable. Use the syllabus to introduce yourself to students, including your preferred name and pronouns, and to share some of your own interests. Establishing a personal connection and presence with students does not require instructors to disclose lots of intimate details, but presenting yourself as approachable can do much to encourage students to reach out to you with questions and to explore ideas during office hours.
Example: A faculty member in Family Social Science includes a brief “Meet the Class” screencast on their syllabus. The one-minute video displays a few select photos on Google slides of the instructor and includes details such as their love of running in the winter, their proud identity as a Puerto Rican, and their passion for reading on vacations. Students are likewise encouraged to introduce themselves by creating an individual slide or two and adding it to the Google Slide deck.
Example: An instructor in Health Services Management shares this information on their syllabus: “When we are speaking to each other or communicating via email, please feel free to call me by my first name (S—-) or Professor H—- or Dr. H—, whatever makes you feel most comfortable in communicating with me. I use he/him pronouns. I will do my best to address you by a preferred name or gender pronoun that you have identified. Please advise me of this preference early in the semester so that I can address you respectfully.”
2. Be inclusive. The syllabus is an important place where students can discover the diversity of work that is done in the field along with the diversity of people who contribute to the discipline. However, students might not get this opportunity if many of the assigned readings, viewings, and sources reflect a limited audience or exclude others. Along with ensuring that course materials reflect the diverse contributions to the field, instructors can use their syllabus to highlight contributions that have often been overlooked or undervalued.
Examples (adapted from the University of Michigan): A physics professor shares information on their syllabus about the many ways that women have contributed to the mission of NASA and invites students to read and view at least three profiles in the first week of the term. A professor of Civil Engineering features a section of their syllabus that celebrates the many contributions made to fields of discovery by famous Black Engineers. A Math instructor includes a link to 13 Interesting Facts About Math in Ancient Africa in the course overview section of their syllabus.
3. Be available. Being personable and inclusive can encourage students to reach out with questions about the course and be more apt to share their potential concerns (and excitement) at the outset. Along with providing clear details about office hours—with encouragement to attend!—and contact information, consider providing students with additional ways to communicate with you.
Example: At the end of their syllabus, an instructor in Urban Geography includes a final message with an anonymous Google Survey, inviting students to ask questions and share concerns that the instructor can use to make clarifications to the syllabus and to address when the class first meets: “Congratulations, you’ve made it through the course syllabus. Please take a few minutes to complete this survey. In the survey, you will have a chance to ask questions that I can address in class when we meet. This is our class and our learning community. By working together and communicating clearly with one another, we will have a productive and, I think, enjoyable semester.”
4. Be transparent. One of the most prominent threats to academic belonging for students is feeling inadequately prepared for a course and uncertainty about the expectations for success. Along with including information about well-designed assignments and assessments, instructors can provide students with suggestions for how best to approach course work, estimations for the length of time it will take to complete tasks, and examples of successful work completed by previous students. Often the best advice about how to succeed in the course can come from other students.
Example: A professor of a large course on Intermediate Accounting invites students who have done well in previous semesters to write a short tip for incoming students. The professor includes the former students’ tips on a document linked to the syllabus.
5. Be supportive. Beyond individual courses, academic belonging thrives when students are connected to a broader community of support and engagement. Instructors can use their syllabus to link to resources that benefit and extend beyond their specific class. Beyond providing links, instructors can include a brief description of what the specific resource is and how it can benefit students.
“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 2022, consultations will be widely available both in person and online. For more information, go to writing.umn.edu/sws/visit/index.html. 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.”
Reflecting on Your Sense of Academic Belonging
Providing students with ways to feel socially and intellectually supported and connected to your course and the university is not a one-way effort. Instructors often deepen their own sense of academic belonging from engagement with their students and with their colleagues. We invite you to share in the comments below how you cultivate and experience academic belonging at the university.
Our Teaching with Writing Program website offers teaching resources to faculty members and instructors across the University of Minnesota system. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.
Hi Matt- For many reasons, syllabi are getting longer and operate much more like a course contract or end user license agreement than an invitation to a community of learners. I appreciate how small differences in language and organization can help students feel welcome and included.
I enjoyed this post, Matt. Really great tips and perspectives for teaching with the syllabus. There's something about it that reminds me of "Teaching to Transgress", and how much more I enjoyed teaching when I shared more about myself and knew more about my students' lives, interests, and passions.
Students asked for time estimates on course tasks during the pandemic, and wow, that was a good move to support them in developing effective time-management strategies for the class. Assignment submissions seem better aligned with assignment expectations. That's a great tip!
To create a more participatory culture around the syllabus and course expectations, I implemented an asynchronous online activity called a "learning community agreement". In this activity, students comment to share reactions and input on the course expectations for students and instructors, e.g. how we'll engage with the course content and each other, where and how students can find help with the course, what they can expect of my grading and feedback, what expectations are present for a "writing intensive" course, etc. After doing this activity for a few semesters now, a result that surprised me was that students emphasized expectations not only for themselves and the instructor, but also for their peers in the class, why it was important to them that their peers authentically engaged with them too.