By Barrie Gelles
By now, we have all realized that preparing for the upcoming fall semester isn’t going to feel like any other August filled with syllabus preparations. Whether we are planning for a remote, digital or hybrid course, or a cautious, unfamiliar version of an in-person course, the entire semester has to be planned to “expect the unexpected.” This daunting pedagogical task is made more complicated if you have multiple courses to prepare, and even more difficult if you teach at more than one college.
The semester, and all of its pedagogical trappings, will be unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before. We can’t rely on our typical in-person teaching methods, our syllabi need to be rewritten, and most of our assignments need to be reconceived. If everything has to change, then, why not take this opportunity to rethink our courses?
A number of our colleagues are starting to think about reframing our course preparations in just this way—a potentially positive change amid unavoidable circumstances. A few of our colleagues have written about this notion, such as Cathy N. Davidson and Dianne Harris, who wrote an article that asked “what if colleges viewed this fall not only as a campus emergency of epic proportions….but also as an astonishing educational opportunity?” (You can read the full article at this link).
In the spirit of embracing change and hoping to seize the moment when so many of us are combing through our syllabi, I would like to share some practical steps for intersectional, interventionist syllabus design. I put these ideas into writing for a panel on inclusive teaching at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference, but they are tried-and-true methods that I have explored for years. I have been including these elements in my courses, spread across two disciplines and three colleges, for many years. I insist on this inclusivity because I want my courses to be accessible, welcoming, interventionist, and edifying for any student that might enroll for the course. Embedding these initiatives and policies into my classrooms—in-person and digital—has made a tremendous difference to the ethos and dynamic of the classroom community. Is it more work? Yes, but it is worth it.
Taking steps to be radically inclusive is not merely a personal pedagogical initiative; it is also a political point of view. How we choose to structure our classrooms (literal or metaphorical, physical or digital) is a way for us to model society in miniature. We create small worlds in our classrooms, in a designated space, for a finite amount of time. So I ask you: how do you want to change the world this year?
Radical Inclusivity for Syllabus Intervention: Practical Steps
Prepared by Barrie Gelles as part of a presentation for the ATHE 2020 session: “Inclusive Teaching: Assignments, Assessments, Course Policies”
This guide of practical steps is not intended to be exhaustive by any means. This is a live document (that can be viewed at this google link) that will be continually updated and revised. This resource provides some beginning steps to intervene in typical syllabus content, policies, assignments, and evaluations. This is a launching pad for many other ways to embrace radical inclusivity with an awareness that all interventions must be intersectional.
Holistic Changes for Radical Inclusivity; Or, How to Deconstruct the Hegemonic Syllabus
- Dispose of the idea of uniformity – it is not equitable!
- Each student will experience the course differently based on their circumstances and identity – lean into it!
- If you acknowledge that each student has individual needs, you will start to create coursework that is designed to have flexibility built in.
- Don’t be afraid of kindness – being kind does not diminish your rigor or expertise as a scholar. Avoiding kindness and gentleness in your pedagogy is internalized anti-feminist behavior.
- Create a questionnaire for students that they can complete before or on the first day of class that allows them to share anything they would like you to know; don’t make them do this outloud in class; give them the chance to write/type/record it and submit it to you privately.
- Keep the lines of communication open so that students understand that they can contact you to request changes without being judged or penalized.
- Be clear with your expectations. Be equally clear with your accommodations. Let students know that they will not be penalized for being sick, struggling through life events, or needing accommodations. Being human does not make them a less accomplished student. You can’t help them succeed if they are afraid to talk to you.
- Normalize failure as part of the learning process.
- Find places in the syllabus design so that the assignments have an element of choice (see below for examples) and that the course rubrics are student-centered by including students in their creation. Ask students what they want/need to learn and let it steer some of the course content.
- Privilege interventionist history.
- Feature BIPOC writers, artists, and scholars on the syllabus.
- Amplify BIPOC students in the room – make sure you are being equitable when students raise their hands and be attuned to students speaking over each other.
- Engage in casting projects to expose and dismantle racism in theatre history and in the current industry.
- Include narratives of BIPOC liberation, success, and joy, not just struggle.
- Don’t police what BIPOC students get to sing or act in class; don’t police BIPOC students’ bodies by asking them to change their clothing, hair, or any other aspect of their physical appearance to conform to a white supremacist model.
- Don’t simply fit BIPOC narratives and history into a Eurocentric, white supremacist model – rethink the entire structure of how you frame the material.
- Remember that “norm” and “neutral” ideas of the industry and training are rooted in white supremacy. The “standard of excellence” has already/always been steeped in racism.
Creating Gender Diverse and Queer Space in the Classroom (Literally, Figuratively, and Digitally)
- Introduce yourself with your pronouns on the first day- it signals a safe space for gender expression.
- Do not use gendered language like “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys.” Try “folks” or “students” or even “musical theatre fans.”
- In the aforementioned survey, offer students the opportunity to share their pronouns before or during the first class without calling them out to announce it publicly (see suggestion for survey). Note: please use the term “pronouns,” as opposed to “preferred pronouns.”
- If a student is misgendered by you or another classmate, make the correction, apologize succinctly if you made the error, and move on. Be vigilant to ensure that no more misgendering occurs. Do not make the student do the emotional labor of making you feel more comfortable in the situation.
- Remove your assumptions about students – let them tell you who they are. You cannot judge a book by its cover and a student’s presentation should not lead to presumptions.
- Feature queer, non-binary, and trans artists, writers, and scholars in the syllabus.
- Address queer history within the framework of hegemonic history; find places where it exists even when the hegemonic history didn’t include it.
- Include queer narratives of liberation, joy, and success, not just struggle.
Acknowledging Disability and Designing Accessible Coursework
- When you think about accessibility, offer it to ALL students. That way you are not gatekeeping accessibility for the students who have come forward with a disability. Some students will have invisible disabilities, some will not be ready to be public with their disabilities, and some students may not recognize their needs for accessibility as such.
- Syllabi should be digital and accessible. By making them a live document, you can make changes throughout the semester (efficient!). It also makes it easier for students to use screen readers (provided you use the right platform). Information should be presented in a multitude of ways – everyone takes in information differently.
- Assignments need to be varied so that they do not all privilege writing in a predetermined manner. Create some assignments that do not require long essays. Try out an “un-essay” assignment. Add some creative assignments to the semester. Try a podcast or a digital project!
- Allow computers, tablets, and phones in class. Many students need technology to fully participate in coursework. Technology can help with visual impairments, audio impairments, executive function, fine motor skill impairments, and more. Think of allowing technology in class as allowing students to have their tools.
- All exams can be made digital, take-home, open book, and untimed. There is almost nothing to be gained by forcing students to take an exam within time constraints. Better yet, give them a whole week to work on their exam and let them give thoughtful and considered answers.
- Do not require video participation on zoom. For neurodivergent students – especially students with sensory processing issues and/or autistic students – using video in zoom can be uncomfortable, distracting, and even painful.
- Be aware of the physical space of the classroom and invite students to let you know if they need changes. This may be as obvious as a wheelchair user not having a proper desk or a deaf student needing to place their interpreters in a certain seat in the front of the class. But there are other ways physical space impacts students – perhaps sitting in the hard chairs is too strenuous for some students to sit upright; maybe the lights are causing sensory overload; etc. Open up the conversation with the students.
- Create classroom presentation tools that put the salient points of what you say in writing as you say them (either via projection, handouts, or a page on a LMS) so that students can use their visual learning abilities during lectures and discussion when their aural learning abilities might not be enough. Remember to use high contrast visuals, non-serifed font, and think about what to include (balancing the essential information while not overloading the screen).
- Used closed captioning on all videos. Many students need to see the words as well as hear them – this is key for deaf students, hard-of-hearing students, some autistic students, some students with sensory processing issues, some students who have aural processing issues, etc.
- When using Zoom, consider that closed captioning is an issue for deaf students, hard-of-hearing students, and students with aural processing needs – Zoom does not automatically provided closed captioning (though there are third-party software options and you can assign a very labor-intensive “stenographer” role to an individual). For what it is worth, google meet does have closed captioning, however imperfect.
- Create opportunities in class discussion that aren’t reliant on speaking extemporaneously and out loud. You might offer opportunities to write down ideas and hand them to the front of the room. You may offer digital conversations to give an opportunity for students who struggle with social interaction a chance to speak their mind digitally.
- Some students will need more time to verbalize their thoughts or need an alternative means to express their thoughts. Allowing the chat option in Zoom is an excellent way to provide more accessibility in conversation. In person, try not to rush students and try not to interrupt them. You may surprised how many disabilities affect speech on many levels – it necessitates complicated cognitive and motor functions that might be complicated even for the disabled students that appear to have typical speech skills.
- Create opportunities for responses and discussion of materials to be untimed. For example, allow students to bring their questions to class or participate in a discussion board after class. Not everyone can think clearly under timed pressure or in a room full of people.
- If you are working with a deaf student, take time to learn a few basic ASL greetings so they feel welcome in the space. Ask them how they would like their name said (spoken vs ASL). Talk directly to the student, not to the interpreters. Take time to learn how interpreters work, where they have to sit in a classroom, and how it will impact your student when there is a substitute interpreter. Be conscious of your body placement in relation to the deaf student – be visible to them. Take the initiative to offer the student time, with the interpreters, to discuss how the course works for them.
- Low-vision students and blind students will need to have access to materials for class ahead of time so that they can use tools to make them accessible. That way when you use visual media in class, they have already engaged with the material. If this is not possible, distribute the materials to them after class.
- Images should be accompanied by a written description in materials. Visual media should be accompanied by audio descriptions whenever possible.
- Some students will struggle with writing; there are steps beyond simply pointing them to the campus resources that you can take. Consider adjusting the assignment for them – allow them to record it, for example.
Recognizing Socio-Economic Differences and Work/Life (Im)Balance
- Don’t assume that your students have financial safety, a stable home, or food security. Even students who live on campus might be budgeting meals and worrying about where they will stay during break.
- Some students go through school while having jobs and/or family responsibilities. If you assume that all students have no other obligations outside of school, you will end up creating a non-equitable rubric for success in your course. Make sure that you coursework can be done in a reasonable amount of time each week.
- Don’t assume that all students have access to a computer. Perhaps they share one with many family members or perhaps they don’t have one at all. They may not have access to reliable internet all of the time. Recognize that some students will be completing assignments during commutes or breaks at work. Some students will do all of their reading and writing on their phones because they do not have a computer or tablet. Do your course materials and assignments allow for that?
- Do not require video participation on zoom. Not all students will have the internet bandwidth to allow for video transmission. Some students may not want to share the privacy of their homes or reveal living conditions. Some students may be attending class while caring for a family member and not want to reveal that to the rest of the class.
- Try not to make students hand in hard copies of papers if possible. Some students won’t have access to printers and, often, those same students won’t have the time to use the library or computer lab to get the assignment printed in time.
- Use OER (open educational resources) and digital texts when you can – these free resources will help students on a budget.
- Be flexible with deadlines if the student is having a hard time juggling their work/life (im)balance – the world will not end if you extend a deadline.
Barrie Gelles is a Ph.D. candidate in The Theatre and Performance Program and teaches Speech/Communication at Baruch College and Musical Theatre History at several non-CUNY colleges.