According to one national survey of 31,048 students conducted in 2020 by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU), “35% of undergraduates screened positive for major depressive disorder and 39% screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder” (Soria, Horgu, and Luu, 2020). The profound effects of Covid-19 on student mental health will likely continue during the 2022-2023 academic year and beyond. While instructors hope to support student’s mental health during these difficult times, they often wonder how to do so without burning themselves out. This blog post focuses on a relatively simple communication strategy: using carefully crafted course syllabi to support student and instructor mental health.
The pandemic has turned an old problem–how to write syllabi that are both welcoming and clear about course policies–into a much more pressing concern as instructors try to communicate support for students while establishing expectations on attendance, late work, class participation, and grading. Syllabi frequently display a disconnect between the instructor’s imagined persona and the draconian language of course policies. For example, in a recent offering on “Literature and Humor”—a course that I intended to be fun as well as challenging for students—I included the following attendance policy (in bold): “Missing class more than three times will lower your final course grade by 50 points for each additional absence. If you are 1-10 minutes late to class, this will count as ½ of an absence.”
What are students likely to think about me and the course when they read such an attendance policy? As Monica D’Antonio notes in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, while instructors typically view the syllabus as a contract, students are more likely to view it as an “indicator” of how the class will go. So, while I imagined that students would view my transparency about attendance as helpful, they likely saw me as both overly punitive and willing to reward the simple act of attending class.
So how can instructors be both welcoming and clear about their course policies? In “What Do Our Syllabi Really Say?,” Cate Denial suggests that we think about revising the language of our syllabi to be “collaborative and inclusive.” Denial’s revised attendance policy (her original was similar to my own) reads, “If you have to miss any of our classes know that we will miss your presence. Please email me to let me know you’ll be absent so that I can support you and help you catch up afterwards.” Denial’s revision makes clear that attendance is important, but she offers support rather than punishing students for what is often out of their control.
In addition to the importance of welcoming language, syllabi need to be accessible to all students in the course, and they should make clear how students can actively participate. Anne Marie Womack and the Accessible Syllabus project encourage us to think about providing images, text, and different modalities of our syllabi to not only increase engagement and understanding but also to make this vital course document easy to access for all students. In order to ensure accessibility, instructors can use Canvas Access Check (within Canvas editor) as well as IU’s guide to creating accessible materials. IU is rolling out a new tool called Ally that assesses Canvas content for accessibility, provides suggestions for improving accessibility, and generates alternative formats for students to download. You might even consider making accessibility a part of the conversation around the syllabus by working with your students to collectively annotate the syllabus or other course text as a live document. You can do this in various ways, including Hypothes.is and Google Docs. Communal standards of behavior drawn from the class give students immediate buy-in to what is important in the course, and how they can participate. Rather than assigning the syllabus as outside reading (and bemoaning the fact that many students will not read it carefully), consider ways to communicate that the syllabus is a two-way contract, a living and collective document.
In order to reduce student (and instructor) anxiety about the course, syllabi should clearly state how and when to contact the instructor–and when and how students might expect a response. When creating your communication policies, think about what method might work best for you, and also give you separation and boundaries from your students. For instance, you might provide a Google voice number or office number, rather than your personal cell; set email answering hours, and/or let students know when and how to contact you in an urgent situation. Consider renaming your office hours as “student hours,” so that students understand that this time is for them to ask questions. For example, you might have a statement that reads something like this: “I welcome you all to contact me outside of class with questions, concerns, or relevant materials you encounter in the world that you would like to share. Please consider visiting me during my office hours, which I consider to be ‘student hours.’ I check my IU email (email@example.com) between the hours of 9am and 6pm with frequency, and that is the best way to reach me during those times. I will endeavor to reply to you within 24 hours of an email, if not sooner. Please make sure that you have enabled Canvas to send messages to your email, as Canvas Announcements are how I will communicate with the whole class. If you have an urgent request or emergency situation, you may text me at 812-555-5555. I am looking forward to working and learning with you this semester!”
Please join CITL staff on the morning of August 12 from 10-11 am for an informal coffee talk about resources and teaching strategies that you can use to promote student and instructor mental health. If you would like to find out more about making your course materials accessible, please consider attending one or more of the webinars that the CITL will be hosting this fall from the months of August to November on Improving Course Accessibility. Details can be found in the CITL Events Scheduler. Please see also the CITL’s webpage on Inclusive and Equitable Syllabi. Another great resource is the CITL’s blog on “Accessibility Checklist for Instructional Video.” If you are interested in an individual consultation, please contact the CITL.