I keep coming back to this post over at dryerasewritings. I re-read it when I put together syllabi, or, as I’ve been doing in my new capacity as senior TA, giving feedback on syllabi. It’s the reason that I handed out a copy of my first, poorly worded, pedantic, and generally un-friendly syllabus as part of an exercise during the TA training session on safe and active tutorial spaces that I facilitated last week.
I asked workshop participants to read through the syllabus in groups, and to come up with at least three suggestions for making it better (after I assured them that I wouldn’t be offended by their commentary, and that I was giving them the document, in part, because I recognize how un-friendly it is). Towards the end of a very productive discussion, a worshopper posed this question to me: “do you think this stuff really makes a difference?” Based on this person’s specific participation, I do think she asked out of genuine curiosity, but nevertheless the question threw me for a loop. In the end, I shared this personal teaching story:
You’ll notice that the syllabus I’ve passed around isn’t very accommodation-friendly. Accommodations are mentioned dead last, and framed in terms of “for students with disabilities,” which is a problem, because not every student that needs an accommodation has a disiability, or thinks about herself as having one. Additionally, the syllabus suggests that students “talk to me after class today,” a near impossible feat for someone with social anxiety.
The reason that I’m brining this to your attention is that my relationship to students with social anxiety changed along with my syllabus. In my second year of teaching, I adapted my syllabus in accordance with the guidelines put forth in the dryerasewritings post. I mentioned accommodations as one possible way of navigating participation grades in the written document, and suggested verbally that anyone needing or uncertain about needing an accommodation of any kind could approach me either in person after class, in my office during my office hour or by appointment, or by email. Since I’ve made those changes, I’ve had an average of one student per term approach me for an accommodation. In my first year of teaching, I had to approach a student and offer an accommodation.
In all cases, accommodations were given out, and students were able to succeed where they wouldn’t have before. However, in my first year of teaching, one of my students went three out of eight months– long enough to have failed a single-term course– without the tools they needed to succeed in my classroom.