Accessibility and diversity statements have always had a place on my syllabus, but I confess they have often been on the backburner once grading and paper comments started rolling in from my students’ first assignment each quarter, taking up my time and thoughts. Until Spring 2020. Not only did remote learning promise to present new difficulties and barriers for students’ learning, but I had to come to terms like I never had before with just how impossible it is for me, one person, to anticipate all those barriers. The world was too chaotic and unstable, and what was uppermost in all our minds one week would change drastically the next, as would our individual experiences as humans with diverse minds and bodies. I was also faced with the increased difficulty of making genuine human connections with my students through a screen, something I will never be fully comfortable with. Accessibility and diversity statements on a syllabus can only go so far to address either of these problems, but they were a start.
I changed both statements so they began with expressing my intent behind them:
- “It is my intent that students from all diverse backgrounds and perspectives be well-served by this course, that students’ learning needs be addressed both in and out of class, and that the diversity that students bring to this class be viewed as a resource, strength and benefit.”
- “It is important to me that this course be accessible to all students.”
I also attempted to make it as clear as possible that I was offering not only legally mandated accommodations, but any reasonable accommodations, and that I invited ongoing conversations about improving the effectiveness of my course.
This year was also the year that I found myself endlessly thinking about my own diversity and accessibility policies. While in the past they were present in my mind at the beginning of each quarter, now I discussed and compared them with colleagues throughout the year. I brought them up in class whenever it seemed relevant. I checked in with individual students more frequently than usual by email and in office hours. Recalling my own past as an anxious undergrad afraid to ask for the things I needed, I actively sought out ways to make it clearer that I actually meant what I said in my own policies and that anyone was welcome and encouraged to take advantage of them.
Over the past 18 months, I’m not the only one who has seen more students displaying more symptoms of stress and anxiety than ever before. I found myself recommending our university’s support services more often than ever. In my syllabus each quarter, I wanted students to know up front that mental and emotional health is the priority, so I shifted my syllabus again and spelled it out for them more explicitly: “If something that comes up in class causes you mental distress, please do whatever you need to do to be comfortable—feel free to take a break and come back, or to leave class totally.” This was the first year in which my students actually took advantage of that policy. More students withdrew from my class. More students took a leave of absence for a quarter or more. More students requested extensions on their assignments. More students took an incomplete or came close to it. I don’t consider any of this a failure; quite the reverse. It means the flexibility and humanity I was trying to offer them through these shifts in language and access statements was reaching them and was being taken seriously.
“More students took an incomplete or came close to it. I don’t consider any of this a failure; quite the reverse. It means the flexibility and humanity I was trying to offer them through these shifts in language and access statements was reaching them and was being taken seriously.“
Additions to syllabus:
It is my intent that students from all diverse backgrounds and perspectives be well-served by this course, that students’ learning needs be addressed both in and out of class, and that the diversity that students bring to this class be viewed as a resource, strength and benefit. It is my intent to present materials and activities that are respectful of diversity: gender, sexuality, disability, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and culture. Your suggestions are encouraged and appreciated. Please let me know ways to improve the effectiveness of the course for you personally or for other students or student groups. In addition, if any of our class meetings conflict with your religious events, please let me know so that we can make arrangements for you. If something that comes up in class causes you mental distress, please do whatever you need to do to be comfortable—feel free to take a break and come back, or to leave class totally. If you choose to leave class, please send me an email so that we can check in.
It is important to me that this course be accessible to all students. If you require any accommodations for this course, please provide me with a copy of your Accommodation Determination Letter (provided to you by the Student Disability Services office). If you have a documented disability (or think you may have a disability) and, as a result, need an accommodation to participate in class, complete course requirements, or benefit from the University’s programs or services, you are encouraged to contact Student Disability Services as soon as possible. Please contact the office at [contact info redacted]. The presence of an accommodation will have no effect on your grade.
It is especially important to me to make reasonable accommodations for anyone who needs them. Any information you choose to share with me is completely voluntary. It will be used to help me make this quarter go as smoothly as possible. I want to help you all participate fully in the course as much as I can.
If you have any other concerns about your ability to participate fully in the class or to meet the requirements, please discuss them with me as soon as possible.
Elizabeth Fiedler, PhD, Writing Specialist. University of Chicago.
Instructor of undergraduate academic writing seminars in the Humanities Core. She has been teaching writing for 11 years and also has a background in language acquisition pedagogy and a doctorate in Romance literature.