Emphasize Positive over Punishing Language
Syllabus policies are often written as a response to problems in the classroom and promote an antagonistic tone. As a result, recent scholars have criticized syllabi for being too authoritarian and too contractual. Overly punitive rules never actually guarantee that unwanted behavior disappears, and they might even create resistance in students.
Instead, instructors can change the tone of the syllabus by focusing on accessibility for learners. Instructors can demonstrate approachability and empathy, key factors in universal instructional design (Orr and Hammig). Students with disabilities must feel comfortable approaching a professor to request accommodations, so approachability constitutes more than a concern about popularity.
Some scholarship on syllabi studies how students react to the rhetoric of instructors. Richard Harnish and Robert Bridges conducted an experiment in which 172 students read syllabi containing either warm or cold language and rated professors. Unsurprisingly, students rated the “cold” professor more unfriendly and less approachable than the “warm” professor. Similarly, they rate the “cold” course more difficult even though the requirements were the same as the “warm” course. The chart below shows examples of the differing language from the study.
|Sample Phrases from Cold Syllabus
|Sample Phrases from Warm Syllabus
|“Come prepared to actively participate in this course. This is the best way to engage you in learning”
|“I hope you actively participate in this course . . . because I have found it is the best way to engage you in learning.”
|“traumatic events . . . are no excuse for not contacting me within 24 h”
|“traumatic events . . . are unwelcome and because I understand how difficult these times are, if you contact me within 24 h of the event and provide documentation, I will be happy to give you a make-up exam.”
Moreover, syllabus researchers Jeanne Slattery and Janet Carlson describe an interesting unpublished lecture given by V.M. Littlefield. Littlefield reported that participants in her study “remembered the information on warm syllabi better than that on less student-friendly syllabi.” Of course more research is needed, but with a kinder inclusive tone, students might even remember information better.
Create Invitations over Commands
To highlight students’ agency in a course, instructors can create invitations instead of commands. They could phrase policies as logical consequences of student actions instead of retributive punishments. The chart below describes how to use language to highlight collaboration rather than top-down authority.
|“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.”
“You are allowed to…”
“I only accept…”
“Late work receives a 40% reduction.”
|“Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”
“You are welcome to…”
“I encourage you to…”
“Late work is eligible for 60% of original points.”
Granted, these phrases might not work for every situation, but requirements can be phrased to highlight how they produce strong assignments instead of how they enforce a list of rules. By justifying and explaining guidelines to students, they become more than a seemingly arbitrary list.
Choose Cooperative over Paternalistic Rhetoric
Many students with and without disabilities have had their agency downplayed throughout their educations. To shift the rhetoric of the syllabus, instructors might explain what students can do as opposed to what they should not do.
For example, Adam Heidebrink-Bruno in “Syllabus as Manifesto” focuses on “student rights,” and Anne-Marie Womack describes “course values” and “course plans” instead of “course policies.” This diction emphasizes common ideals to build community with students.
The Disability Resource Center of University of Arkansas lists useful language shifts in “Reframing Disability”:
usable, equitable, sustainable
create an inclusive learning environment