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The Syllabus: Caring Syllabus


Frequently, the syllabus is presented as a no-nonsense, get-down-to-business document, but it is possible to convey care for your students along with high expectations. The following three approaches examine the syllabus through different lenses, allowing us to consider the various ways we can communicate care as well as our own pedagogical values.


Trauma- informed pedagogy

Trauma-informed pedagogy - or trauma-informed teaching and learning - allows us to see how trauma impacts student learning and behavior.

Disability justice

Disability justice wants us to shift our thinking beyond access and accommodations - a shift from “rights” to liberation. Author & educator Jay Dolmage uses these 3 spatial metaphors to convey how “disability fits into academic structures and practices”:

  1. Steep Steps - exclusionary landscape; the climb - literal and symbolic - to the top of the ivory tower
  2. Retrofit - separate but equal; making adjustments or accommodations to existing/exclusionary structures
  3. Universal Design - designing for a much more diverse group of people - not just what Dolmage calls “imaginary college students”

Design justice

Design justice is design work that centers and prioritizes people who have been marginalized by design. The “justice” part is us asking “what’s wrong?” and then taking steps to fix it. Design justice can be applied to the syllabus in several ways. Below are three models that use design justice concepts to co-design elements of the syllabus and/or create space for sharing power and addressing inequality in the classroom.

  • Participatory syllabus: What skills, knowledge, dispositions do students think they need to meet course objectives? What topics align with their own goals and interests? (from “The Radical Syllabus: A Participatory Approach to Bibliographic Instruction” Sherri B. Saines, 2008)
  • Inclusive syllabus: Why do I select the content I do? What assumptions have I made about the learners in my class? Are these the best teaching strategies for this course and these students? Do I use examples and text throughout that are representative of my students? Do I encourage and present alternative perspectives in my course materials? Are there alternative or better ways to evaluate student work than I currently use? (from “How can I use my syllabus as a tool for inclusion?” Tufts University)
  • Syllabus as manifesto: “Rights of the Learning Community”; Challenge meaning of grading; Office hours, normalizing struggle, addressing power imbalance; Attendance as a symbol of solidarity (from “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture” Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, 2014).



Aligning Your Syllabus with a Culture of Caring - Fitchburg State

Panelists will discuss creating a more inclusive syllabus and an environment of caring. Will offer quick fixes and long-term goals of creating syllabi and, in turn, classrooms that are more diverse, inclusive, and caring. Will present clear practices and takeaways for creating an inclusive syllabus and encourage a caring classroom for our students to learn and grow. Finally, participants will complete a 10 -minute
activity about syllabus language

Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture - Adam Heidebrink-Bruno

Syllabi that reflect the mundane, bureaucratic requirements of the University are at risk of setting an equally banal classroom atmosphere. While administrative personnel may argue otherwise, the syllabus is not simply a contract between teacher and student. Rather, a syllabus should be a manifesto that serves as a founding document detailing the rights of the students and the pedagogy of the classroom.


Jay Dolmage: Academic Ableism - Western Theological Seminary (1 hr 15 min)

Join Dr. Jay Dolmage, Professor at the University of Waterloo, for this important talk on creating environments of access and universal design for learning. In this talk, we will collaborate to address the ableist attitudes, policies, and practices that are built into higher education. We will also interrogate the minimal and temporary means we have been given to address inequities, and the cost such an approach has for disabled students and faculty. Finally, we will explore our own ableist biases, apologies and defenses in an effort to build tools for anti-ableist education.


Disrupting the Syllabus - Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (39 min)

Julia Charles talks about disrupting the syllabus on episode 419 of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.


Annotated Trauma-Informed Syllabus - Janice Carello

This document contains select information from one of my recent course syllabi to help illustrate some of the ways I integrate trauma-informed teaching and learning principles into my courses.


Carello, Janice. “Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Principles.” Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning [blog], March 2020.

CAST. “About UDL.” UDL on Campus.

Collier, Amy. “Inclusive Design and Design Justice: Strategies to Shape Our Classes and Communities.” EDUCAUSE, October 26, 2020.

Dolmage, Jay. Academic Ableism : Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2018.

Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture.” Hybrid Pedagogy, August 27, 2014.

Lewis, Talila. “January 2021 Working Definition of Ableism.Talila A. Lewis [blog], January 1, 2021.

Saines, Sherri B. “The Radical Syllabus.” Journal of Library Administration 36, no. 1-2 (2002): 167–175.

Taylor, Sherria D., Maria J. Veri, Michele Eliason, Jocelyn Clare R. Hermoso, Nicole D. Bolter, and Julia E. Van Olphen. "The Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool: A First Step in Doing Social Justice Pedagogy." Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity 5, no. 2 (2019): 133-166.

Wool, Zoe. “Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements.” Anthrodendum [blog], August 13, 2018.

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