As summer is winding down, academics around the northern hemisphere are beginning to contemplate writing syllabi for their fall courses. And if you’re not writing them, they’re revamping an old one. Either way, they’re probably focused more on course content than anything else, meaning that in many cases that super fun class may be inaccessible to a large amount of students.
When I say inaccessible, I mean multiple things, not just accessible for those students who need accommodations due to disability. While many measures that you can take to accommodate your disabled and neurodivergent students can benefit all students, I want to approach accessibility from a broad perspective—I want classics as a field to be welcoming to anyone, regardless of their identity. And so these things I am going to highlight are aimed at making your classroom a space where anyone can feel comfortable participating. Before I get into the things that can make your class unintentionally exclusionary, I do want to say that while I am coming from a background of classics, I do think that these things are widely applicable regardless of discipline. This list is not exhaustive, but they are all things that I myself have either found made classes difficult or have been working on improving in my own teaching.
Banning technology like laptops and tablets in your classroom may seem like a great thing to do—I know it can be really annoying when it seems like a student is paying more attention to their screen than to you. First of all, your students are adults and in the end it is on them if they decide to not pay attention. As long as you are presenting course information in a coherent matter, its on them to actually earn their grades. But more importantly, banning technology because you assume students are distracted by it is an ableist assumption. A lot of people have a lot of good reasons for needing a screen in front of them, whether they have been formally diagnosed with something or not. I, for example, have to hand write my notes in order to comprehend them. But at the same time, I need my computer or some sort of internet capable device to look things up as they come to me, because if I don’t look them up it will bug me for the rest of class and I will be distracted thinking about it. You are doing a disservice to your students by assuming that all learn in the same way. In addition, you are forcing your disabled students to out themselves, because if they have technology in a classroom where it is not allowed, clearly they have an accommodation. Trust that your students are doing what they need to do to learn effectively, and that the negative outcomes for those who abuse technology are not your fault.
While I have been lucky enough to never really experience this as a student, there are some who ask students not to eat or drink (beyond water) in the classroom. I assume this is because they are afraid the smell or sight of the food will be distracting for the students. Yet again there are a lot of assumptions going on here. First of all, it assumes that your students can’t pay attention when there is food in the room. If a room full of people eating snacks at a movie can’t distract them from retaining the plot of the movie, then someone having a discreet snack is not going to distract anyone from your lecture. Also, people eat for one reason: because they are hungry. And you don’t know your students’ schedules. This may be the first time they have had an opportunity to eat for hours. In undergrad, all of the classes I needed to take that semester were Monday, Wednesday, Friday in a four hour block. I would eat a hearty breakfast, and a snack between classes, but that wasn’t enough to sustain me for that long. Imagine how distracted that poor, hungry student will be. There are also a number of medical conditions that require easy access to food. I myself am type 1 diabetic and cannot control when my blood sugars will decide to drop. To be banned from treating that low blood sugar in the moment could be dangerous, leaving the room could be difficult due to the side effects of a low blood sugar, and the shame of being told off for eating when you shouldn’t could cause your student to ignore their health out of anxiety. As long as there are no 5 course meals happening, food and drink in a classroom is harmless.
Lack of content warning
Classics, like many disciplines in the humanities, is full of subjects that may be disturbing or triggering to students. And since you are not privy to everything about your students, you do not know what could possibly be uncomfortable for them. You cannot assume that everyone has had the same experiences in life as you, and will find the same things as easy to learn about as you might have. A good general rule is to include a blanket content warning in your syllabus, stating that class may discuss topics that are uncomfortable to some. Even without listing specifics, putting a content warning like this in your syllabus tells your students that a) you understand that they may need to do things differently and b) you are the type of person they can come to in order to seek alternative ways of interacting with course materials so that they can access the same (or similar) materials in a safe space.
If everyone, regardless of gender identity, normalizes sharing their pronouns, the possibility of assuming the wrong pronouns for an individual based on their appearance is avoided. Misgendering can be incredibly painful for trans and gender non-conforming students, and should be avoided at all costs. The fact that you include your pronouns in your syllabus is also a tacit sign to students that you are an ally, especially those who may not be fully out. Anything that can make students more comfortable in the classroom should be adopted not brushed off as ‘virtue signaling.’
There is an assumption that missing a lot of classes means that a student will be unable to successfully complete the class. And so, to avoid absences, penalties are often placed on not being in class for a certain amount of days, regardless if that absence is ‘excused’ or not. First of all, this is incredibly ableist—students with a wide variety of disability may need to miss more than an arbitrary number of classes just to take care of their own health. And it is unfair to punish them for something they cannot control. And beyond known conditions, life is unpredictable, and you never know when an emergency will arise. While yes, missing a lot of classes can mean that students are missing materials, penalizing being absent is not the way to go to remedy this. While I have yet to try it, I really like the idea of setting up a student google doc where they can all take notes. Or encourage students to get notes from a friend, and come to you with any clarifying questions. Having a policy that already accounts for the fact that life happens means that when it does, you don’t have to go out of your way to come up with a solution.
Along with absence penalties, late penalties assume that students have control over every single part of their lives. But in reality, they have a lot of things going on. Telling your students they should prioritize work for your class over their health or lives is a sign that you don’t care about them, just their grades. And this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to give deadlines. A good rule of thumb I have developed is to set up a system of deadlines, but tell students that if something comes up they have until the end of the semester to get their missing work in. For the most part, students will turn things in by the deadline and will not abuse your kindness. And those do face challenges during the semester will be grateful that they were able to complete the class successfully rather than being penalized for situations that are most likely out of their control.
Grading for participation assumes that everyone participates in class and with class materials in the same way. Not everyone is good at thinking on their feet, and may not be able to articulate their thoughts instantaneously. Some may have great things to contribute to class, but would do better at expressing them in written form. And speaking in class may be incredibly difficult for those with anxiety conditions. Reasons like these are why I have gotten rid of participation grades in my classes. Instead, I grade on ‘meaningful engagement with the materials.’ Students can show me that they are engaging meaningfully with materials in a variety of ways, including class discussions, written responses, asking questions after class or in office hours, or even via email or survey after every class. The assumption that someone who doesn’t talk in class is not prepared is often false—they just need multiple means of interaction.
I know that it can be tempting to assign every single amazing text that you want to read as required course materials. But the longer your required materials list grows, the more expensive it gets. Assuming your students can all afford to purchase every single book required on the syllabus is classist. It also forces those students who may not be able to afford those books to either spend money they don’t have, or spend hours in libraries scanning books, or have to come to you to ask for help. Putting required books in the library ‘reserve’ section can also be more harmful than helpful, as you can usually only have them checked out for an hour at a time. There are some easy remedies to this. Depending on the text, there are plenty of open access versions available, even if a little outdated. If you are only going to read a small section of a text, gauge whether you can just scan it instead of forcing students to buy the book. You also probably get a desk copy of most books you teach from—offer to allow students to come and scan what they need. Access to materials should not be a deterrent students who want to learn.
Finally, something small, and one you probably don’t think about. It seems as if Times New Roman has become the font of academia. It is also a font that is incredibly hard for 20% of your students to read. That is right, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 20% of the population has dyslexia. And it has been shown that fonts with serifs (the little lines at the tips) are harder for those with dyslexia to read. If the letters are jumping around the page on the syllabus it is going to be hard to ensure that they are doing the right things. This also goes for course materials that you yourself provide. And so, just by choosing a sans serif font, you are already making your class accessible to a large portion of students. My favorite go-to sans serif font is Tahoma, which is what this post is written in.
I do not mean to offend anyone by pointing out the problems with policies such as these. Instead, I hope that, by explaining how they can be potentially off-putting to students, we can continue the conversation about creating classrooms and fields that are accessible to all. And if you read something in here that gave you a negative reaction, I ask that you question where that negative reaction is coming from and learn from it. But in the end, my biggest piece of advice is this: no experience is monolithic, so be kind, trust your students, and work with them to come to a solution that works best for them.