Basic Needs Security and the Syllabus

Today I’m at Mary Washington College where I’m giving a keynote address at the Digital Pedagogy Lab about a critical condition for learning: basic needs security. It’s shame that anyone needs a reminder of the cold hard fact that adequate nutritious food and a good night’s sleep are required for learning college material, but let’s be honest — there’s plenty of evidence that higher education is in the dark. I’m planning to challenge my audience to think about how we support every learner’s need for food and housing in an age of harsh and unforgiving inequality and a shredded safety net.

This morning while preparing for my talk I was also working to finish the syllabus for my first class at Temple University. (I didn’t teach last year while I was on the road educating policymakers, practitioners, faculty, and students about Paying the Price and launching two federal research studies.) Mine is a course for masters degree students in our higher education program meant to equip them with the skills they need to attend to equity when working on college access and success. We’ll be working to unpack concepts such as “college readiness,” exploring the dimensions of inequality that shape our students’ lives, and discuss actions that practitioners can take when preparing students for college and supporting them while they attend college. Several weeks will be spent discussing the impacts of poverty and systemic racism on college outcomes and ways to use both internal collaborations and strategic external partnerships to ensure that such challenges to contain the harm such things do to the odds that students will complete degrees.

I thought the syllabus was finally finished, having just added the series of requisite College of Education policies (on things like plagiarism, attendance, etc.), when suddenly I realize that something was missing. And then I began crafting a statement on basic needs security, appending it to the set of policies. This was a first for me, but it felt necessary and internally consistent with the course. Here’s what it says:

Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

I added those three sentences because acknowledging that all students (including graduate students) face real financial challenges that could affect how they do in class, lets students know that I know this and care a lot about it, and help direct them to both support and resources. At the same time, I am not prepared to field every request and know that the Dean of Students at my university is terrific and her team is ready to help.

Is this the right thing to do? Will it also help accomplish another goal — communicating to my students that a classroom of learners is, in my mind, a sort of family? Is this language exactly right? Will they respond to it as intended? I don’t know. But I’m glad I put it there and this afternoon it became the topic of discussion at a Virtually Connecting session during the Lab.

That discussion was revealing. I learned that some of my colleagues aren’t allowed to modify their syllabi at all. That ed-tech software is used to examine what they write on their syllabi and ensure “compliance.” That the syllabus is apparently more of a legal “contract” (a poor name for it, as my colleagues in the VC pointed out) than a learning tool. Hmmm…

All of that’s troubling. But for those of us who can, we should push on. The language we use may need to be tailored to our students. If I were addressing undergraduates, my statement might look more like this:

Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

That’s even more transparent and specific than what I originally wrote. Maybe it’s what I will put on the syllabus for the undergraduate honors course I’m teaching this spring. After all, it’s called Paying the Price: Inequality and American Higher Education. It seems appropriate.

PS. I gave the keynote. And had completely forgotten that this syllabus idea was on one of the slides!

PPS. Faculty — after reading this post, please take this quick survey! Thanks.

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