Syllabus basic needs statements and instructional flexibility

The practice of including a basic needs statement on a syllabus which directs students to affordable and free food, housing assistance, and health services is rightly gaining more widespread attention. Many colleges and universities now provide sample language that instructors can incorporate into their syllabi and some instructors will go further to say that if students need help accessing any of the services or are experiencing a personal issue like food or housing insecurity, that they are invited to discuss it with the instructor or dean directly.

These are all important practices, as they help connect students to vital resources and also demonstrate that the instructor understands the injustices that many college students face and is prepared to help. But I also hope that writing or incorporating a basic needs statement prompts instructors to reconsider their syllabus as a whole. It seems incongruous to acknowledge the reality that many college students lack stable housing or food, may not always have access to the technologies they need for their course work, or may be in need of mental health services and also outline punitive and arbitrary course requirements and grading schemes on the very same document.

The basic needs statement should not be able to stand as a separate part of the syllabus as a whole if we are to take student well-being seriously.

How will a student who may need to use the emergency mental health services you recommend feel about an exam to be completed during a narrow time window with no exceptions (perhaps even remotely proctored through her web camera)?

If a student is genuinely not sure where their next meal is coming from and benefits from your information about the campus food bank, how can it make sense to apply harsh penalties for late assignments?

How will a student whose only device is the free Chromebook from your campus technology access program submit an assignment with strict and complex formatting requirements?

Matthew Cheney has compellingly argued against the “syllabus as an instrument of abuse.” As basic needs statements are starting to move from a grassroots initiative to an institutionally recommended or even required one, I think we have to resist the syllabus becoming a site of hypocrisy as well. While I think “ungrading” and other flexible and student directed grading strategies are likely the most compatible with a full acknowledgement of the complexity of students’ lives, at minimum a “basic needs” or “well-being” statement should never be on the same syllabus as the words “no exceptions.”

Critical labor literacy is the “future faculty development” we need now

By the time that I left my most recent job in graduate student and post-doc teaching development for my current one (working with tenure track and non-tenure track faculty), I had a bad taste in my mouth about some of the trends in so-called “future faculty” development. Recently encountering the term “critical labor literacy,” coined by Bowles, Zamora, Caines, & Bali, helped me understand why. They call critical labor literacy an attempt to see “an alternative future that can emerge if we speak candidly and with solidarity about the hidden dimensions of work.” Responding in particular to the COVID-19 labor conditions in universities, they write that we, high education workers, must center “critical literacy about work in our teaching, while recognizing that our own working habits are part of a pedagogy of learning to work that currently models competitiveness, reward scarcity and surge work as liveable moral norms.”

I believe such a critical literacy is badly needed for the programs that aim to prepare graduate students and post-docs for their next steps in academia.

What is the problem with future faculty development? 

Before I state my case I just want to clarify that I worked with wonderful, caring colleagues and mentors during the time I did future faculty development work, not to mention the many talented and idealistic (meant in the best possible way) students and post-docs from whom I learned a lot.

This is more of a structural critique. I think the problem with future faculty development can be distilled down to this: a vanishingly small number of graduate students and post-docs will ever obtain tenure track faculty positions. While the activities and programming we offered surely had some independent value (inclusive teaching workshops, mentorship trainings, teaching portfolio reviews), they were almost always marketed to graduate students and post-docs as opportunities to increase their odds of getting a job, with the shared background assumption that everyone will need some sort of edge in the current academic job market. I fear that this approach clouds the way that departments and institutions admit far more graduate students than can become tenure track professors, and also are increasingly shifting teaching responsibilities from tenure track faculty to casualized teaching staff. It almost seems like the response being offered to that structural crisis is a “certificate in college teaching and learning.” As Vander Kloet & Aspenlieder write about their experience doing similar work at a teaching and learning center in Canada,

“Part of the function of the certificate programs is to address graduate student anxiety about their employability by suggesting that with the aid of certificates they may be more marketable. This link is made without any evidence, suggesting that inadequate professional development is the cause of underemployment and unstable employment in academia. By urging graduate students to complete these professional development certificates, we felt we were actively distracting from questions and concerns expressed by students about changes in the makeup of employment in Canadian universities. Importantly,by encouraging graduate students to complete certificates, responsibility for securing stable employment is positioned squarely on individuals who will fail to take up these opportunities.”

I certainly think that it is important for graduate students and post-docs to have access to quality teaching and other career-related professional development. The teaching support is particularly important because in most cases this is not even strictly about a future career: a large amount of research university teaching is done by graduate students. It just seems very wrong to construct a program around the tenure track career that most students will not achieve, through no fault of their own, with or without a certificate. What would it look like to address some of the issues that affect non-elite academic workers in through professional development programs?

Critical labor literacy in graduate and post-doc development programs: A few ideas

  • A job search workshop that helps people parse temporary, non-tenure track, and alternative academic job postings. 
    • What does “one year with the possibility of extension” really mean? 
    • How do I find out if the adjunct or non-tenure track workforce at this institution is unionized? 
    • On an hourly basis, does this position pay more than my graduate student assistantship salary? 
  • A book, article, or other resource about how to deal with a failed job search.
    • What are the relative benefits of staying in grad school, graduating and adjuncting, and taking a salaried position outside your desired field if you can’t find a tenure track position?
    • What are the realistic probabilities of getting a tenure tenure track offer the more time you spend as an adjunct instructor or a staff member?
    • How do you deal with knowing that a failed job search was the result of discrimination or bias when there is often very little recourse?
  • Learning from past labor organizing in academia.
    •  How did graduate student unions around the country win the benefits and protections that they have now?
    • What is current state of adjunct, non-tenure track, and staff labor unions in higher education? If you find yourself in a non-tenure track job, how would you go about organizing for protections? What barriers can you expect to face?
    • If you do end up in a tenure-track faculty position, what can you do to support your colleagues that do not have the same benefits and protections? What can you do to “recover” stable jobs from adjunctification?

Yes, I know these are unlikely to be priorities for institutions or granting agencies. However, to the extent that already precarious academic staff and grad students are the ones running many of these programs and other graduate students and post-docs may have some role in shaping them, there seems to be room for grassroots work. This type of critical labor literacy seems crucial for preparing for actual academic labor and organizing in participants’ future positions.

P.S. I also recognize that a lot of this knowledge and organizing can be found in informal groups and mentoring relationships, and is very much already being discussed. Other writers have made important observations that could inform critical labor literacy for graduate students. Lee Skallerup Bessette recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the lack of promotion opportunities for academic staff, and Jesse Stommel recently tweeted about the exclusionary nature of one-year visiting professor positions. I wonder what ways there are to integrate these conversations into the formal opportunities available to grad students.


Bowles, K., Zamora, M., Caines, A., Bali, M. (September, 2020). Bodies of Work: a proposal for critical labour literacy in the post pandemic university. The Post-Pandemic University.

Vander Kloet, M., & Aspenlieder, E. (2013). Educational development for responsible graduate students in the neoliberal university. Critical Studies in Education, 54(3), 286-298.