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.”

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