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Confessions of a Syllabus-holic

On February 26th, 2020, which also happens to be my mom’s birthday, I finally got a syllabus changed after two years of fighting. Never in my life did I think I would ever be invested in such a seemingly small thing such as a course syllabus, but this one was different. The policies in this syllabus, including no excused absences for any reason, no Incomplete grades, and an intimidating dare to try to get a “convincing dean” to change these policies were not ok with me. As a grieving student, I wasn’t completely naive to the fact that some of my professors would be more understanding than others, but I did not want a single other student in my unfortunate position to go through what I did. It was time to stand up for what is right.

The changes I pushed for will help students at their most vulnerable time, allowing for exceptions in dire circumstances. I truly hope no one has to benefit from these changes anytime soon, because that would mean something unexpected and bad has happened to them. However, when I graduate in May, I can at least know that anyone in my department in my situation will be treated better than I was. I got the Incomplete policy revoked, which means that students who cannot finish the semester for a reason outside of their control can take an Incomplete grade if they have to miss the final. I also expanded the network of resources they can turn to if and when they would need to use these policies. Most importantly, I made a lot of noise that has gotten both students and faculty in all parts of the school interested in supporting empathic policies for all students.

If you are inspired to create change at your own university, I am rooting for you. Here are my best practices from two long years of fighting that will help you push for more inclusive policies for all–but especially the group of forgotten grieving students on your campus.

How to do it

1) Make use of all your available resources. I didn’t know this before I had to use it, but my school has a praise/comment/complaint form, with the option to remain anonymous. Every submission is read by someone in the Office of the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Students then can involve the appropriate faculty members, usually the Chair of the department that the issue occurred in. Using this method is a great way someone other than the offending department is aware of this situation.

2) Don’t be afraid to speak out about your experience, if and when it won’t affect you academically. I was fortunate enough to be able to drop the class before the add/drop period, and take it again with a different professor, so I felt like I had nothing to lose by continuing this fight. Every semester, we hold a town-hall and I spoke out about how this policy was not fair to grieving students. This had a ripple effect because every faculty member in attendance was now on notice that this is hurting their students. One even seemed to be addressing my speech on the first day of his class the next semester, assuring us all that if someone has a family emergency this semester, it will be handled with compassion. That felt like a huge win for me.

3) Use social media to your advantage. I flippantly made a meme about the situation and posted it to my school’s meme page. The next morning, it had over 200 likes and 15 comments. One of those comments was from the head of the Student Association’s Academic Affairs Committee, who has since added my issue to his platform and is working on rewriting the faculty handbook with the Deans’ office to discourage these kinds of abusive policies. I also had a private message from the Dean of Diversity herself, who saw my meme and wanted to personally handle the situation. We are still in contact! My caveat on using social media is to remember to keep it appropriate. I wonder how many people in the meme page realize the Dean of Diversity can see all their memes?!

4) Consider strategic alliances with other organizations. Many of the issues that affect grieving students such as extended time off, missing midterms, and Incomplete grades also affect other vulnerable college student populations. For me, that meant working with mental health advocates, chronic illness advocates, and even DACA students who were concerned how this policy would affect their mandatory court appearance dates. Unfortunately for grieving students, many people in academia do not realize just how many students this affects, and may not justify changing an entire policy for one seemingly small sect. However, grouping up with other affected people helps everybody, and will give you new perspectives on the policies.

5) Practice what you preach when given the opportunity. As a head teaching assistant, I got to see a lot of the behind the scenes administrative stuff that I did not see as a student. One exam in particular was the Monday after Thanksgiving break, and a huge snow storm prevented a good majority of the class from getting back in time. The professor emailed us all to warn us that there will be a lot of missing exams, and I took the time to ask him if he wanted me to round up the TAs to grade the makeups. He declined, but to me it was still important to make his job of being a compassionate, reasonable professor as easy as possible. By helping him out even if it is beyond my pay grade!

6) Give it a rest! No seriously! You are already going through enough! It is not and has never been your job to change your school’s policies. You are doing a very brave thing that will help future students in your shoes, but it will still be exhausting, discouraging, and really hard to think about sometimes. Take a rest! You’ve done a lot already, and as a second semester senior, I can say that these college years go fast. You deserve to make at least some of them fun 🙂

7) Try not to focus on policy violations and instead focus on general principles. At first, my school was not receptive because they thought I was accusing this particular professor of breaking a specific policy. Apparently, there was nothing at the time  in the faculty handbook that says a professor has to accommodate a grieving student. Once I shifted the focus onto why it is still harmful to have these policies in place, they were more receptive. There might be little to no guidance about current protocol, because this population is often overlooked, but that doesn’t mean it is not important and it cannot be improved and discussed.

8) Don’t give up. Both at the town hall and in meeting deans, I did get some push back at times. That was hard to take. I did not understand how someone not in my shoes could have such a strong opinion about something that has happened to me and my fellow grieving classmates. I am so happy I kept fighting and we all came to a better conclusion, one that will help the most vulnerable students.

Written by a young adult from the University of Rochester


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