Debra Mashek is Heterodox Academy’s Executive Director. She has a PhD in Social Health and Psychology (with a concentration in Quantitative Methods) from State University of New York at Stony Brook and served as a Professor in Psychology at Harvey Mudd College.
Remember the baker in the Dunkin Donuts commercials who awoke pre-dawn each morning, then shuffled to work mumbling, “Time to make the donuts”? I feel a similar sense of obligation, commitment—and yes—even weariness the week before each semester begins: “Time to write the syllabus.”
There’s broad agreement that the syllabus is a contract of sorts that spells out expectations, policies, and pathways through the inquiry at hand. Equally important, I ask my syllabus to set the tone for the entire course. I pick my words carefully, hoping to signal my and my students’ reciprocal roles in the processes of teaching and learning. As students and faculty alike navigate ideological polarization, tribalism, and hostility, it feels especially important to get this tone-setting document right.
This week I will craft student learning outcomes, finalize topics, select readings, and write assignments. These elements will soon appear alongside syllabus statements about disability accommodations, Title IX reporting obligations, and academic dishonesty. Even as I dread the nitty-gritty task of populating this all-important document, this semester I am eager to add a new section to my syllabus: Commitment to Viewpoint Diversity, Mutual Understanding, and Constructive Disagreement.
While contemplating what to say in such a section, I asked members of Heterodox Academy to describe the strategies they use to promote viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement in their classrooms. A multitude of great ideas rolled in, many of which lend themselves perfectly to syllabus language; many of the other wonderful ideas will be featured in upcoming teaching-focused blog posts.
With gratitude to Lori Cox Han (Chapman University), Steven Hayward (University of California, Berkeley), Shahin Kaveh (University of Pittsburgh), LaReeca Rucker (University of Mississippi), and Matthew Tansey (University of Rochester) for providing both inspiration and words, my new syllabus section will read:
Commitment to Viewpoint Diversity, Mutual Understanding, and Constructive Disagreement
In order to create a classroom environment that supports respectful, critical inquiry through the free exchange of ideas, the following principles will guide our work:
- Treat every member of the class with respect, even if you disagree with their opinion;
- Bring light, not heat;
- Reasonable minds can differ on any number of perspectives, opinions, and conclusions;
- Because constructive disagreement sharpens thinking, deepens understanding, and reveals novel insights, it is not just encouraged, it is expected;
- All viewpoints are welcome;
- No ideas are immune from scrutiny and debate;
- You will not be graded on your opinions.
What suggestions can you offer to strengthen this statement? What language do you use in your syllabi? Share your ideas in the comments section. If you would like to include a similar statement in your syllabus, please feel free to make liberal use of the above language.
And now, with donut and coffee in hand, it’s time to write the rest of the syllabus.
Opinions expressed are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or that sound like a tirade or screed are likely to be deleted.