Tips for creating an academic freedom policy or statement on your syllabus
Students, particularly undergraduates, may not be familiar with the concept of academic freedom. Explaining the concept and its rationale is a good place to start. See AAUP’s 1940 Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure for language.
Ensuring academic freedom and free expression requires acknowledging historical and structural barriers that may prevent equitable access to free expression in the classroom and beyond. Indicate what steps you plan to take to make the classroom an equitable and inclusive environment. See Tips for nurturing a climate of free expression and inclusion.
If your university has an academic freedom policy or set of principles, refer to it explicitly on the syllabus and consider citing its language explicitly. Feel free to add your own thoughts and opinions about any such policy, and to articulate what you view to be the value of academic freedom.
SET THE TONE
Use your academic freedom policy or statement as an opportunity to set the tone for classroom discussion that is respectful and facilitates critical inquiry. Encourage students to treat their peers with respect, even if they do not agree with them. Make it clear that all ideas are welcome, and that all ideas are subject to scrutiny and debate.
Specify that academic freedom and free speech cannot be used as an excuse for harassing or discriminatory behavior. Indicate that, although students will not be penalized for protected speech, you expect them to treat their classmates with respect and dignity, and to adhere to university codes of conduct. Encourage students to be thoughtful about the language they use and mindful about its impact on others. Make clear that you also reserve the right to challenge offensive language that is not productive to classroom discussion.
Make clear the limitations of academic freedom for students and the pedagogical rationale behind those limits. Explain that academic freedom cannot be used as a cover or excuse for shoddy research or poorly constructed arguments, and articulate what rights you have as faculty to evaluate student work. State explicitly that students will not be graded on their opinions.
INCLUDE DISCRIMINATION AND HARASSMENT
Include the text of or a link to the institution’s discrimination and harassment policy. Students should know that there are institutional limits on the kind of speech permissible in the classroom that regulate students and instructors alike.
PROTECT CLASSROOM DISCUSSION
The classroom is an opportunity for students to test out new ideas and work through thoughts and opinions as they are forming. While points should be reasoned and germane to the discussion, students should be given latitude to express their views, and these need not be held to the same standards of rigor as written work.
BALANCE PARTICIPATION REQUIREMENTS
While it is perfectly reasonable to require active participation in classroom discussion, acknowledge that there are a number of factors that determine how willing someone is to participate, including racial and gender dynamics in the class, a sense of belonging on campus, and concerns over faculty prejudices or biases. Indicate that students who are concerned about their ability to participate meaningfully should talk to you privately. Check in with students who have not been active participators midway through the semester to give them the chance to air any concerns or discomfort they may have.
The decision to include trigger warnings on a syllabus should be entirely voluntary. If you choose to explain that you will not be using trigger warnings, explain your reasoning respectfully. It is counterproductive to mock or be overly dismissive of the concept, and doing so may engender a sense of distrust among students that hinders classroom discussion. Consult AAUP’s statement on trigger warnings for reasoned arguments and thoughtful language surrounding the issue.