Setting boundaries in your syllabus

Setting boundaries in your syllabus

For most professors, the new semester is well underway. Last week I posted about three things you do not have to put on your syllabus on day 1: office hours, tech policies, and attendance policies. But today I want to write about something that definitely should go on your syllabus, or be made into a policy retroactively if your syllabus has already gone out, namely: A brief but detailed description of the boundaries on your availability to students.

Here's the one I use in my syllabi As always, copy/paste/edit at will (here it is in plain text):

This blurb appears on the first page along with my contact information.

For something so simple, this blurb generates a lot of discussion whenever I bring it up. Many faculty have never thought to put something like this into writing. Others have perhaps thought about it, but believe that they are can't put something like this into writing, for a variety of reasons: It's against (possibly unwritten) university policies, or it will negatively affect their evaluations and/or tenure chances, or they are contingent faculty and aren't allowed to set limits like this. The very idea of the instructor asserting that there are certain times of the day and days of the week that do not belong to the job is often thought of as selfish, or self-destructive, or downright impossible.

Before I describe how I make this limitation policy work and how it's gone over with my students, I want to make one thing completely clear: No matter who you are or what position you have, you are a human being, and you have the right to set reasonable boundaries to privilege time for yourself and the people you care about. Period. Let nobody tell you that in order to survive and be successful in academia, you have to be on call at all hours of the day and night and give up your right to have a life of your own. If you think otherwise, I urge you to keep reading to see if some of the ideas below can help you make this work. In some ways this may be the most important policy you put in your course documentation, because it's a firewall that allows you the time to maintain yourself, and this is critically important in academia.

I had practiced setting boundaries like this for a while, but 2-3 years ago I instituted the syllabus language. What made me do this was simply a desire to live according to my values. Being an outstanding teacher who is committed to student success is a high priority according to my values. But, I believe that my dedication to student success is not a linear function of the amount of time I spend on or with students. There comes a point where spending more time working with students takes away from my ability to live according to other values of mine that are just as important if not moreso, and I'll end up being worse of a teacher for it. For example: I'm a dad with three kids, and I am committed to providing them with significant amounts of dedicated time and attention on a regular basis, to give them a safe and loving home environment. I'm a person, someone who needs to learn and grow to survive, and I am committed to making sure I have space in my life for things other than work. All of these things are parts of my "why", my reason for living, and I can't live according to those values if I allow work generally, and student access specifically, have an absolute claim on my time and attention.

So, the syllabus blurb is not a way of telling students to stay out of my life. It is an expression, given to students in concrete terms, of my values as a person and as their professor, and how those values play out in real life. And if I want to be "all there" for students I have to make sure that I keep all of these values in balance.

Here's how I make this policy work:

First, in my courses I set up a robust and user-friendly platform for working with students in between classes that makes the process collaborative among all students. I've been using Slack for this purpose most recently; in previous classes I've used the online discussion board Piazza. I instruct students not to email me, but rather to post a message on the platform if they have a question that needs answered. When they do, I get a notification so it's the same as sending me an email, but everyone else in the class gets it too, which means you have many sets of eyes on the question. (Private messages can be handled as DM's on Slack.) This lets students ask for help in a way that's more likely to get them what they want quickly. (Also the message is archived, so it's easy to refer back to it, hence students don't ask duplicate questions as much.)

Second, as you can see in the blurb, I make a commitment to respond to all messages within 6 hours during the times when I'm not "dark". Even if another student answered their question, I'll still respond with "Did you have any further questions?" I've heard from some faculty that they can't believe it's possible to live up to a 6-hour turnaround time for messages. To make this work, there are a few guidelines to follow. First, set aside dedicated time in the day for message-checking --- once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and don't multitask it. Undistracted, you can plow through a lot of messages in, say, half an hour. Second, do not give direct answers to any question that involves basic syllabus, calendar, or course announcement information. Instead, redirect students to the source, every single time. As I tell students, this is not me being a jerk; it's another expression of my commitment to help them become independent learners. Third, many-to-one messages always get one-to-many responses. For example, if you get four emails all asking when an assignment is due, don't respond to each one individually but rather post a course announcement or a Slack message to respond to the whole group.

How has my policy gone over with students? I have not read any student evaluation in the last three years that mentions it one way or the other. I have gotten plenty of positive evaluations mentioning my accessibility. How is that possible when I am explicitly limiting my accessibility? I think the answer is that we misinterpret what most students want. My experience is that only a very few students have the expectation of 24/7 availability and instant replies. The vast majority want consistent accessibility and prompt replies. Being online/offline on a consistent schedule that I follow faithfully and being quick about responses gives them what they want.

This policy is not just for the tenured faculty, either. In fact since I've been on sabbatical this academic year and only got tenure back in May, all of the classes where I've had this policy in place are ones that I've taught as a pretenured faculty member. If you're hesitant about putting this in place for yourself because of what it might mean for your tenure prospects, don't be. (Although, do check with your faculty handbook to make sure there isn't some rule against it.) I even think that adjunct faculty have a right to insist on personal boundaries; in fact contingent faculty need to assert those boundaries more than anybody. We're all human beings and this is just a way of making sure it stays that way.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.