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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2021)

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The liquid syllabus: An anti-racist teaching element

By Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Ed.D., Foothill-DeAnza Community College District

The Syllabus: Microaggression or microaffirmation?

College professors are well versed in their discipline but, generally, are poorly prepared for the affective and cognitive differences their students bring with them into a course. One of the silver linings of the COVID and racial pandemics is an increased critical dialogue about the power and oppression at play in the design and teaching of college courses. A college class, whether it is taught in a physical classroom or online, is not experienced the same by all students. Students are not just names on a roster. They are humans who bring an array of cultural values and past experiences into a course. These experiences influence their relationship to a course.

Figure 1.  Water Droplet (by César Couto, on Unsplash, April 25, 2019)

The course experience, just like any other aspect of socialization, looks quite different from the margins compared to the center. As Maha Bali (2021) has written, "Those at the centers can never see what it looks like to be on the margins, because the world looks different from the margins."  Students who identify with collectivist cultural values are more likely to experience a mismatch with the rugged individualism, a product of white dominant culture, that is centered in college courses. Students who identify with one or more non-dominant identity groups – which include, but are not restricted to, students who are Black, Latina/o/x, Indigenous and other people of color; physically or cognitively different; members of the LGBTIQA+ community; low-income; older; non-native English speakers – are more likely to have experienced oppression and discrimination in their previous educational experiences and are more likely to enter a college course from a place of distrust. These cues send signals to students from non-dominant groups of the need to change who they are in order to fit in, which is quite distinct from belonging. Belonging is being accepted for your true authentic self (Brown, 2017).

In our quest for educational equity, designing and teaching college courses (in all modalities) that are responsive to cultural differences and value diversity as an asset are key. A course syllabus is one element of a course that may send cues of power and oppression to minoritized students or serve as a cue of social inclusion. The deficit-based language, academic jargon, lists of what not to do, and fear-evoking policies contained in a syllabus serve as microagressions that can exacerbate stereotype threat, belongingness uncertainty, and imposter syndrome – social psychological phenomena that take up a student’s mental bandwidth that is needed for learning to occur (Verschelden, 2017). Alternatively, a syllabus can also be designed to serve as a kindness cue of social inclusion (Estrada, et al., 2018) for all students, mitigating threat, developing identity safety, and motivating students to lean into a learning environment (Palmer, et al., 2016). Syllabus tone has been shown to improve students’ perceptions of a course (Harnish & Bridges, 2011) and their instructor (Waggoner Denton & Veloso, 2018) and, in addition to validating the effects of stress on mental health, may influence students’ intentions to seek mental health support (Gurun & Galard, 2021). Syllabus redesign is framed as an important step in social justice pedagogy (Taylor, et al., 2019) and racial equity (Bensimon, E. M., n.d.).

Phone-friendly, humanized content

In addition to tone and validation statements, the tool used to create a syllabus is another critical element to consider in inclusive syllabus design. Making the shift from creating a syllabus with a word processing application to a website creation tool is a game changer in designing an inclusive syllabus. Word processing applications generate documents that are intended for printing. While printing may not be necessary, the nature of these digital files creates the mindset that a syllabus is a fixed resource, like a wrapped package. When a file needs to be updated, the existing files that have already been downloaded (and printed) by students become a problem. But teachers know that the ability to easily update a syllabus is a factor that ensures it will be valued as a relevant resource by students.

In contrast, when a syllabus is created with a website tool, it is transformed into a liquid syllabus (Pacansky-Brock, 2014, 2017; Pacansky-Brock, et al., 2020). Like water, a liquid syllabus has no fixed state. Rather, it is dynamic and responds to the ever changing needs of a learning environment. The elusive final document is eliminated and replaced with a URL or link that always displays the most recently published content. This shift presents opportunities to revolutionize the role of a syllabus.

Humanizing pre-course contact

Digital communications like faculty websites, digital class schedules, and email provide opportunities to decenter “day one” of instruction as the starting point for instructor-student interactions. Initiating contact with students prior to the start of a new term is often cited as an effective online course design strategy (CVC-OEI, 2020). As instructional landscapes continue to become more complex and variable in the post-COVID era, students will need access to course essentials prior to the start of the term to prepare them for success in the critical first week of a course. Sending a welcome letter to students prior to day one of instruction provides an opportunity to greet students and prepare them for the first week. Yet, welcome emails generally either point students to a log-in screen or prompt them to download and read a document. Given the prevalence of mobile phones among college aged students, these emails are more likely to be accessed from a smartphone than a computer. A log-in screen may be a barrier to students, particularly those who are new to the college, and PDFs and MS Word documents render very poorly on small screens. Designing mobile-friendly instructional content is a component of anti-racist teaching, as Black and Hispanic adults in the United States are more likely to be rely on smartphones for a network connection (Pew, 2021).
A liquid syllabus provides faculty with the opportunity to include a link to a public website that, when tapped with a finger, instantly opens a mobile responsive site that renders beautifully on any size screen. Moreover, unlike a PDF, Word doc, or even a Google Doc, a website supports embedded videos and images, allowing a faculty to ensure the first thing a student sees is their smiling face welcoming them to the course. A welcome video provides verbal and nonverbal cues, which are safety cues a human brain scans for in a state of threat (Koenig & Eagly, 2005). Without these cues, a welcome email creates an ambiguous environment that keeps a student (unconsciously or consciously) in a state scanning for cues of inclusion or exclusion, which undermines their cognitive bandwidth (Estrada, et al, 2018). Videos also provide students, particularly those in online courses, with contextual cues (who is delivering this message, how is it being delivered) that text alone leaves out. Context is valued differently among cultures and is an important component of designing culturally inclusive communications (Korac‐Kakabadse, et al., 2001).
Moreover, the link to a liquid syllabus may exist in multiple places at once. A liquid syllabus can be linked into an online class schedule, providing students with an opportunity to become acquainted with their professors before they register for a course. Research by Ambady (1993) shows the “thin slices” of a person provided through a video as brief as just 30-second shapes viewer perceptions about the subject’s character that are as reliable as in-person interactions. Ensuring faculty have the digital fluency to record brief, imperfect videos and embed them in a website with accurate captions is critical to the development of inclusive digital learning environments.

Adoption trends

A liquid syllabus can be created by using any mobile-responsive website creation tool that supports embedded videos and images. Google Sites is a popular choice, as it is free, easy to use for faculty without html experience, and supports web accessibility standards (see examples from Trishana Norquist from Southwestern College and Bryson Adams from Modesto Junior College). The liquid syllabus is being widely adopted “in the wild'' by faculty who appear to be eager to produce digital content they feel proud of and helps foster connections with students at a distance. The #LiquidSyllabus hashtag on Twitter and video sightings on TikTok (Thompson, 2021) are evidence of its adoption.

But the move to a liquid syllabus may create tension between faculty and administrators, as it unhinges the fixed nature of a syllabus and initiates questions about the need for faculty to submit a syllabus file, which is often an institutional requirement. Faculty and administrators at Sierra College have negotiated a solution to this problem by agreeing to accept a website URL for a syllabus provided the URL is unique for every term a course is taught (M. Macfarlane, personal communication, June 26, 2021). Keeping equity at the heart of our institutional conversations will ensure teaching becomes a more equitable practice.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.

Bali, M. (2021). Foreward. In S. M. Morris, L. Rai, & K. Littleton (Eds.). Voices of practice. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc.

Bensimon, E. M. (n.d.). Syllabus Review Guide, USC Rossier School of Education, Center for Urban Education.

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Random House.

California Community Colleges CVC-OEI, (2020). Online Course Design Rubric.

Costa, K. (2020). 99 tips for creating simple and sustainable educational videos: A guide for online teachers and flipped classes. Stylus.

Estrada, M., Eroy-Reveles, A., & Matsui, J. (2018). The influence of affirming kindness and community on broadening participation in STEM career pathways. Social issues and policy review, 12(1), 258–297.

Gurung, R. A. R. & Galardi, N. R. (2021). Syllabus tone, more than mental health statements, influence intentions to seek help. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319–330. 9152-4         

Koenig AM, Eagly AH. Stereotype threat in men on a test of social sensitivity. Sex Roles, 52(7), 489–496.

Korac‐Kakabadse, N., Kouzmin, A., Korac‐Kakabadse, A. and Savery, L. (2001). Low‐ and high‐context communication patterns: towards mapping cross‐cultural encounters. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 8(2), 3-24.

Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2 ), 1-21.

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2017). Best practices for teaching with emerging technologies (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2014, August 13). The liquid syllabus: Are you ready? [blog post].

Palmer, M. S. Wheeler, L. B. & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, (48)4, 36-47, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2016.1198186

Pew Research Center, (2021). Mobile fact sheet.

Taylor, S. D., Veri, J. J., Eliason, M., Hermoso, J. C. R., Bolter, N. D., Van Olphen, J. E. (2019). The social justice syllabus design tool: A first step in doing social justice pedagogy. JCSCORE.

Thompson, V. [@professorvanessa]. (2021, June 13). #stitch with @nursingtheoryprof : liquid syllabi = AWESOME! #collegetiktok #NightDoneRight #professorsoftiktok #academicsoftiktok #fyp [Video] TikTok.

Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Stylus & AACU.

Waggoner Denton, A., & Veloso, J. (2018). Changes in syllabus tone affect warmth (but not competence) ratings of both male and female instructors. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 21(1), 173–187. https://doi-org/10.1007/s11218- 017-9409-7

About the Author

Michelle Pacansky-Brock is a noted leader in higher education with expertise in online teaching, course design, and faculty development. Dr. Pacansky-Brock's work has helped online instructors across the nation and beyond understand how to craft relevant, humanized online learning experiences that support the diverse needs of college students.  She is the author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies (2nd edition, Routledge) and has received national recognition for her excellence in teaching and faculty development from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC).

Currently, Michelle is Faculty Mentor, Online Teaching and Learning with the California Community Colleges California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI) system. In her role, she coordinates professional development in support of quality online teaching and learning for @ONE (Online Network of Educators) and is leading a California Learning Lab grant project that will examine the impact of humanized online instruction on diverse students in undergraduate online STEM courses in California. Learn more about Michelle at and connect with her on Twitter @brocansky.

Her email is 

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