Crafting Community Agreements
Community agreements are the set of principles that a group of learners share and often collaboratively create in order to identify how they will work together for a period of time. Classes, student organizations, and other project-based groups frequently use community agreements as a way of working toward several long- and short-term goals. These include: cultivating senses of belonging and connectedness; offering all members an opportunity to voice their needs and specify their expectations of themselves and others; describing how the group will use or revise the agreements if conflicts or crises occur; and nurturing a culture of shared responsibility and accountability.
This resource, which you can also download as a PDF, provides faculty who are interested in beginning to use community agreements with guidance about how to develop them. It also concludes by reflecting on how community agreements can be used to repair relationships rather than police dissent in the classroom. While this resource focuses on classrooms and different class formats, its recommendations can easily be adapted to many kinds of collaborations and projects that involve other faculty, students, and staff. This resource also describes strategies that several Barnard faculty members already use to articulate the development of these shared principles to their other learning goals.
Because community agreements can help build connectedness within your class and encourage all of the students to share responsibility for how they will learn, we strongly recommend that you work collaboratively with students to develop your course’s agreements. In addition to the benefits of fostering group cohesion, the participatory process of creating agreements can allow you to clarify how they differ from rules or norms. Whereas rules are often imposed and enforced from above, community agreements are made and maintained by everyone; and unlike norms, which are typically implicit standards that are enforced through shame and other forms of social sanction, community agreements ask everyone to explicitly identify how they want to learn together and how they will manage conflict. If the size of your class makes it impossible to co-create community agreements with students, then you may nonetheless incorporate a feedback process that allows students to contribute to their development (read the “Models” section below to learn one possible way to do this in a lecture course).
Launching the process of co-creating community agreements with a blank slate, however, is likely to prove frustrating for everyone. Instead, identify a couple agreements that you want to propose as a starting point for the brainstorming and drafting process. Common ones include statements about the types of behavior that are conducive to discussion (e.g., “Listen actively and respectfully”) and those that encourage participants to be reflective and self-regulative about how they participate (e.g., “Step up, Step back: if you tend to remain quiet in class, challenge yourself to contribute; if you tend to speak often and quickly, reserve your contributions so others have an opportunity to participate”), among others. When you are co-creating these agreements, frame these as suggestions that are subject to revision, expansion, or deletion. While there are many common community agreements, they will be most meaningful when groups tailor them to their needs and desires during the time where they are working together.
When Alexandra Watson, a lecturer in First-Year Writing, creates community agreements with her students, she not only brings examples for them to consider but she explicitly draws agreements from groups and organizations whose principles align with the learning objectives and values of her courses. Relating the process of co-creating community agreements to the subjects, skills, and purposes of your class is helpful in clarifying to students why you see them as a necessary part of the learning that your class offers. In Professor Watson’s courses, where anti-oppression is both a subject the students study and an approach to teaching that she cultivates, she draws on agreements from groups like the Black Futures Lab, the NYC-DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group, and the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) to frame the activity and its purpose. This activity includes processes of reflection and discussion, where students individually and as a group respond to a prompt that asks them to think about times they’ve been part of engaging and respectful class discussions and what specifically made them feel encouraged to participate. It also includes processes of engagement and adaptation, where Professor Watson presents students with both the notes she took on their reflective discussion and the community agreements of other organizations before asking each of them to propose an agreement for their course. As you consider producing your own version of this activity, reflect on how community agreements and their collaborative development can be less an arbitrary exercise than one that advances the skills and forms of inquiry that students will develop in your classroom.
If you use the stations model, you may consider two additional recommendations.
First, craft at least one prompt that connects directly to the content or forms of inquiry your class will explore. When Alex Pittman does this activity in “Art/Work: Sex, Aesthetics, Capitalism,” a seminar that examines transformations of sexuality, intimacy, and eroticism alongside and through transformations of racial capitalism in the work of feminist and queer artists and theorists, he includes a prompt that reads, “As people engaging critically with legacies and ongoing forms of sexual and racial exploitation, oppression, and violence, we commit ourselves to….” Such a prompt both establishes the nature of the material that students will engage throughout the course and asks them to dwell on how they wish to share space and time together while doing so.
Second, ask the groups to move through the stations in increasingly short intervals (for example, eight minutes at the first station, six minutes at the second, four minutes at the third, and so on). This has the advantage of not only giving all the students an opportunity to weigh in on each prompt in a manageable amount of time, but it also accounts for the fact that a group may not have much to add to or revise at a station where two, three, or more groups have already contributed.
On Conflict and Repair
As you begin to incorporate community agreements into your courses, it is important to clarify some things that they are not: community agreements are not and cannot be a security measure that preempts and prevents conflict or disagreement between students or between students and you as an instructor; community agreements also are not and should not be a disciplinary measure that can be drawn from to stifle dissent and difference within the classroom. If this occurs, then they have become a policing mechanism rather than a tool that aids in the process of nurturing a setting where people can learn together. If either you or your students recognize that someone is using the agreements in this way, it is time to revisit and revise them.
If community agreements should not be used to guarantee obedience or impose conformity, this is not to suggest that they have no use for working through moments of conflict and crisis. Perhaps one of the greatest (and most complex) uses of community agreements is in establishing what steps people can take to repair the learning community when the threads that hold them together start to become frayed. This can be handled by developing exercises or explicitly asking students to work together on identifying practices for sticky problems: how they will engage in debate with each other; how students can make their concerns known when they feel harmed by a member of the community; how members can take responsibility for transgressions; and how the community will move forward when a person does take responsibility for their transgression. This reparative and transformative, rather than punitive, model for addressing harm, conflict, and crisis encourages faculty and students alike to approach community agreements as a tool for constructing brave rather than safe spaces: that is, spaces that encourage every member of the community to engage across difference with honesty, respect, curiosity, and vulnerability, and to trust that the space is one that can hold each person’s vulnerability in learning as well.
This resource is an adaptation and expansion of material that Jennifer Rosales and Alex Pittman presented during a brown bag lunch session in September 2021. If you have questions or other practices and models you’d like to propose for this resource, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.