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Imagine this: rather than assuming our students’ gender identity based on their appearance and formal university records, we as instructors can simply ask them — “what is your preferred pronoun?”

Learning From (All Of) Our Colleagues

I suppose there is no harm in admitting that the career not pursued for me was one of a student affairs professional.  When I began applying to graduate schools in 2006, I weighed between sociology, women’s and gender studies, and student affairs.  My mentors in the student affairs side of campus suggested I would have an easier time shifting into student affairs with a PhD in sociology than to sociology with a PhD in student affairs.  So, the compromise has been to become a sociology professor who, at times, will be an advocate and mentor for students outside of the traditional classroom setting.  To further bridge these two worlds — students academic lives and their “extracurricularlives (formal clubs, but also developing into adults) — I remain open to collaborations and mutual learning with my colleagues in student affairs and higher education.

Over the summer, I went through my university’s Safe Zone training program, and attended one of the lunches for safe zone allies.  At the beginning of each of these events, Ted Lewis — University of Richmond’s Associate Director of LGBTQ Campus Life — asks attendees to introduce themselves: your name and your preferred pronoun.  At some point, Ted usually indicates that this approach is to avoid making assumptions, and to be more inclusive of trans* and gender non-conforming people.  At the summer safe zone brownbag lunch on LGBTQ students in our classrooms, we spoke at greater length about the importance of this approach.  And, while most appreciated the importance of doing so, the (junior) professors in the room squirmed at the thought of doing something that may be considered radical.

Ted always seems so comfortable when starting meetings this way.  So, I figured I could employ this in my classes, no matter how scary it might be.  A colleague actually discouraged me from doing so, fearing the students’ (negative) reactions and, in turn, their (negative) course evaluations.  I shared that fear, so my compromise was to ask students’ preferred pronoun in my gender and sexuality class (11 students, high gender and racial diversity) but not in my research methods class (20 people, lower gender and racial diversity).

The Experiment

On the first day of the semester, I was comfortable enough to ask students in my research methods course for their preferred name.  Per Ted’s suggestion, to be even more inclusive, we must not assume students use the legal name listed in the university’s records.  And, this is welcoming not just for trans* and gender non-conforming students, but any student who goes by Bill instead of William.  And, to minimize the embarrassment we feel as (US-born) instructors as we knowingly, yet helplessly, mispronounce international students names, we allow them to pronounce it for us first, or, for some, provide the “Americanized” name they have adopted for this very reason.  There seemed to be a slight level of appreciation from the students for calling only their last names, and having them respond with their preferred first name.  But, I did not feel brave enough to ask for preferred pronouns.

On the first meeting of my gender and sexuality course, I did ask both preferred name and preferred pronoun.  I quickly jotted down “he”, “she”, and “ze” on the board to explain what a pronoun is.  The students complied.  As much as possible, I do the scary things that I ask of my students; when I ask them to share parts of themselves or personal background, I share as well to lessen the power differential.  So, as the last student announced their name and pronoun, it came to me to respond.  Since I was nervous during this entire exercise, I rambled: “Doctor or Professor Grollman; and he, she, whatever really.”  I had not emotionally prepared for outing myself, so I was dissatisfied with an incoherent response that probably raised more questions than answers.  Then, I moved on by briefly explaining my desire to make the classroom inclusive for trans* and gender non-conforming students, and then into covering the syllabus.

The Brave Act Of Asking?

In hindsight, it is quite telling that I experienced such nervousness about asking people the simple question — “what is your preferred pronoun?”  It is less scary to assume for everyone, and potentially erase or misgender trans* and gender non-conforming people.  That, to me, is a shame.  The sheer importance of actually asking recently became more apparent as news story after news story ignored Chelsea Manning’s (a soldier convicted of espionage this summer) self-defined gender identity and preferred pronoun of “she”/”her.”

The saving grace was, first, the sky did not fall and I was not unemployed by the end of the day.  The students did not scream at me, “you queer radical!”  And, no one left before the official end of class time.  Later, a student thanked me for asking, and confided in me that another student said, “wow, you know I never really thought about that.”  In that moment, I indicated to one student an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, and, to another student, I disrupted the taken-for-granted practice of sex categorizing.  I also put myself out there, at a minimum to students’ assumption that I am LGBT, but possibly that I am transgender or gender non-conforming.

This is a brave step up from what I have done in the past.  When I taught sexual diversity a few years ago, I would drop little hints about my background throughout the semester — that I am multiracial, that I am from the East Coast — but, mostly fairly inert details.  So, given the personal nature of the assignments for those classes, I let students devote one of their in-class quizzes to asking me something about myself.  There is usually a surprising mix, but most of them end up asking — “omg, tell us already — are you gay?”  I end up using that moment to bring them back to our lectures on queer theory, gender identity, and the social construction of sexual orientation to tease them with: “I’m queer.”  And, then explain that I identify as genderqueer, despite my typical masculine gender presentation, and that I acknowledge my attraction to masculinity not merely stereotypically male bodies.  Ah, yes — remember when we deconstructed the male/female binary, and the homo/hetero binary, and the distinction between sex and gender?

My treat to them was to share a picture of me in drag (actually, genderfuck).  I relish in their “wow!”s and pleased laughter.  But, I also feel at ease about baring my “true” identity because the have already completed their course evaluations.  To protect myself from professional harm, I allowed the students to assume week after week that I am cisgender of whatever sexual identity.  But, at the cost of keeping trans* and gender non-conforming people (even myself to an extent) invisible until it is professionally “safe.”


The Sacrifice

Now with a PhD, and a job that I have at least for seven years, I am pushing myself to be braver. I am sacrificing what I may be mistakenly assuming is a delicate rapport with (more conservative) cisgender and heterosexual students to make my classroom inclusive. Yes, it could very well mean a ding to my course evaluations.  I may even find awful, possibly homophobic and transphobic comments on in a year. Frankly, I think it is worth it to push cisgender students, at least once in their entire lives, to answer the dreaded question, “what are you?!”, that trans* and gender non-conforming people face too often.

And, so far it has paid off.  On Week 2, a new student arrived as a late add to the class.  I welcomed the student.  And, another student interrupted me, “um, preferred pronoun?”  I had already assumed the new student’s name (that which was provided in the university records), and failed to ask for the pronoun the student preferred used in the class.  So, I had the students, once again, announce their preferred first name and pronoun.  This time, I was ready, and gave a more coherent response for my own — “he or she is fine.”  It is my hope of hopes that the students leave the class taking this practice, or at least knowing its importance, into other arenas in their lives.  I certainly have found it worth the anxiety and fear, so I will continue to do so in future classes — and, not just in my gender and sexuality classes!


One concern that another professor raised was forcing students to out themselves.  Without asking for pronouns, trans* and gender non-conforming students can presumably go unnoticed in your class.  When you do ask, their turn comes and they are faced with the choice to out themselves or not.  And, no matter their answer, other students may make assumptions about them.  And, choosing not to provide a pronoun may also lead others to simply assume, “oh, they’re trans.”  I, too, worry about this.  But, as Ted pointed out, the other alternative is to gender them yourself.  At some point, you as the instructor, will likely provide an assumed pronoun and gender identity before the entire class — or, another student may do so, “yeah, I agree with her.”  Asking is at least one step closer toward respecting all students’ self-definition related to gender.

Why single out gender?  I could imagine someone might ask that self-definition should either be asking nothing of our students (and ourselves as instructors) or asking them to orally complete a demographic profile: and preferred race?  and preferred sexual identity?  It is important to note how frequently we rely on pronouns to refer to other people.  And, those pronouns are inherently gendered.  Repeatedly saying, “Eric said… and Eric did… and Ted asked Eric…”, feels more jarring (at least to the ear) than “ze said”, “he spoke on,” and “I saw her.”  We rarely reference race, income, or other social identities unless we are actually talking about them — unlike the pervasive use of gendered pronouns.

I note that I feel comfortable asking up to 20 students their preferred name and pronoun.  Now, thinking about professors at my graduate institution who taught classes of a few hundred students, I cannot imagine bothering to take attendance, nor outing myself or asking others to do so before hundreds of people.  So, the size of the class may influence how effectively this could be done, and really, whether you as the instructor feel comfortable doing so.

Although it may feel that this is easiest in the social sciences or humanities, especially in classes on gender and sexuality, I believe it can (and should) be implemented in every class.  But, it may prove more effective when a set of ground rules have been established for civil, respectful classroom discussion.  My gender and sexuality students may have been more amenable to this approach to teaching because we also spent time creating a list of ground rules — which included the use of “oops, ouch, educate” per one student’s suggestion.

As I noted, I am trying this out for the first time myself.  So, I hope to provide a follow up in a semester when I begin asking for preferred pronouns in each class (and maybe even meetings that I facilitate).

Additional Resources For Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming Students

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