He. She. Zhe.

Nyasha Junior changed how she welcomes students to her class this fall, to try to make it more inclusive – with unexpected results.

September 19, 2014
 

It was the first day of class. Again.

As a seasoned faculty member, my initial class prep has dwindled from months to... well, let’s just say… much less time than I needed as a rookie. I have notes from the previous semester on what worked and didn’t work, and I keep track of ideas for new readings and assignments. Instead of starting from scratch in the fall, I have a good sense of what I want to change, add, or delete.

This fall, my syllabus was ready. My Blackboard site was ready. My pre-game playlist was ready. I was finishing up last-minute details right before class when I decided to do something different. Something minor. Or so I thought.

Instead of taking attendance, I use a sign-in sheet to save time. On the first day’s sign-in sheet, I have four columns: student name, preferred name, preferred email address, and signature. I print the student name as listed on my roster, and I ask students to fill in their preferred name. I include this column because students often want to be called something other than their name as it appears on official documents. For example, Joshua David prefers to be called “J.D.,” or Deborah prefers “Deb.”

This semester, I decided not to ask for preferred email address. Using the email listed in Blackboard will save me the hassle of inputting new email addresses. Then, perhaps triggered by the word “preferred,” in place of “preferred email address,” I decided to put “preferred pronoun.”

Resources

Teaching Tolerance - Best Practices: Creating an LGBT-Inclusive School Climate

Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center - Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

Mills College - Gender and Sexuality Resources

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community

Edited by Laura Ericson-Schroth

I don’t teach at a “lefty” Antioch College-type of school. I teach at Howard University, one of our nation’s premier historically black universities.

Furthermore, I teach at the School of Divinity, which probably has more socially and religiously conservative students than the main campus. Although our leadership is openly supportive of diversity in all its forms, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is still the basic policy.

I have become more sensitized to genderqueer and trans issues, not through faculty workshops but through Twitter. I follow several trans and non-binary folks who have made me more aware of the everyday ways in which our society does not acknowledge gender variance.

On Twitter, I reached out and asked my followers if they asked for preferred pronouns. One colleague (I assume jokingly) tweeted that he preferred “it.” Another tweeted that a couple of students had made him aware of their preferred pronouns but that he had not asked.

So I called an audible and added the column to the sign-in sheet.

I include a sample row:

Name: Isabella Baumfree; Preferred Name: Sojourner; Preferred Pronouns: She/Her/Hers; and Signature.

I headed to class and asked students to pass around the sign-in sheet while they looked at the syllabus.

3…2…1…

“Dr. Junior, what is this pronoun thing?”

I took a deep breath and explained, “I am asking your preferred name because it may be different from the official name on my roster. I am also asking for your preferred pronoun because I don’t want to make assumptions about how you want to be addressed. You may prefer 'she' or 'he' or something else.” The student seemed bewildered.

Then, another student raised his hand. In a clear voice, he declared, “I am married to a trans woman. At work, she is forced to use her government name and to identify as male. At home, she is a woman.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

I thanked the student for providing that example, and the students went back to reviewing the syllabus. Class went forward as usual.

This one change may seem trivial or overly “P.C.” to some, but I believe that it made a big difference for the student who shared as well as for the other students.

It opens the door for other conversations about difference both in class and outside of class. I am aware of the implicit curriculum at work, and I want to be more intentional about making my classroom a more inclusive space.

I stumbled into it this semester. Next semester’s prep will be different.

Bio

Nyasha Junior is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity.

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