The Problem With Pronouns

Asking everyone their preferred personal pronoun is not a good idea, argues Rachel N. Levin.

September 19, 2018
 
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For many faculty members, the semester begins with the now-familiar call to students to “introduce yourself with your name and pronoun.” Some of the more adventurous of us add a request for a personal fun fact, favorite flavor of ice cream or some other icebreaker. Our intention in asking about pronouns is to signal an inclusive, safe classroom where everyone is respected. In my experience, however, this practice is becoming more problematic than useful.

For a time, the pronoun question seemed like a step forward. When I first started teaching, professors were provided with a list that included the legal names of each student that had registered for class. We were expected to stumble through it on the first day of class in order to begin learning names, to ensure that everyone who needed to be on the list was, indeed, registered, and to identify students who had dropped the class. Invariably, that process was followed by a number of corrections: “just call me Amy” or “I go by Taylor.”

Eventually, registrars caught on, and class lists began to include nicknames or preferred names alongside the legal name of each student. At least at my institution, those names had secondary status and did not appear on Blackboard, email or other commonly used class resources. Now, thanks to work on behalf of transgender students by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center and others, we know that student legal names need not even appear on class lists since those lists are neither official nor legal documents. Once our institutions modify their practices to reflect this, Amy and Taylor can relax. But what about pronouns?

Every two or three years, I teach a nonmajors science class on how scientists study gender identity and sexuality, and how science influences, and is influenced by, society. Given the speed at which our understanding of gender identity is evolving, every time I offer this class, best practices have changed. We started with no awareness of a need for discussing pronouns and then moved, a few years later, to discussing “PGPs” -- preferred gender pronouns. In the last few years, we realized that pronouns aren’t “preferred” but simply correct or incorrect for someone’s identity. My most recent experiences in the classroom, coupled with my experiences while conducting research within the transgender community, however, have convinced me that our current practice of asking that everyone state their personal pronoun is not a good idea. My position is perhaps best explained by sharing two experiences.

In my gender class, as it has come to be known, I ask that students journal in response to readings, class discussions or a prompt on a controversial issue. Occasionally, those entries get personal. In a recent year, a student revealed in an entry that they thought they might be transgender. The next time I spoke with the student alone, with the best of intentions, I asked what pronoun they wanted me to use. Their eyes filled with tears as they answered, “I don’t know.” At about the same time, I asked someone at a conference what pronoun to use, and she burst into tears. She later explained that she had hoped that she “passed” and that my question made her feel like she did not.

Those incidents taught me that questions about pronoun use can be painful to the very people to whom we are trying to signal support. So why do many institutions and their faculty members persist in the wholesale practice of requesting pronouns on the first day of class, especially with young adults who are in the process of figuring out who they are? The result of this practice is that students whose gender presentation may not match their gender identity are forced to lie or to out themselves in a new and possibly unsafe environment, while those who are unsure of their gender identity are made to feel uncomfortable and forced to choose a pronoun.

There must be other ways to signal awareness and inclusion to our students. In recent years, I have started emailing my students before class starts, giving them the names of required texts and information about class, as well as asking them to communicate with me if they want to be sure that I know their correct name and/or pronoun on the first day that class meets. I also encourage them to let me know of any questions or concerns that they have about the class. That solves one issue, but it doesn’t help ensure that every student understands the importance of pronouns, privacy and not making assumptions about anyone’s identity. Thus, I also try to include a discussion of those issues on the first day of class and return to them throughout the semester as appropriate. My hope is to create an environment in which students can choose to share what they want about themselves in whatever way and at whatever time is best for them. So far, it seems to have worked.

Some people will argue with my position, and there are certainly other ways to make sure that each student is addressed in the way in which they are most comfortable. For those who have jumped onboard the state-your-pronouns bandwagon, I would ask that you ask yourself for whom you are doing this. Is this the best way to support your students? Is it the best way to signal your allyship and desire to create a safe classroom?

Ask your students for their ideas. Be prepared to make mistakes. When you come to a decision on what works for your class in your institutional context, share it with your colleagues -- and then be prepared for whatever seems best to change in the semesters to come.

Bio

Rachel N. Levin is an associate professor of biology and neuroscience and dean of women at Pomona College.

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