February 25, 2021
Pronouns in the classroom… to ask, or not to ask, and how to ask
Posted by Laura Guertin
Recently, my institution posted an article titled Canvas and Zoom: Adding gender and identity pronouns to your name, including a reminder of and a link to the administrative policy AD84 Preferred Name and Gender Identity Policy (Formerly Preferred Name Policy) first approved back in 2017. Although our course management system allows us to add our pronouns with a one-time edit, several institutions like mine have administrative security settings that do not allows us to do the same in Zoom – but depending upon how the Zoom Meeting/Webinar is set up, we can “Rename” ourselves to add our pronouns once we enter the Zoom session.
I’ll also make a quick note of using the phrase “preferred gender pronouns” versus “gender pronouns.” Ashlee Fowkles published on Why You Should Not Say ‘Preferred Gender Pronouns’. And universities are publishing gender pronoun resource guides to inform their communities on how pronouns communicate identity and experiences (see examples from Duke University and Washington University in St. Louis). Although, simplifying the discussion to asking someone to state “I am X/X” can raise issues and anxiety for individuals.
There are also videos with interviews and discussions on why pronouns matter. These are just two of several examples available online.
Now let’s bring this topic back to our classrooms. Just because we can our students for their pronouns, does that mean we should?
I think it’s important to note that no one ever has to disclose their pronouns. I don’t have my pronouns on twitter and I don’t want to. It’s important that cis people normalize sharing, teaching about, and using correct pronouns, but not compel other folks to share
— Emma Link (@Emma_G_Link) February 21, 2021
An article from Inside Higher Ed includes the following quote:
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?
Swarthmore College has a gender pronoun reference sheet that echoes, Asking what pronouns to use in a specific space makes room for people to express themselves in a variety of ways, including if the person does not want to out themselves in certain spaces. People may not be out everywhere and don’t want to be, emphasizing that calling roll from a sheet without knowledge of how someone wants to identify themself in the classroom can be very harmful.
So as faculty, how can we support our students? Suggestions include:
- Mention of your own pronouns at the start of the semester – include it in the syllabus, in your email signature, on your first slide in your first day of lecture, etc., so students know you are supportive;
- Create a private pre-class survey that provides a space to disclose this information (in your CMS, for example). Do not send a sheet of paper around your classroom on the first day to ask students to fill in a form that asks for their gender pronouns – this information is then visible to everyone and does not respect the privacy of the student;
- Make a general statement early in the semester, such as “If anybody has a preferred name/pronouns that don’t match the class information, please let me know privately.”
Note that some students may not provide their pronouns even when asked – and they might perceive this as a risk to not respond. A post on Medium titled “No, You Can’t Have My Pronouns!” shares, …refusing to respond or rejecting the request can come with potentially negative repercussions. That’s because requests for one’s pronouns often occur in social settings marked by an imbalance of power — the classroom, the workplace, community organizations, etc. …. Just because such requests are well intended doesn’t mean they don’t occur in social contexts marked by power inequity. Thus, a request for “your pronouns” isn’t a request at all. It’s a subtle but powerful demand that effectively dis-ables the recipient of the request and threatens negative consequences for any questioning or resistance.
If you do decide to ask students for gender pronouns, perhaps this tweet helps sum up the language to phrase the request:
[“My pronouns are”] force closeted people to lie, because they have to write something that their pronouns *aren’t*.
[“Call me”] or [“Use these pronouns”] allow closeted people to answer without having to lie. They need you to call them xyz, even if those aren’t their pronouns.
— Ana Mardoll (@AnaMardoll) February 9, 2021
Faculty (and I include myself here), we are going to make mistakes. The University of Pennsylvania’s Educators Playbook reminds us to [be] prepared to make a mistake—and to apologize: Despite our best efforts, we sometimes misgender people. As a culture we are in the habit of assuming pronouns based on appearance. This habit can be hard to break. When you misgender someone, correct yourself, apologize, and move on. You don’t need to justify yourself or overly apologize. It’s OK. But it’s important to challenge yourself to get it right the next time.
This is a comment that was submitted – the author has asked the name be withheld.
“Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. I can certainly understand the students who are made to uncomfortable by being asked for their pronouns. Even as a faculty member, I find the social pressure to declare a gender identity (or lack thereof) to be something that causes me some distress. I would certainly be very uncomfortable if my administration or others in power required me to declare pronouns for myself. And while I appreciate that it might help some students for me to model the declaration of pronouns, if I am myself conflicted about gender identity, I doubt I would make a very good model. Some space for everyone is necessary in this discussion.”
Thank you to the author of the comment above. It is an excellent point you make that we need to be mindful of how this question impacts not just our students but our academic community as a whole, which includes faculty and staff. I appreciate you bringing this point to our attention, especially the position faculty/staff are put in when administrators request pronouns.