Students’ pronouns: Ask, don’t assume

Published by Samantha Burkhouse, Date: October 24, 2019
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My pronouns are she/her/hers. I have classmates who use the same pronouns, as well as some who use he/him/his, they/them/theirs or something else. Some of these students have been using these pronouns since birth, and some have changed their pronouns as they recognized their identity as being different from the gender they were assigned at birth. However, in the nine semesters that I have been a student at SRU, I have only had two professors who asked the students in their class for their pronouns before the semester started. Having the “correct pronouns, names and inclusion” policy in every class syllabus is not enough. It seems ingenuine and many professors just gloss over it as something else that they have to put in their syllabus, as if it probably doesn’t affect anyone in their class. Without directly asking students about their pronouns, professors are just assuming the pronouns of their students and there is no way for professors to do this without being problematic.

We need to normalize asking others their pronouns in general, regardless of how they identify, and this should start with the people we look up to: our professors. If we only ask people what their pronouns are if we can’t tell whether they are “masculine” or “feminine,” it can be taken as an insult to a student who is transgender because they may think that since nobody else is asked their pronouns, they don’t “pass” as the gender they identify as. Some people may “look” masculine or feminine to you, but they may not identify that way. On the other hand, if you ask everybody their preferred pronouns, you aren’t singling them out or making them feel uncomfortable – you are truly being inclusive of everyone.

It is also important to ask students their pronouns along with asking if their names listed on the class roster are correct ahead of the first day of class. If a trans or nonbinary student is in class on their first day of the semester and the professor taking attendance calls out their deadname from the roster, they are forced to either correct that professor and out themselves to the class, or go along with it and continue to be deadnamed throughout the semester by their professor and classmates. Even as a cisgender woman, I would rather let the professor know ahead of time that no, I do not prefer to be called Sam instead of Samantha as many professors assume. If they assume that I go by a shortened version of my name, I can guess that they are also assuming the pronouns of people who look a certain way or have their deadname listed on the roster. This does not foster a safe and welcoming classroom environment that all teachers should strive to create, and it could be a detriment to the individual student’s learning experience. It also serves as an example to other students about being inclusive and open minded towards others that they can work on in their everyday lives as well.

Professors must be careful about how they go about this process to make sure that they do not misgender students, but also so that they do not out students who have not disclosed their identity yet. They have the option of putting students in a position where they feel unsafe and unwelcome in the classroom, or one where they feel included and accepted as a part of the community. I know that most of my professors here care about their students and do want them to feel comfortable and succeed. Therefore, I urge all professors at SRU to ask students for their name and pronouns before each semester. In addition, I would urge my fellow students to ask others their pronouns and give them yours, regardless of your identity, so that you can be a good ally to your classmates and create a positive campus community.

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