College lacks official classroom pronoun procedure

Director+of+Intercultural+Student+Affairs+Tamia+Jordan+handles+name+and+gender+changes+on+file+for+students.+Beacon+Archives

Director of Intercultural Student Affairs Tamia Jordan handles name and gender changes on file for students. Beacon Archives

By Xinyi Xu and Tomas Gonzalez

The college does not have an official procedure for teachers to review students’ pronouns in class, but the Intercultural Student Affairs Office recommends it, according to a college official.

The Princeton Review ranked Emerson No. 1 in LGBTQ-friendliness in the nation in 2019, and the college recently increased its number of gender neutral bathrooms on campus. Director of Intercultural Student Affairs Tamia Jordan said Emerson does not require professors to go over pronouns or how students identify themselves in class. However, Jordan said the college does encourage it by posting information on their website about how to ask individuals for their pronouns.

Jordan suggests that professors pass out note cards and have students write down their preferred pronouns and that they let students introduce themselves to the class.

“We cannot force anybody to do anything, and to my knowledge, no institution has a mandate for [going over pronouns in class],” Jordan said in a phone interview. “I believe that folks ultimately have the best intentions. So if they know a better way, they will do that.”

In 2016 the University of Michigan implemented a policy to let students register which pronouns they wanted to appear on class rosters, or if they just wanted to go by their names. Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania both have comprehensive policies on their sites to guide students and faculty in pronoun usage, but they do not have a registration system for pronouns on rosters.

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Michaele Whelan, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said professors are guaranteed their academic freedom according to the faculty handbook, but the school provides training on how to go over pronouns and preferred names. Whelan said using names instead of pronouns is a good way to ensure students’ comfort.

“When you think about pronoun usage orally, that’s always about the context,” Whelan said. “If you are in a really small seminar, it’s not often polite to refer to someone by pronouns in such a small group setting. You want to use their name because that’s more respectful.”  

Students previously advocated for the college to increase its gender-identity inclusivity and name-change procedures. Emerson now has staff in place to assist students who wish to update their email address, academic class listing, or ID cards with their preferred names, according to the ICSA website.

Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Sylvia Spears said she holds faculty development workshops to help professors understand how to make students feel more comfortable in class.

“To me, it’s like saying please and thank you—it should just be common practice,” Spears said in an interview. “We shouldn’t tell people to be nice to one another or to value one another—it should just be part of what is natural to creating a positive educational environment.”

Emerson’s Advancement Group for Love and Expression, or EAGLE, Treasurer Kyle Eber said a student’s learning ability gets disrupted by the misuse of their pronouns.

“I think the use of pronouns is important because you cannot identify someone’s gender by just looking at them,” Eber said. “So it’s always good to double-check because you never know. Especially in a classroom setting, you always want people to be comfortable because if they are not comfortable, they are not going to learn.”

The Social Justice Center received 18 reports of bias-related incidents during the fall 2018 semester, and most of the reports occurred in classrooms, according to a community update email. Most bias incidents concerned topics related to race, international status, or misgendering, Spears said.

“If there is any discrepancy between what a person says and what is on the roster, they can update their roster,” Jordan said. “[Professors] should not make any assumptions, and they should ask students initially who they are.”

Professor Meredith Lee uses ice breakers on the first day of class to learn students’ pronouns.

“It lightens the mood of the class,” Lee said.  “It makes people feel more comfortable, especially students who do not use ‘he’ or ‘she,’ and they use ‘they’ or some form of other pronoun.”

Lee said they believe misgendering by professors is not necessarily malicious or intentional.

“Sometimes it is not people’s fault who misidentified someone else,” Lee said. “Sometimes it is just sincere confusion.”

Freshman Kira Carlton said they have experienced being misgendered in a class by professors before—typically when the teacher is addressing large groups of people.

“It’s usually not out of ill intent,” Carlton said. “I’ve never felt like anyone did it on purpose. [My pronouns are] just not as common, and people don’t remember a lot of times. It also takes a lot of reiteration from my part.”

Carlton said when a professor fails to go over pronouns in class, it is difficult to say their own pronouns to make sure they are not misgendered.

“In terms of me being non-binary, which is the identity I go with, I view myself more as androgynous,” Carlton said. “I think it’s really important because I don’t see myself either one way or the other, and it kind of hurts my mental image of myself when people do misgender me constantly.”