In the higher ed community, we understand the importance of showing each student that we value and accept them. One way to help students feel this way is by using the same pronouns as they do. But what is the best way for an instructor or administrator to learn a student’s gender or preferred pronouns if these details haven’t been shared?
There’s a simple answer: By letting students control when, where, and how they share this information.
This article, adapted from Enrollment Management Report, explores how instructors can empower each student to decide if they’ll share or withhold their gender identity and the pronouns they use. This is especially important for students who are questioning their gender, not ready to disclose it, or only tell their pronouns in some environments, but not in classrooms.
Recent data shows a growing number of Americans use gender-neutral pronouns. A Pew Research Center survey found “about one-in-five (18%) [of Americans] say they personally know someone who goes by such pronouns.” And the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 0.6 percent of American adults identified as transgender in 2016. This estimate represented 1.4 million people—a population that had doubled since a similar study was conducted five years earlier.
It is important to remember that gender identity (a person’s innermost conception of self as they relate to gender) and gender expression (the external appearance of gender through clothes, hairstyles, and behavior) can be experienced independently. Also, keep in mind that gender identity and expression are not necessarily related to a person’s sexual orientation. A person may identify as trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer and separately as gay, straight, pansexual, lesbian, etc.
For many, the self-perception and expression of gender can be fluid from day to day. Some students may choose to use gender-specific pronouns (such as she/her/hers) and gender-neutral pronouns (such as they/them/theirs).
Instructors who want to make their classrooms more inclusive should remember that each student is the sole expert of their identity. Therefore, the student can use the pronouns that feel the safest and most relevant for their gender identity.
There are many versions of gender-neutral pronouns that a student may use, with the singular “they” being the most common. In fact, using “they” to refer to an individual has long been an everyday occurrence. As noted in an NPR story, consider how natural it is to use “they” in statements like “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back” and “Wish them a happy birthday.”
Here are other pronouns that students with non-cisgender identities may use:
- Per, for “person pronouns”
- Ze or xe/xem/xyrs/xyrself
Many organizations strive for inclusive practices that allow everyone to share their preferred pronouns. For instance, it’s common for meetings to begin with introductions asking attendees to share these details along with their name and profession. Many professionals also list their pronouns in email signatures and other written material.
When an instructor seeks to include pronoun disclosures in their classroom, it’s necessary to be mindful of each student’s needs. That includes understanding and addressing unintended challenges that pronoun disclosures can present.
Challenges With Pronoun Disclosures
When done properly, offering opportunities for students to affirm their preferred pronouns can be an integral part of inclusive classrooms. But an instructor may create problems if they don’t approach this topic with sensitivity. To reiterate an earlier point, asking students to disclose their pronouns could have negative impacts for students who are:
- Questioning their gender
- Not ready to disclose
- Unable to disclose in some situations
Rachel N. Levin of Pomona College has explored the problems that instructors can create when asking for pronouns on the first day of class. She wrote in Inside Higher Ed 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.” This practice also presents challenges when students “who are unsure of their gender identity are made to feel uncomfortable and forced to choose a pronoun.”
Despite the goal of inclusion, some students may feel these disclosure activities have the opposite effect. That finding is presented in I Use Any Pronouns, and I’m Questioning Everything Else: Transgender Youth and The Issue Of Gender Pronouns, a study by Hayley McGlashan and Katie Fitzpatrick of the University of Auckland. According to the study, “Students with shifting identities (and fluid relationships with gender) experienced the naming of pronouns as affronting and non-inclusive.”
McGlashan and Fitzpatrick demonstrated this point with the following comment from a study participant:
“I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t being myself. I also had a lot of anxiety around [stating my pronoun] because I was planning on coming out, and it was weird saying I identify with pronouns that I could never actually identify with.”
This comment reinforces the need for instructors to let students decide when, if ever, to share their pronouns in class. Fortunately, there are ways to give students the option to share their pronouns without making it a source of anxiety.
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Solutions That Protect Students
Oliver L. Haimson and Lee Airton of the National Center for Institutional Diversity offered optional, no-pressure ways for inviting students to share their pronouns. These options are affirming to students who wish to disclose and protective of students who choose not to. Here’s an idea they offer for getting started:
“First, you can share your own pronouns, which sets the tone for the group and indicates to people in the room that pronoun-sharing is normal and will be respected. For example, Oliver could introduce himself and say that he uses he/him pronouns, or Lee could introduce themself and say that they use they/them pronouns. This would make it clear to others in the room that sharing pronouns is normal and respected in this space.”
Haimson and Airton also suggest giving participants the chance to talk about gender identity one-on-one. This approach is helpful for students interested in sharing their thoughts with their instructor but not the entire class:
“We also suggest saying something like, ‘If you have any questions about pronouns in general, or have any requests about your own pronouns or other gender-related needs in this space, you are welcome to chat with me.’”
Instructors could say this prompt aloud in class, add it to the syllabus, or post it to the learning management system’s discussion forum. When delivering this message, instructors could offer an optional, confidential survey for students to share their pronouns with the instructor but not their classmates. The survey could also ask for feedback about how to make the class more inclusive.
There may also be situations in which a student doesn’t disclose a pronoun, even when asked. How should faculty approach this situation? One option is to eliminate the pronoun by using the student’s name. This approach may take practice, as pronouns are a large part of our everyday interactions. Here is an example:
“This is Cindy. Cindy is looking for financial aid assistance. Cindy has called the Financial Aid Office for assistance but has received no response. We are hoping you can address the concerns Cindy has expressed.”
Universities don’t have to limit these affirming practices to classrooms. They can also extend to advertising for programs and events. In these messages, the university can share its inclusion values and anti-discrimination statement. It’s also helpful to make clear that “everyone is invited to attend” events.
Another affirming practice is to model pronoun use on nametags. But remember—not all students will be ready to disclose their pronouns or gender. So, listing pronouns on nametags should be optional, not required.
These practices are evolving, and new methods may be introduced in the future. Just know that your efforts can let students feel how much your university values them. And by showing that disclosure is optional, you can enable each student to control how and if they’ll share aspects of their identity in the classroom.
Learn more about this important topic by reading the original article in Enrollment Management Report. You can also subscribe to the monthly newsletter to keep pace with the latest campus administration practices.