A Life-Saving Classroom Technique: Ask about Pronouns
by Kimberly Kellett, Ph.D. (Biology, Perimeter College)
If you are here reading this, I am guessing you care about your students beyond their classroom performance and want to support their mental health. Good – caring is the most important step in building an inclusive, supportive class and it is the only one that you probably can’t learn by reading a blog post.
After the past year of online webinars and conferences, you are likely already overwhelmed by figuring out what new strategies and tools to use in your classes this year. Me too. I am writing this to give you ONE very easy, but extremely meaningful step you can take toward creating an inclusive and supportive class: Ask your students their pronouns, and tell them yours. That’s it! Even if it is the day before classes are starting, it’s not too late to do this. If you came here for the kernel of wisdom, then you can stop reading now. If you’d like to know more about how you should do this, and why this simple action can save lives, keep reading!
The verbal: On the first day of class introduce yourself by using your pronouns: “I am Dr. Kellett, you can also call me Dr. K or Professor K. I use she/her pronouns.” Sharing your own pronouns helps normalize the behavior, and help students feel comfortable sharing theirs. Invite your students to do the same: “As you introduce yourself, please share the name you prefer to be called and the pronouns you use.” If this is the only way you have students introduce themselves, remember to keep notes of their pronouns on your role sheet so you don’t forget!
The written: If you don’t use verbal introductions, you teach a fully online course, or you want to make sure that students who miss the first day are included, I encourage you to include your own pronouns under your name in your syllabus and your email signature. If you use introductory survey style tools for students, include a question that asks students what pronouns they prefer you to use as well as one that asks their preferred name. I recommend using a fill-in-the-blank style question for this, so that student options are not limited, or at least providing an “other” option with a blank to specify. If you use nametags, consider asking students to add their pronouns as well as their name.
Some thoughts you might be having right now: “I’m not used to this. It seems awkward.” “My students can clearly see I am a man!” “Will students think I’m weird?” First, I’ve been there. Even as an LGBT+ person I have had these same thoughts. However, most of your students will probably not bat an eyelash. They’ve heard people introduce themselves with pronouns before (increasingly common on social media platforms) and have likely been asked their own before too. The only feedback I have gotten from students on this has been positive!
Why it matters
If you are someone who has never had to think about their own pronouns before, then the importance of using correct pronouns may not be clear. I will share some data with you because I’m a scientist and numbers are my favorite way to communicate. A 2020 national survey by the Trevor Project found that 40% of LGBT+ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including over 50% of nonbinary and trans youth seriously considering suicide. Forty-Eight percent of LGBT+ youth reported engaging in self-harm, including over 60% of non-binary or trans youth. LGBT+ youth are about three times more likely to contemplate suicide than their cisgender, heterosexual peers and five times as likely to attempt it. These numbers are sobering, but the good news is, there are simple ways to help reduce depression and suicidal thoughts among LGBT+ folks! For transgender and nonbinary youth, having their identity and pronouns respected by “all or most” people attempted suicide at half the rate than those whose pronouns are not respected. This means you could save someone’s life simply by asking and using their correct pronouns! Unfortunately, just 20 percent of trans and nonbinary youth reported “all or most” people respected their gender identity. I invite you to help increase this percentage!
At this point, I may have you convinced that pronouns matter, but you may be wondering why asking is so important if you have always gotten it right based on name and/or appearances. While this may be true for you currently, I can almost guarantee that you will get it wrong at some point, or maybe already have without knowing. The number of people in the U.S. who openly identify as LGBT+ is increasing, especially among younger generations. One-in-four LGBT+ people between the ages of 13 and 24 identifies as non-binary, and an additional 20% are actively questioning their gender identity (source: The Trevor Project). Gender expression, especially among young people, is changing constantly. Asking pronouns is the only way to ensure you get them right. A few years ago, I made a wrong assumption of a student’s pronouns based on appearance. I used the incorrect pronouns for a student repeatedly until a friend of theirs gently and kindly corrected me (students are often hesitant to correct professors themselves). I was embarrassed, ashamed, and deeply sorry. As someone who has been mis-gendered myself, I know how much it can hurt, especially if it comes from someone you interact with regularly even if it is unintentional. I share this story to save you (and your future students) from similar feelings. Additionally, sharing and asking pronouns can also signal to cisgender LGB+ youth that you are a safe and supportive person to talk to, the same way that having a “safe space” sticker on your office door might. This can make a world of difference to someone, as some students may not have this support at home. A recent student told me that she knew I was “someone she could talk to” after seeing I shared my own pronouns in my syllabus.
More tips for using inclusive language!
- Review assignments and other documents for gender binary (he/she or his/her) language. Find/replace with they or them. Yes, it is grammatically correct to use “they” to refer to an individual.
- Make sure that any fillable info forms you give your students include more than “male” and “female” as options. Unfortunately, many such forms have not been updated in years. If the form was created by the university or other institution, ask them to update it.
- If a student mentions an engagement or upcoming marriage to you, avoid assuming the gender of their spouse. Use gender-neutral language (spouse, they) until you know for sure.
- Know that some non-binary people may use multiple pronouns (Ex: he/they or he/she). It is ok to ask them which they prefer!
- Avoid using gendered language (ex: “ladies and gents” , “guys” or “girls”, “sir” or “ma’am”) to address the class or individual students. Stick to language that includes all genders like “folks”, “students” , or “everyone.”
Some gender vocabulary
Cisgender: Someone who identifies as the same gender that they were assigned at birth. You may also see this identity referred to as cis.
Non-binary: This refers to an individual who does not identify as strictly a man or strictly a woman. They may use they/them pronouns, or use multiple pronouns. You may also see this identity referred to as NB or genderqueer.
Transgender: An individual who identifies as a gender that does not correspond with the one they were assigned at birth. You may also see this identity referred to as trans.
Please know that I appreciate you reading to the end of this post and for wanting to better support our students. Although making this little change may not feel impactful to you, and you probably won’t see improved test scores or better assignment submission rates, know that for some students the impact will be far more important than grades. Feel free to reach out personally if you have any questions.
Ready for more? There are SO many ways to make your classroom supportive for our wonderfully diverse students. For those of you looking to make big changes or add many new tools your teaching toolbox, I will recommend the six-week self-paced course offered by Cornell University called “Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom” (it’s free!)
The Trevor Project. (2020). 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. New York, New York: The Trevor Project.