How I deal with pronouns in my classes

By | September 26, 2016

This post is in response to a recent New York Times article by Elizabeth Reis. The article, “pronoun privilege,” argues against having people say their name and pronouns when they introduce themselves in class. Reis writes:

I find the exercise discomfiting, but not because I don’t want to know the students’ pronouns. It’s because this ice-breaking ritual, in my experience, is easy only for those for whom the answer is obvious. It can “out” or isolate others, particularly those who are still considering their gender or who have just begun to transition.

I agree completely. My experience with this has generally fallen into the following categories:

  1. When I was struggling with my gender identity and with the pronouns I wanted to use for myself, I was mortified by the prospect of having to name my pronouns in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know well, or at all. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I would just avoid naming my pronouns at all and would let people decide what pronouns to use. That meant that people would “default” to she/her/hers to refer to me, and I preferred being misgendered over having to publicly ask for different pronouns.
  2. I’ve noticed that people who know that I’m trans are more likely to ask people to state their pronouns when I’m in a classroom or meeting. You can tell it’s not something they do regularly because they stumble when they list their pronouns: “My name is Jessica…she/she/her…” So that feels nice and tokenizing.
  3. Now that I’m more comfortable stating my pronouns, I’m quite often the only person in group settings to do so. Sometimes I’ll state my pronouns, and then the next person to introduce themself will state their pronouns…and then nobody else remembers to do it.

None of these experiences are things that I want my students to have to deal with. So here’s what I do–and please feel free to steal this idea if you like it.

“Good morning, and welcome to the first day of class. My name is Jacob McWilliams. I use he/him/his pronouns. I’d like to go around the room and have all of you introduce yourselves. Please state your name and major. Stating your pronouns is optional–and if you prefer not to state your pronouns, I’ll use they/them/theirs pronouns to refer to you. If at any point this semester you would prefer different pronouns, please feel free to let me know in whatever way feels most comfortable to you.”

You know what’s awesome about this? Every time I’ve done it a few non-trans folks have forgotten to state their pronouns. The first time I say something like “Jeff told us that they disagree with the author’s main argument…” Jeff realizes he forgot to tell me his pronouns and comes up to me almost immediately to ask me to use he/him/his. It’s a really nice lesson in gender privilege.