Designating Personal Pronouns and Moving Toward Gender Inclusive Classrooms

Screen capture image of Wolverine Access interface for designating pronouns As most U-M instructors have probably heard, the university now allows students to designate personal pronouns in Wolverine Access that will automatically populate class rosters. What can instructors do to help make this initiative a success, benefit from it in their teaching, and more generally create learning environments where students of all gender identities feel welcome and valued? 

Now that this tool is operational in Wolverine Access, you can: 

  • Remind students to update their pronoun designations. Consider making a brief announcement in class, and/or sending an email to your students, reminding them that the option to designate their pronouns now exists. Teachers can post or include the instructions for making these designations via Wolverine Access, and take the opportunity to mention that students should always feel welcome to communicate with and correct you if you misidentify them. Inviting students to make use of this policy--and showing you value it as a way to make sure your learning environment is respectful and inclusive--might also discourage students from using the new functionality in disrespectful ways that can undermine its usefulness. 
  • Check your course rosters starting in late October for updated pronoun designations, and carefully review your rosters at the start of each upcoming semester. Do your best to honor students requests in all settings, including when speaking of the student outside of their presence.
  • Practice pronoun usage that may be unfamiliar.  It can be difficult to adjust to grammatical forms or pronoun usage that feel new or are unfamiliar. The best thing to do is to practice these ways of speaking to become fluent. Draw on available resources such as this page from U-M's Spectrum Center or this guide from the Pensby Center at Bryn Mawr to learn about the pronouns and to practice their use. When you make a mistake, you can simply acknowledge and apologize, and avoid making excuses or expressing frustration about your own need to adjust your language. Similarly, if someone else mis-genders or misidentifies a student—in their presence or not—you can gently remind and correct.
  • On future syllabi, note the opportunity to designate pronouns. On future course syllabi, consider including a gender inclusive statement along these lines:  "All people have the right to be addressed and referred to in accordance with their personal identity. In this class, we will have the chance to indicate the name that we prefer to be called and, if we choose, to identify pronouns with which we would like to be addressed. Remember that all students can and should indicate their personal pronouns via Wolverine access, using the Gender Identity tab under Student Business. I will do my best to address and refer to all students accordingly and support classmates in doing so as well." 

Beyond the policy, here are some more general practices that can help you foster gender-inclusive classroom communities: 

  • Make a practice of letting students introduce themselves -- or at least avoid calling roll before learning students’ names. Instead, allow all students to indicate the name they would like to be called, either aloud or in writing, on the first day of class. As any experienced instructor knows, students for many reasons often use names that are different from those on your roster. But letting students speak their names can be especially important for the comfort and even safety of transgender or gender nonconforming students: calling roll or reading the class roster aloud before students have had an opportunity to share their preferred first name can result in “outing” a student unintentionally.  While some instructors also ask students to indicate their personal pronouns aloud, others feel this may actually do more harm than good, so you may instead choose to remind students to designate their pronouns via Wolverine Access or to make pronouns an optional part of how students introduce themselves. If you do ask students to identify their pronouns in class, carefully consider how you'll frame this invitation: there are good reasons to avoid the language of "preferred" pronouns (thoughts about potential negative consequences of using the word "preferred" in this blog) and instead simply ask students about "your pronouns" or "what pronouns we should use for you."
  • If necessary, educate yourself and others on the spectrum of gender identities. Moving beyond binary frames of gender identity and expression is a critical part of recognizing and understanding the full spectrum of student identity. Visit and direct students to resources for learning more, including the Spectrum Center and the wealth of resources available through Vanderbilt’s teaching center.

  • Examine your language, examples, and daily classroom practices for heteronormativity, sexism, and gender non-inclusivity. Some ways of referring to students—including “ladies and gentleman”—are taken-for-granted ways of normalizing gender binaries that many find problematic. Similarly, language that fails to include women (e.g., "mankind" instead of "humankind") or language that reinforces heteronormative assumptions (e.g., "your mom and dad") may alienate students. Similarly, instructors sometimes use images, examples, and models that consistently represent heterosexuality and traditional gender roles and expressions, to the exclusion of a wider spectrum of ways of being. While these may seem like harmless practices because they are so common, we can send unintended and harmful messages to students about their value if we choose not to attend more cautiously to such language use. Listen to the voices of LGBTQ students when you need a reminder of the importance of committing ourselves to the work of gender inclusivity.

Faculty and GSIs play a critical role in fostering learning environments in which all U-M students are welcome as full human beings with rich and complex identities, including those related to gender. Correctly identifying students by their preferred names and designated personal pronouns is an important step toward ensuring every student’s right to be accurately acknowledged and fully recognized. As always, CRLT staff are available to consult if you want to think through teaching questions related to these or other issues.