UMich and Misgendering

I spent a chunk of my morning researching best practices for pronouns in the classroom. There aren’t really many surprises: Don’t assume anyone’s pronouns, have your students announce their own pronouns on the first day when they give their names, correct anyone if they misgender another one of your students.

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Lots of feelings regarding my future students. TW: misgendering

Within a few years I will be involved in teaching undergraduates as a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan. And at Michigan, starting in my second year, I would begin teaching a section of their mandatory first year writing course. They allow their instructors, even their graduate students, a refreshingly lengthy leash for teaching the course—to set policies, to create a syllabus, and to lead classes on one’s own.

And so, I spent a chunk of my morning researching best practices for pronouns in the classroom. There aren’t really many surprises: Don’t assume anyone’s pronouns, have your students announce their own pronouns on the first day when they give their names, correct anyone if they misgender another one of your students. It’s not perfect—because it puts students in the uncomfortable position of weighing whether to out themselves—but it’s better than only having people with “surprising” or “unexpected” pronouns go out of the way to stick up for themselves, fundamentally ostracizing themselves from the word go. Indeed, the moment I first had a professor ask for everyone in the class’s pronouns in an undergraduate class, I immediately knew it was something I would have my own students do one day if I ever happened to have any.

And now, knowing with some degree of certainty that I will have students in less than two or three years, I’m heartened that at Michigan at least, students can go online and fill in their own pronouns so that they will show up on the class roster. But I’m also heartbroken—because reading through the comment section of the school newspaper article about that change in policy, I found so much anger, and resentment, and irrational hatred. Among others, I found parents bragging that they would never let their kids go to somewhere so misguidedly liberal, an instructor teaching elsewhere saying how glad he was that he’s not at Michigan because of this “pure mental illness”, and an anonymous user daring students, once they have a job, to try to correct the boss’s use of pronouns and to see where that gets them.

I found so much irrational hatred.

One student at Michigan, a right wing activist, filled in his own pronouns online to be “His Majesty”. And what I’m fascinated with about that is how clear its intention is—his choice signals an ostentatious and presumptuous demand, suggesting that simply asking that others use a different set of pronouns is equally unreasonable and delusional. Rhetorically, it’s rather clever, however semantically foul it in fact is.

After spending much of the day on the verge of tears, I finally broke down once my partner got home from work and I told her about my online adventures. And while I don’t want to privilege my cis tears /by any means/, especially in a post-Trump world where trans youth are in such extreme and life threatening danger, I did want to explain those tears.

I don’t know my students yet. But many of them are juniors in high school right now. And if any of them are trans, they have probably been mistreated, almost certainly have been misgendered, and even if they’ve /somehow/ avoided that, they have grown up in a world that seems bent on destroying them. A world full of irrational hatred. And even though I don’t know them yet, I feel so devastated to think of what they might be going through right now, and afraid of what their fellow students in college might say or do to them. It’s like, what if I have a conservative student who refuses to respect another student’s pronouns? There’s not much I can do in that situation other than ask that student to stop or to leave the class and be marked absent for the day. And I have no real reservations about doing that…

But no matter what I do, no matter what kinds of classroom interventions I make, I can’t protect my future students from even that microaggression, let alone protect them when they’re out in the world. I can’t protect them from the world. I can only teach them how to write more clearly, how to edit more devotedly, and how to compose an argument more persuasively.

And I know in some ways it’s a tad self-indulgent, but for today at least, I feel so distraught to think how paltry those skills—however essential they may be—ultimately are in the face of such vast systems of oppression. And I wish that I could offer them something more.

I don’t know if anyone has any insight, but I’d love to hear it if you do.

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