Watch a brief video about the Teaching and Learning Conversation on this topic.

Dean Spade, an Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law and one of the leading voices in the trans justice movement, details the common occurrence of being referred to by the wrong pronoun (termed mis-pronouning) or of being incorrectly categorized by gender (termed misgendering):

Throughout all my years at the University […], being mis-pronouned has been a consistent problem for me and the handful of trans students I have had the opportunity to teach. This year, my students are working to advocate that our writing faculty stop teaching that the singular pronoun “they/them” is grammatically incorrect—a battle we still have to fight even though even the mainstream press has recognized this use. […] [M]ost law professors mis-pronoun students, misgender them when they call them “Ms.” or “Mr.” […] and call them by legal names that are on the roster without a chance to share what they would like to be called instead. For students who use pronouns or names that do not match what a trans-unaware professor would assume or find on a roster, these forms of mis-identification can make them unwilling to participate in class and can impact their learning.[1]

For many trans and non-binary students, these persistent, everyday interactions are messages that they don’t really belong and are not truly seen. Spade reminds us that suicidality and depression in trans youth (which are at disproportionately high levels) decrease when those youth are routinely called by the correct names and pronouns. [2]

Our Pedagogy in Practice workshop was designed to give faculty an opportunity to develop familiarity with pronoun usage and strategies of address to ensure that our classrooms can be equitable and affirming spaces for all of our students. It is not uncommon for those who don’t believe themselves to be pronoun fluent or proficient to speak about or with trans and non-binary people less often, for fear of mis-pronouning them. Imagine the disparities in education, healthcare, and social life that accompany this kind of erasure from conversation. Instead of succumbing to fears that we won’t “get it right,” we encourage faculty to take ownership over their own pronoun fluency.

We define pronoun fluency as 1.) recognition that the use of pronouns can have a profound impact on student experience (positive or negative) 2.) familiarity with non-binary pronouns 3.) understanding of best practices 4.) ability to use correct pronouns with ease and 5.) willingness to apologize and correct oneself when a mistake is made.

We start our workshop by reviewing some of the core beliefs that inform our work:

  • Our use of pronouns and names have the power to affirm or disregard someone’s identity
  • Pronouns do not equal gender identity, but are important markers of gender for many
  • Our assumptions about people’s pronouns are often wrong
  • Non-binary pronouns (like the singular “they”) are legitimate and to be respected
  • We should not make assumptions about who “needs” attention to pronouns; we should consistently create classrooms that are equitable and accessible, which will benefit all of our students and enrich their learning

We then familiarize participants with non-binary pronouns and facilitate practice exercises for those who have trouble “getting it right.” Even those of us with the best of intentions can make mistakes. Perhaps we have known a student to use “she” series pronouns, and now the student is asking to be called by “he” or “they” series pronouns. We want to honor the student’s wishes, but may find it a difficult switch to make when speaking about the student. If you find yourself in this scenario: write a paragraph about the student every day for a week (or a month, if need be) using the proper name and pronoun. You will find that soon you begin to use that name and pronoun in speech with more ease.

In addition to this interpersonal improvement, there are some best practices for creating equitable and affirming classrooms through pronoun use. These practices can help to set a tone of respect and affirmation, demonstrating to all of our students that pronouns matter and that it is our responsibility to communicate with and about all of our community members with care:

  • E-mail a class before the first day indicating your openness to receiving information about their names and pronouns
  • Do not call roll from a roster. Let students sign in or introduce themselves by name to avoid dead-naming (referring to a person by a name they no longer use and that may out them or misgender them in front of classmates)
  • Give students opportunities to share their pronouns with you during introductions, but don’t make it mandatory for each individual to participate.
  • Explain why you ask for pronouns, but allow each person the opportunity to decide whether or how to engage in pronoun disclosure.
  • Suggest that students use name tents that include their pronouns, if they feel comfortable sharing them in this way
  • Put a pronoun line in your own email signature sharing your own pronouns, with a helpful link that explains why you do this [3]
  • Have a policy in your syllabus that informs students of your expectations that proper pronouns be used, like “Names and pronouns are deeply personal. Assumptions about them can cause harm. In this class, we will respectfully use whatever name and pronouns peers, authors, and community members ask us to use. If we make a mistake, we will respectfully correct ourselves.”

We love that Spade describes working with trans students as an “opportunity.” They are not a burden or challenge to overcome; they enrich our campus and offer vital perspectives in our classrooms. When we create more affirming spaces for trans and non-binary students, we are modeling for our cisgender students how to engage with gender diversity. Campus wide pronoun fluency will help TCU make good on its promise to be a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive university.




Lindsay Knight

Nino TestaThis article was written by Lindsay Knight, Director of First Year Experience, and Nino Testa, Associate Director of Women and Gender Studies, for the Fall 2019 Issue of Insights.