By Nicole Schmidt and Brenda Molina-Navidad
A lack of university policy surrounding gender-neutral pronoun usage in the classroom has been causing problems for transgender students.
Trans Collective coordinator Markus Harwood-Jones, who uses he and they pronouns, said they choose not to use gender-neutral pronouns in class because of how often professors are unwilling to be accommodating. Issues that stem from within the classroom, they added, are the most common complaints students bring forward.
While writing an essay earlier this year, Harwood-Jones used gender-neutral pronouns. When the assignment was returned, they said the professor flagged the pronoun-use as a grammatical issue.
“This professor was very adamant. Even after we spoke and agreed to disagree, she still expressed that she doesn’t feel like it’s academically appropriate,” said Harwood-Jones, adding that they’ve seen other instances where students have felt so marginalized in class that they’ve stopped going.
There has been a long standing debate within academic communities when it comes to pronoun-usage. Gender-specific pronouns, such as “she” and “he,” are typically encouraged in academic writing over “they,” “them” and “their.” Despite disagreements over grammar, the use of gender-neutral pronouns has become more common and, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, is now widely accepted in speech and writing.
Grammatical discrepancies are common among students, according to Jane Freeman, director of English Language and Writing Support at the University of Toronto (U of T). This can make the differentiation unclear when somebody has made an error, she added. “Using a plural pronoun to mean a singular is grammatically incorrect. However, it’s become a statement of personal identity to use a gender neutral pronoun for some writers in context,” she said. “When it’s used strategically in that context, it’s not an error; it’s a choice.”
U of T does not currently have a formal policy in place prohibiting or accepting the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the classroom.
Nora Farrell, Ryerson’s Ombudperson who assists students with complaints surrounding fairness, emphasized that language is constantly evolving to reflect the way society is moving. “It’s really more of an inclusion issue,” she said.
Some universities in Canada have adopted policies to address language issues. Mount Allison University in New Brunswick has a policy on the use of gender-neutral pronouns, which states that “Gender neutral language shall be used in all official University documents … as well as in other University communications.” These guidelines were created “to be of assistance to members of the university community in every academic situation in choosing words which are accurate, clear and free from bias.”
York also has a gender-free language policy, in addition to a guide on gender identity and expression. Similarly, Queen’s created inclusive language guidelines, which favour gender-neutral phrases over those that make “sex distinctions.”
While Ryerson does have a discrimination and harassment prevention policy, which includes gender identity and gender expression, gender-neutral language and pronoun usage is not included. Andrew Hunter, Ryerson’s Interim Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts, said there are no gender-neutral language regulations within the English department. He added that he is not aware of regulations within other departments.
But Dale Smith, associate professor in Ryerson’s English department, said creating a policy for gender-neutral pronouns may be problematic because it could shift the focus away from the issue.
“Imposing policy guidelines around language is kind of a dangerous approach to it and it doesn’t build anything but respect for policy rather than respect for the larger reality that we inhabit,” he said.
For many students, the advocacy for gender-pronoun usage falls on them. Fifth-year social work student Gabi Tabi said pronoun use isn’t something that’s openly discussed, and that it should be.
“Some people think, ‘It’s just a gender pronoun, it’s no big deal.’ But it is a big deal for me. It’s a part of my identity. For people who don’t respect those pronouns, it really invalidates you and your identity.”