The Importance of Teaching Pronouns Inclusively
2019-04-19 Linda Dunsmore Alumni Experiences
In a writing classroom, instruction in proper pronoun use is typically limited to a short lesson on pronoun agreement. The pronoun must agree with the antecedent in both gender and quantity. Apart from this, pronouns are not seen as worth much class time; they are assumed to be uncomplicated aspects of the writing process. Many teachers will overlook pronoun disagreement in student writing with the assumption that there are writing errors that are more urgent than instruction in the finer details of pronoun agreement (e.g. the “correct” pairing of the singular “everyone” with the singular “he/she” rather than the colloquial-singular “they”). Pronouns are assumed to be easy to ascribe to others and something rather inconsequential in speech and writing. Those with a nonbinary gender identity know that this is seldom the case.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Nick M.
There is not much room for nonbinary voices to respond to current writing instruction around pronoun use. The normative practice of using “he or she” is critiqued as “clunky” by style guides, but it is not acknowledged as reifying gender dimorphism and classism, nor does any official style guide offer the blissfully easy suggestion to replace “he or she” with the working class, genderless, singular “they". In every institutionally recognized style guide, the instruction is to assume a dimorphic gender experience (that the subject’s gender, even if unknown, is either male or female) until proven otherwise. This pervasive instruction in the grammar of gender dimorphism makes the writing classroom an inevitable site of hostility for trans and nonbinary students, instructors, and texts.
When I talk to other teachers about my teaching of nonbinary authors in undergraduate classrooms, the most frequent question I get is whether chronic misgendering of a nonbinary author (they/them) has more to do with people’s inability to adopt new language patterns or whether it was a more “substantial” issue. This question reveals the way that many of us consider the division between language and thought. In fact, the inability to adapt to new language patterns and the inability to acknowledge new realities are intimately intertwined.
The language that we speak becomes the reality we inhabit.
When we teach children the word for a canine pet, “dog,” we are simultaneously inculcating them into a reality where that pet is a dog. There may be some period of dissonance, but ultimately to teach them the language of “dog” is to teach them to inhabit a world where the identificatory sentence, “That is a dog,” feels like a declaration of fact rather than a Saussurean bridge between signifier and signified.
The language that we speak becomes the reality we inhabit. In response to the question above, the inability to adopt new language patterns is a substantial issue. It is, in fact, an inability to internalize the reality that one is made aware of. Thus, “use ‘they’ rather than ‘he/she’ when referring to a person with an unknown gender” is not simply a statement of grammar. It is certainly that, but it is also an invitation (or perhaps a pleading) to join the speaker into a world where gender does not fall neatly along binary lines.
Pronoun use can be very confusing.
It is the dissonance between the perceived importance of grammar and reality that makes pronoun use the site of such confusion and frustration for cisgender folks. While it’s clear that misgendering causes harm to the queer and trans people who are misgendered, many people have difficulty understanding the commotion around gender pronouns.
Without an acknowledgment of the situatedness of gender-dimorphic thinking, gender pronouns are considered an odd preference - someone taking on an identity that isn’t actually in accord with reality. Without the humility to question our cultural reliance on gender-dimorphic scripts, people will continue to slip up, make mistakes, misgender others, even if they might have the best intentions.
These people will remain in the period of dissonance where they acknowledge that they have been “told” the correct language for a transgender person, but they have not yet internalized that reality. Thus, they continue to make mistakes, to misgender others, and to otherwise cause harm out of an intense situatedness within the totalizing realm of a gender-dimorphic reality.
Language decisions are ethical decisions.
The words we choose shape the communities we are a part of - the dignity with which we hold ourselves and others. They shape the very recognition of others as human beings worthy of care and attention. Nowhere does this connection between the mundane-grammatical and the ethical reveal itself more apparently than in the acknowledgment of someone’s gender pronouns.
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