Professors: ask preferred pronouns

Students should feel their preferred pronouns will be respected in the classroom.

Jenny Roberts

JennyRoberts.jpgIt’s about midway through the fall semester, and it is likely some students are still being misgendered in their classes, or haven’t been asked about their preferred pronouns at all.

For transgender students and students who are gender-nonconforming, classroom settings can be particularly stressful and anxiety-inducing. These students often worry about whether professors will respect their preferred pronouns in class and how they should even begin to approach the subject of pronouns with professors.

“I don’t usually email teachers saying these are my pronouns,” said Rose Gebhardt, a second-year visual studies major, who identifies as agender, meaning they don’t have a gender. “To be very frank, doing that kind of thing requires a lot of effort and it causes a lot of anxiety on my side.”

Professors should make it easier for students like Gebhardt by making an effort to ask students about their preferred pronouns at the beginning of each semester. And Temple as a whole should provide professors with the resources to learn how to respect students’ preferred pronouns and gender identity.

Training to help professors learn about LGBTQ issues, including pronouns, would be a good start. Mandating that professors ask about pronouns without giving them the information to understand why they’re asking would not foster respect or even a safe classroom in some cases.

“I don’t want them to ask because they were told they have to,” said Michelle Scarpulla, a professor in the College of Public Health. “I want them to understand why it’s important to ask and then how to be respectful and use those pronouns respectfully.”

I understand asking students their preferred pronouns and being sure to use them correctly may take some extra effort on the part of faculty, but it is not too different from the extra effort many professors already put into learning students’ nicknames.

In her classes, Scarpulla has each student write their preferred pronoun on an index card at the beginning of each semester along with other personal information.

“Every semester somebody will look at me and say, ‘Thank you for asking that. I wish more people would do that,’” she said.

Jasper Saah, a sophomore history major, who identifies as gender fluid, said they bring up their preferred pronouns with professors on their own. But based on which class they’re in, Saah might not even inform the professor that their pronouns are they/them.

“Depending on the professor and how I gauge the room to be will affect whether or not I make a request to bring it up,” Saah said. “Sometimes if I am in a big class I just let it go and try not to think about it.”

If preferred pronouns were added to Temple’s systems like the Self Service Banner, TUportal and Blackboard, students like Saah wouldn’t have to worry about deciding whether to tell professors their preferred pronouns. Instead, professors would have access to this information through Temple’s various systems before class even starts.

Gebhardt said they’ve had experiences where they’ve told professors their preferred pronouns, and the professor forgets to use them correctly.

“Like they won’t say anything in regards to if it’s a problem or something, but they will just not remember,” Gebhardt said.

And while intending to respect a student’s preferred pronoun and just forgetting to use it may seem less malicious than an outright refusal to try, both cases can negatively impact students.

Gebhardt said constantly reminding professors of their preferred pronouns can be exhausting.

“I get misgendered every single day of my life,” they said. “People calling me, ‘she/her, she/her, that girl, that woman, that lady’ kind of stuff, and sometimes I’m like, ‘whatever,’ and sometimes I’m just like, ‘I’m so tired. Please make it stop.’”

Students shouldn’t have to suffer like this, especially in the classroom where they’re trying to learn.

Scott Gratson, associate professor of instruction in strategic communication, works with the LGBTQ community at Temple and will serve as the faculty leader for an upcoming transgender advocacy group on Main Campus.

He said students have shared their experiences of being misgendered by other professors with him.

“I’d love to believe that it’s only because they’re forgetful,” Gratson said. “The students seem to have a different reaction.”

“Ultimately, Temple has a policy that says, ‘We will not discriminate in terms of gender identity and expression,’” Gratson added. “That’s part of our nondiscrimination clause. Why that cannot transfer into the classroom, I have no idea.”

Gratson said in his classes he includes a section in his syllabus that encourages students to reach out to him to indicate their preferred pronouns. Perhaps, this type of section could be added to the list of topics that are required to be on all syllabi, like the university’s policy on academic freedom.

Clearly, there are a number of logistical ways in which the university could make it easier for professors to access students’ preferred pronouns. But access to this information means nothing if professors do not actively try to use students’ correct pronouns.

Ultimately, it is an understanding of gender and its complexity that needs to be fostered on campus. And I hope professors and the university can work together to create this understanding.

Jenny Roberts can be reached at

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