The Collegian
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Asking for personal pronouns not ubiquitous on campus, but encouraged

<p>Whitehurst Pavilion houses the Richmond College dean's office, one part of the coordinate college system.</p>

Whitehurst Pavilion houses the Richmond College dean's office, one part of the coordinate college system.

Editor's Note: The story originally said WILL* stood for Women Involved in Living and Learning. It is not an acronym.


As a student, you may have been asked to share your pronouns during class or at club meetings. 

Or maybe you haven’t. 

Westhampton College Dean Mia Reinoso Genoni invites her students to share their pronouns when introducing themselves. Genoni is also the adviser of the Westhampton College Government Association and a professor of art, art history and women, gender and sexuality studies.

However, Genoni noted that this takes careful practice. Typically, Genoni encourages students to introduce themselves and invites them to share their pronouns if they'd like, she said. 

“You wouldn’t want someone to feel like they had to out themselves,” Genoni said. “In WCGA meetings, the pronouns on placards shows a welcoming environment and a safe space. We don’t want to make it feel like it’s mandatory. Maybe [someone] just started grappling with their identity.” 

Assistant professor of sociology Eric Grollman, who uses the pronouns they/theirs, shared this approach. In their classes, they have students fill out an introduction sheet including name and pronouns, among other factoids. Then they pair students and ask them to share whatever they feel comfortable with, they said. 

“I would prefer that pronouns be announced so that people can get the pronouns right,” Grollman said. “But I also give enough of an out so that you don’t have to share that if you don’t want to.”

Although this practice takes place in Grollman's classes, it is not shared by all professors or faculty members.

Grollman said that was not the standard practice for professors.

“I’ve had a lot of reticence about doing nontraditional things because I’ve not felt supported in doing it,” they said. “Professors who are most likely to want to do something that is inclusive in absence of having departmental or institutional support also probably feel the most vulnerable and don’t want to do something that might upset students.”

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Asking for pronouns is not required of professors or faculty members at UR, although the Office of Common Ground and the deans' offices may suggest that it be included in syllabi or other class materials.

The suggested Common Ground syllabus insert notes that inclusion and diversity are core values at UR and ensures that all students are referred to in accordance with their identities. Genoni’s syllabus insert also states that if you have a name or pronoun that differs from the class roster to please send an email to her indicating the manner in which you wish to be addressed.

Although including the syllabus insert is not something required of professors, Richmond College Dean Joe Boehman said he hoped more professors would have started including it in their class materials.

“That’s a signal to students that it’s a welcoming environment,” Boehman said. “Every faculty has a choice over how they want to manage their syllabi or run their class, but it’s an easy step to take to put that in.”

Boehman suggested that there were other steps to support preferred pronoun usage on campus such as including pronouns in directories and email signatures.

“There’s room within the university to codify it,” Boehman said. “Those are things that are easy and subtle steps to do, and just recognizing that they may not be on the gender binary.”

Genoni echoed this by saying that she looks forward to a world in which more people choose to ask for pronouns than not, but that she respects the personal choices of professors.

Grollman shared an anecdote about a past colleague who chose not to include pronoun usage as a part of their class introduction out of fear of offending students who were not open to trans issues.

“My issue is that’s tolerating intolerance,” Grollman said. “We have to make space to those who aren’t open to making space.”

Not only have professors such as Grollman and Genoni been making space for trans students on campus, but also have student organizations such as WILL* and SCOPE (Students Creating Opportunities, Pride and Equality).

Senior Kylie Britt, president of WILL*, said using one's chosen pronouns was an extension of respect for one other. Britt also said she introduced herself with her pronouns to take the burden off people whose pronouns didn’t necessarily associate with the way they looked.

“If there’s someone who’s worried about people getting their pronouns wrong in class but hear me say my pronouns first, they may feel more comfortable and it might normalize it,” Britt said.

Britt also recalled a time in which someone poked fun about sharing pronouns in a class.

“If there were anyone in the classroom who depended on sharing their pronouns to communicate, that could be seen as really disrespectful,” Britt said.

Junior Jeff Lowe, president of SCOPE, echoed the importance of the practice of sharing pronouns. He said that at the beginning of each SCOPE meeting, members shared their names and pronouns.

“It’s important, obviously, for what our group is specifically as an LGBTQ group, but through the repetitive process of doing it, it’s kind of to normalize asking for people’s pronouns,” Lowe said. “By doing it every week, it’s recognizing that someone’s pronouns could change. Someone could say something different one week.”

Recognizing the fluidity of gender pronouns is also crucial to the practice. Lee Dyer, associate director for LGBTQ campus life, recognized that pronoun usage is often difficult for people to understand, and that inclusivity efforts may make people feel as if they are outing their identity when they’re not ready to.

“Pronouns are one’s affirmation of themselves,” Dyer said. “For me, I don’t really believe in telling someone else how to affirm themselves. So when I do, I’ll say my name and my pronouns and I’ll say please share your name and your pronouns if you choose to do so. I do think it should be the option of if you choose to.”

These practices have a common goal of creating a community of respect. The first step is educating people on why sharing personal pronouns is a practice and why it is important, Lowe said.

Dyer suggested that not just acceptance, but respect for each other as human beings is the goal.

“The best thing I can say is just ask,” Britt said. “Introduce yourself with your pronouns. Practice that. Then practice with they/them pronouns. There’s such a nuanced understanding of masculinity and femininity, and some people don’t fit into one of those boxes, so it’s important to be able to use that consistently, too.”

Genoni also emphasized the importance of practice and understanding.

“As people, one of the most painful things is when we’re not seen for who we are," Genoni said. “This is part of that. Not to be fully seen or fully heard feels like you don’t exist, so this is one piece of that.”

Contact managing editor Sydney Lake at sydney.lake@richmond.edu.

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