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Topics/tags: Teaching, autobiographical, academia

Over the past decade or so in academia, it’s become common practice to announce your pronouns when you meet a group for the first time. The practice is designed, in part, to make it more comfortable for those whose pronouns don’t necessarily match their appearance to explain how to address them appropriately. And, as we all know, addressing people appropriately shows respect [1]. For folks like myself who present as the same gender as they identify, announcing your gender pronouns can make it easier for others to announce their pronouns.

My own practice with asking students to announce pronouns has evolved over the years. Like many, I used to require it. But then I learned that forcing people to announce their pronouns can make life difficult for some people, such as those who may not want to out themselves in classroom situations. These days, I make it optional.

One complicating factor, at least from my perspective, is what to do when you choose to address people by last name. There are times that I consider it more appropriate to use last names in class. I sometimes do it out of habit; when I came to Grinnell, last names were de rigueur in some classes. But I also like to subvert notions of authority; if I have students call me by first name and address them by last name, it helps identify them as authorities [2,3].

Over the past few years, I’ve been surprised to discover that many students are uncomfortable giving themselves a title, even though I offer options with a menu like Ms. Smith, Mr. Smith, Mx. Smith, or whatever you consider appropriate. Most frequently, students say, If you must address me by last name [4], please address me as Smith, with no title.

I self-identify as a culturally Jewish, cisgender, heterosexual, overweight male. At least three of those aspects give me cultural capital. So I generally say something like,

I use he/him/his pronouns. If you must address me by last name, please call me Mr. Rebelsky, Professor Rebelsky, or Dr. Rebelsky [5]. If you choose to address me in the generic, I am likely to do the same in response. That is, if you just call me Professor, I will just call you Student.

I’ve been starting to rethink that statement, as well as my practices. In particular, I’ve begun to wonder whether I should just switch to a gender-neutral pronoun for everyone I discuss, or perhaps do without pronouns altogether. Would that make my classroom more inclusive? I’m not sure. I must also admit that I consider it a bit disingenuous to apply they/them/theirs to myself because those pronouns are typically reserved for those who do not identify on the gender binary, and, as I said, I identify as male. Let’s see, what would my statement look like if I tried to incorporate these ideas?

I discourage the use of pronouns, particularly gendered pronouns. If you use pronouns for me, I prefer that you use they/them/theirs, even though I identify as male, because I consider those pronouns more inclusive. Nonetheless, Sam/Sam/Sam’s is better. If you are worried that they/them/theirs are plural, one can find evidence throughout the past few centuries of those pronouns as singular gender-neutral forms [6].

I recall discussing this idea with one of my children and having that child note something like, That approach does not address the issue of students being misgendered by other members of the class. They may be right.

What to do? What to do? I had hoped [7] that musing about the issue would help me reach a conclusion. It hasn’t. Perhaps my musings will influence others wiser than I to issue guidance to me and to others. We shall see.

Postscript: As my students know, I don’t always do a good job of getting pronouns right. Please know that I’m trying my best!

Postscript: I suppose if I were a more responsible person, I’d start looking for the most recent scholarship on inclusion and pronoun use. However, I’m not teaching this year, so I think I’ll leave that deeper exploration until closer to the time I next teach.

[1] How should I take it that I keep appearing in print as Sam Rebelsky even though I regularly tell people that I prefer Samuel A. Rebelsky.

[2] At least that’s what I’d like to think.

[3] It also confuses them, which is likely one of my other goals.

[4] The If you must address me by last name is part of my standard script for introducing yourself to the class. I include it not only because I want to address students by last name, but also because it gets them to pronounce their last names for me.

[5] Yes, I realize that Dr. Rebelsky is how most people refer to Michelle. I have also earned the title.

[6] See, for example,

[7] Or perhaps my muse had hoped.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-15.