Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pronouns and institutions

Lindsay Shepherd is a graduate student and teaching assistant in communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. Teaching first-year students about pronoun use, Shepherd showed a short clip from a television debate about gender-neutral singular pronouns — and specifically, about whether speakers and writers should be required by law to honor the pronouns that other individuals choose for themselves. As Shepherd tells it, she was not taking sides; she was presenting a debate and inviting students to comment. Later, one or more students complained. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on what followed.

Part of what followed: a meeting in which two faculty members and a staff member questioned Shepherd and opined about what happened (and about much else). The recording of that meeting offers a deep experience of the Kafkaesque. No one will tell Shepherd who or how many students complained, or the nature of the complaint or complaints. Shepherd’s presentation of a current debate about language is deemed by her interlocutors to have created a “toxic climate.” Shepherd is told that she has targeted “trans folks” and committed an act of “gender-based violence” and transphobia. Even as a faculty member tells Shepherd that there are “two sides” to every story, it’s clear that he and his colleagues have already made up their minds about what happened.

What might be the most extraordinary moment: “Your role as TA is not really to be teaching about the politics of grammar; it’s to be teaching grammar.” And yet teaching grammar includes teaching the use of singular pronouns, which, in English, are gendered — which is to say, political. Someone then asks Shepherd if she’d be willing to stick to “more traditional” matters in grammar. And yet a “more traditional” presentation would likely prohibit any consideration of gender-neutral singular pronouns. As I said, Kafkaesque.

Lindsay Shepherd describes herself as “a reasonable leftist.” The conclusion she has reached about her university, as presented on her Twitter page: “Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution.”


December 19: An investigation has exonerated Lindsay Shepherd of any wrongdoing. From a statement issued by Wilfrid Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy:

There were numerous errors in judgement made in the handling of the meeting with Ms. Lindsay Shepherd, the TA of the tutorial in question. In fact, the meeting never should have happened at all. No formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video. This was confirmed in the fact-finding report. . . .

There was no wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Shepherd in showing the clip from TVO [TVO: TVOntario, an educational television station] in her tutorial. Showing a TVO clip for the purposes of an academic discussion is a reasonable classroom teaching tool. Any instructional material needs to be grounded in the appropriate academic underpinnings to put it in context for the relevance of the learning outcomes of the course. The ensuing discussion also needs to be handled properly. We have no reason to believe this discussion was not handled well in the tutorial in question.
[A specifically Canadian context for this controversy: Bill C-16. See also a recent post by Geoffrey Pullum, unrelated to events in Canada: “I’m on the same side as my non-binarist and gender-neutral and transsexual friends,” Pullum writes, but he thinks of singular they with a personal name for antecedent as ungrammatical.]

comments: 8

normann said...

“Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution.”

Only the patients are in charge of it and they're off their meds.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

My better judgement is telling me to not wade in and just unfollow you quietly, but instead I'm going to comment.

For a moment, I want you to imagine if a teacher had shown a tape of a debate as to whether black people (or any other group, such as woman, religious minorities, etc) had low intelligence.

Even if the teacher did not take a side in the debate- /Especially/ if the teacher did not take a side in the debate, students who matched the profile of those disparaged would feel their place in the classroom was being challenged and questioned. They would feel unwelcome to participate and as if their very presence in the institution was questionable.

Imagine screening a debate as to whether eating pork should be mandatory for students, how that would make some feel. Or a debate as to whether religious people should be allowed to get days off on their holidays.

Now, imagine grammar had specifically been used as a tool of disrespect. In fact, you need not imagine it- people on mailing lists and also even newspapers used to regularly claim that grammar required them to disrespect the identities of trans people. (If I had a dollar every time I saw somebody say that grammar required using the wrong name and pronouns for Wendy Carlos, I'd be able to buy her synthesiser.)

Calling people by pronouns that don't fit them causes most people anxiety. If you don't believe me, try imagining if everyone was calling you 'she' all day. If this is still too hard to imagine being disturbing, feel free to actually try it out for a week.

There are no customary gender neutral pronouns in English. So any debate about whether grammar is 'allowed' to change in this regard is, in fact, a debate about the pronouns used by individuals in a class and by extension, about their identities. The singular they is the only GNP that is /not/ a neologism, as it's a revival of a historical practice. Debating how students should be allowed to describe themselves in terms of their own gender is obviously going to be upsetting for some. Failing to take a stand on the issue can hardly be said to be helping.

As an academic, I've occasionally blundered when trying to discuss racism in music classes. I tried to 'teach the controversy' and I could see it was valuable for the white students in the class but deeply alienating for black students. They didn't complain about me, but their distress was visible and I haven't repeated that particular lecture. I made a mistake and I've tried to learn from it to be a better teacher to all my students, remembering that any identity issues that come up probably do apply to at least one person in the room.

I'm also transgender and it's very easy for me to see how this is upsetting because I know how I would have felt. I try to take into account the needs and identities of my students. Which I wouldn't compare to a mental institution, because I know several of my students do have mental illnesses and disparaging those students to show annoyance would just be adding further insult.

It's not that students have become more sensitive, it's that more kinds of people have access to universities. This is obviously a good thing and we should be careful to ensure the old barriers fall.

Michael Leddy said...

What made me interested in the Wilfrid Laurier situation:

1. A TA presented a live issue in grammar and usage.

2. Her superiors reacted in ways that I find appalling.

The sample situations that you describe — about intelligence, dietary matters, holidays — seem to me to be significantly different from the question Lindsay Shepherd presented, which is a question about nomenclature and about whether the words someone uses should be stipulated by others (individuals or the state). I think we’re far from a consensus about whether they works well with a personal name as antecedent, something different from the longstanding uses of singular they: “Does everyone have their book?” “Tell them to come in.” As I wrote in a previous post about singular they, “Singular they as a pronoun for a person who identifies as neither he nor she seems to me to inherently confusing.” And in a still earlier post, “If I were not a he and were making this kind of decision for myself, I’d choose singular pronouns.” Sentences such as “They are a student who works hard” or “They is a student who works hard” don’t seem to me to be the best solution to the absence of gender-neutral singular pronouns. If someone chooses they as a personal pronoun, fine. But “They are/is a student” is a sentence I can’t write. To my mind, a new set of singular pronouns would work better, and their function would be unmistakably clear.

Should someone who identifies as he be called he, and should someone who identifies as she be called she, regardless of what a birth certificate says? Of course. To speak or write otherwise would be cruel and/or moronic, which is evidently the case with people who get Wendy Carlos wrong. But I don’t think that’s at issue in the debate that Shepherd presented.

Michael Leddy said...

I managed to cut and paste my own typo. The sentence should read “Singular they as a pronoun for a person who identifies as neither he nor she seems to me to be inherently confusing.”

One point I want to add: the question isn’t whether students should be allowed to describe themselves as they choose; it’s whether other people can be compelled to use those words.

And if the word is they, again, there’s no consensus. From the American Heritage Dictionary entry for they:

“The recent use of singularthey for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial; as of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender . With regard to this last sentence, the Panel’s responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later.”

If a student were to ask about singular they and gender, I think an instructor would have an obligation to make it clear that it’s a subject of debate, a debate that has nothing to do with disparaging identities and everything to do with pronouns and with adjusting the language to accommodate human identities. A new set of gender-neutral singular pronouns (ze, zir, zirs) would signal identity clearly and could not be mistaken for casualisms such as “Scout brought their book.”

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

I picked the examples I did because I wanted to make the point that debate is not always appropriate and that language and grammar have been (and continue to be) used as tools to oppress gender minorities. There are people who feel extremely uncomfortable being called either 'he' or 'she'. Attempts to introduce new pronouns have not lead to adoption and asking someone to constantly explain not just their own pronoun preferences, but the pronouns themselves is too much to ask. The shorter 'I go by [x pronoun]' conversation is already tremendously awkward even when it's that single sentence. Introducing an unknown pronoun to the listener is opening up a longer, even more awkward conversation and, ironically, inviting grammar-based objections of the that's-not-a-word-because-it's-not-in-my-30-year-old-Miriam-Webster variety. Indeed, amateur grammarians of this sort are probably the largest reason people have turned to the singular they. Again, I want to emphasise that although people raising these objections cite grammar as their motivation, this is always not their primary concern.

Other languages have pronouns that serve many roles, such as they German 'sie.' Certainly English can also cope with the inherent ambiguity. As you seem to note, the singular they is already unremarkable when the identity of the person in question is unknown. So if a sentence like 'They wrote an excellent paper,' becomes correct or incorrect based on whether the student forgot to put their name on the top, this seems to stray from grammar and have more to do with culture and identity.

My PhD thesis pre-dated the adoption of 'they' as standard for non binary individuals and I had to fend off problematic corrections of the Spivak pronouns. The major advantage of the singular they is that it's much more widely known and the word itself is instantly recognisable. Obviously, Shakespeare's usage of any words or phrases are not current, but at least this appeal to authority does tend to flummox those who object to any new innovation that might recognise the humanity of non binary people.

tl;dr It is those who would defend grammar who have lead us to this situation.

Of course I want TAs and lecturers to be treated fairly when complaints arise, but it's also sometimes appropriate to keep the identity of vulnerable students secret and not every attempt to include current debates in a classroom is handled well, especially by inexperienced teachers. Obviously, I'd like to see teachers who make honest mistakes receive training rather than punishment.

Michael Leddy said...

All I’ll add in response is that the question of non-gendered singular pronouns looks far from settled. The new Chicago Manual of Style says that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected,” and approves of they as a way to refer to an individual in formal writing. But the editors also point out that “This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing.” To my mind, the mix of plural and singular verbs that would likely result (“They are a student who works hard”) is a practical problem to consider. (Chicago, by the way, says that singular they takes a plural verb, which would rule out “They is a student.”) You think that they works well; I think that a new set of pronouns would work better. Either way, it’s all a matter of language catching up with culture. (Census categories would be another example.) We might disagree on whether anyone can be required by law to use particular pronouns, which, again, is something at issue on the Canadian talk show.

And about pronouns: I agree that “I go by [pronouns]” is an awkward conversation to have. But as you must already know, there are college communities that encourage everyone to have that kind of conversation. And about people who insist that a word isn’t in “the” or “my” dictionary: well, they’re dumb about language. I wrote a post about such a person (an editor, no less) railing against the word insightful. Not in his dictionary.

Anyway, I’m glad that you didn’t walk away, or at least not yet.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

I read your blog regularly a enjoy it and I appreciate your thoughtful responses here.

Intentionally using wrong pronouns for other people is a form of harassment based on gender and is therefore already legally prohibited in education and workplaces in many countries. In the case of people who go by gendered pronouns, this is entirely a settled question.

Colleges and other communities that encourage people to introduce themselves and their pronouns together are doing so to normalise the difficult conversations trans people sometimes must have, and as a show of cisgender solidarity. While this is a good start, it's still not normalised more generally. Cis people can choose to have the conversation or not, depending on how they expect it to go, and can still be confident they'll have the correct pronouns and gender applied to them. For some trans people, this is not the case.

I have no doubt that enbys (this word comes from the acronym for 'non-binary') will continue to evolve their use of language in terms of what they wish to be called as a group and individually in terms of pronouns. Personally, I tend to view grammar, especially in regards to identities such as theirs, as largely descriptive rather than prescriptive - something I also feel about ontology especially in regards to social categories.

Michael Leddy said...

And I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts here.