The Crucial First Five Minutes of the Semester
Many students spend the first day of class braced against various types of disrespect—professors who mispronounce their names, call them by the wrong name entirely, misgender them, and so on. Students who are worried about not being treated with respect can’t concentrate on what we’re saying. Here you will find a few reliable techniques to establish mutual respect with students in the first class meeting.
First off, don’t read from the roster. Instead, try one of these attendance-taking methods:
- Pass around an attendance sheet, asking students to write their names, their roster names (if different), and their pronouns.
- Pass out index cards or first-day surveys, asking students to write their names, their roster names (if different), and their pronouns. Some professors also ask for other relevant information, like year, major, languages, ‘anything I should know’ (commuter, student athlete, coming to see me about accommodations), ‘why are you taking this course’, and so on.
- Bring supplies for students to make name tents for their desks. Make it clear that you’re asking students to write their name (which you know is not necessarily their roster name). Invite students to also include their pronouns. Collect the name tents at the end of class & hand them back to students at the beginning of all subsequent classes. Be sure to make one for yourself as well.
- When you introduce yourself, tell students what you prefer to be called (Professor X or your first name) and, if you’re comfortable doing so, tell them your own pronouns.
- If you do introductions for the whole class, suggest that students say their names, pronouns, and something related to your course.
- Don’t assume you can tell what pronouns someone uses based on their appearance.
- When you begin the semester acknowledging that pronouns and names matter, students are more likely to feel comfortable in your class, and thus be able to focus on the material you’re teaching.
If students have questions about updating their preferred name, please send them Kevin Berg, Registrar, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gender Neutral/Affirming Ways to Address Your Class
- When discussing the student body, say ‘PLU students’ rather than ‘PLU men and women.’
- Avoid making statements like ‘We’re all women here…’, or referring to ‘…the two genders…’
- Invite your students to let you know if you misgender them so that you can avoid doing so in the future.
- Use gender neutral language whenever possible, but certainly in your syllabus and other general written communication.
- Whenever possible, avoid making assumptions.
- Relatedly, avoid making assumptions about how students experience their own genders, even if they’ve named a particular identity.
- When writing letters of recommendation or any other official communication about a student (especially students who’ve come out to you as trans or gender nonconforming or non-binary), write a quick email to ensure that you’re using the correct name and/or pronoun for that context.
- A good rule of thumb: if you’re not sure, ask!
We all make mistakes. As professors, when we do make a mistake, we have the opportunity to set a tone of respect in the classroom and model active learning for our students.
A few tips from Dean Spade’s classic “Making Classrooms Welcoming for Trans Students.”
- “If you make a mistake, correct yourself. Going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronoun assumption that has now been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
- If someone else makes a mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun as misused is present, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.”
More Resources for Faculty
- Spade, Dean. 2011. “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies.” Radical Teacher (92): 57–62.
- Brielle Harbin’s “Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom” (thanks to the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching)
- FAQs about Pronouns (thanks to the U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource center)
- Pronoun Introductions (designed for Smith School of Social Work faculty but broadly useful)
- Trans Inclusion Quick Guide (thanks to the U. of Minnesota’s GLBTA Programs Office)
- Transphobia & Racism, and Other Intersections (thanks to the Smith School of Social Work)
- Trans Student Educational Resources’ Model Policy for Four Year Colleges
- ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know (video), Chronicle of Higher Education
- Hanna Thomas and Anna Hirsch’s Sum of Us: A Progressive’s Style Guide (pdf)z