Using “they” as a singular pronoun

Earlier this year, the AP Stylebook announced (see the article below) that they (see what I did there?) were allowing the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

What little discussion of the subject I have encountered among friends and other academics, in person and on social media, indicates that Colleen Newvine, product manager for the Stylebook, was accurate in stating that “Some people will be furious; others won’t think we’ve gone far enough.”

Personally, in my classes, I allow students to use “they” as a singular pronoun, for the same reasons as the AP Stylebook (“recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she”). I have long thought that the absence of a non-gendered singular pronoun in English besides “it” is a significant weakness in the language, and “they” is enough of a workaround for me—and, experience indicates, for my students.

I have a few requirements for students who use “they” in this manner. Clarity (something that AP too emphasizes in their explanation of how “they” can/should be used) is of high importance to me, as is consistency, so I require students to provide both when using “they” as singular. As part of the above, students are expected to make it clear via the context that “they” refers to an individual. Of course, I ask students to seek for clarity and consistency whenever they use language, so I have to do nothing new in this regard.

I have many reasons for being comfortable with this shift. Since I engage regularly (and ask students to do so) with the issue of how language asserts and creates/supports power, often serving to disenfranchise those who fall outside the supposed bounds of social acceptability, I want the English language to be more inclusive and egalitarian. As a multilingual speaker of languages (Bengali and Hindi) which actually include non-gendered singular pronouns, I’ve long considered, as I noted previously, its absence in English a flaw. And as someone who studies (and enjoys) the way language changes and morphs over time, accepting such change is hardly a difficulty. When I teach Shakespeare, I explain to students that, contrary to their expectations, “you” is the formal term and “thou” the informal term in the plays, since that was the customary usage of the time. As my students and I discussed this week in class, any language is an almost completely arbitrary sign system. If one is consistent enough with it to be clear, that’s good enough for me. Experience too shows that allowing the use of “they” as singular does not hurt clarity of communication in my classrooms at all.

What about you?


The Political Classroom

As a follow-up to our roundtable from March on dealing with politics in the classroom, here’s some additional material, provided by Mike Laser.

Mike suggested the book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (by Diana E. Hess & Paua McAvoy; Routledge, 2014) as a good source for those interested in this subject. He also kindly collected these notes on the book and what it says:

[An observation: the book refers to classes in which discussion of political issues is a central part of teaching. These are mainly high school history/government classes. Freshman comp classes can adapt these ideas—but, for the teachers portrayed in the book, training students to deliberate together on these issues is the primary goal.] Continue reading

No, that isn’t “Bad English.” (article)

Mike Laser shared this article, which discusses dialect and ideas of correctness in speech and writing.

No, that isn’t “Bad English.”

The article is subtitled, “The obligatory lecture that needs to start every English class.” While I wouldn’t quite go that far, I do tend to spend a class on things like accent, dialect, and the arbitrariness of language at the start of the semester, especially in 105.

To be precise, I actually don’t use the term dialect much and prefer to use the term “code,” which I think is easier for students to grasp (and leads neatly into the issue of code-switching). A second, larger reason for using “code” is that I also want students to think of non-verbal codes. I usually lead into the discussion by drawing things on the board, such as a house or the sun, and asking how they know what these are. I also will often draw a disassembled stick figure, which they immediately recognize when put together, and which they will tend to gender as male or female with slight additions. These activities and such discussion lay the groundwork for getting students to think about the shared codes they possess; how they access (or lack access to) such codes; how these codes affect their thinking and reading and writing; what sort of codes are being emphasized (or deemphasized) in the writing and reading they do in my class and in their other work in the university; cultural codes they work with and how these affect them; and so on.

In my experience, such explicit discussion of codes (or, in the article, dialects) has been extremely productive for my classes.

What about you? How do you touch upon dialects, correctness, codes, and related matters? And, of course, what did you think of the article?

Politics in the Classroom

The above link is to a 2015 interview of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy (authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education), discussing the issue of politics in the classroom and how teachers can/should introduce and discuss the subject.

Personally, I regularly connect the work we do in class to the wider world beyond it, since I find that to be a key element in teaching critical thinking. Additionally, considering events over the last few months and especially the last fortnight, I think I would be remiss in not touching upon politics, since it directly pertains to the lives of my students and the world they (will) inhabit. Simultaneously, I am aware of the potential pitfalls of explicitly introducing politics into the discussions (I would argue that any classroom, by definition, implicitly engages with politics) and want the subject to add to and enhance the functioning of the classroom. To that end, the following are some of the strategies I utilize: Continue reading

Self-Care Mid Term

Melissa Adamo

Catching up with a friend last night whilst enjoying some delicious fare from Taco Truck, I complained about burn out. It’s that point in the semester when we all feel drained: papers keep coming in and lesson plans still need to be made; we grade paper two with one hand and plan module three with another. Ah the joys of mid-term! Most of us probably haven’t had a real day off since September.

An article popped up in my Facebook newsfeed last night (shout out to Nikki Bosca) reminding me of the reason for such fatigue—as if I need reminding: “A study…from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that…across all education staff, including teachers, teaching assistants, playground staff, cleaners and caretakers, 37.6 per cent worked unpaid overtime – a figure higher than that for any other sector” (Wiggins). Although this study isn’t directly related to higher ed, the overtime required of teaching isn’t news to any of us. Continue reading

Essays for Module 3 (105)

A message from Mike Laser:

“I put together this list of essays from the textbook for my students, for Module 3. I figured they have enough to do for their other subjects without having to skim every piece in the book. I didn’t summarize every piece in the book — only the ones I thought might be good starting points for Module 3 projects. Other teachers may have different choices, and they could post their suggestions in the Comments section.”
Hope this is helpful for some people.


Essays from Everyone’s an Author:

Continue reading

The Transition from High School to University Writing (link/handout)

At the beginning of the semester, in my 105 classes (and sometimes, to a lesser degree, in 106), I make sure to emphasize that the writing expected from students at university level will be substantially different from what they likely were asked to produce in high school. Rather than giving them a long list, I usually introduce the differences piecemeal, in a hopefully organic manner that arises from the subject matter that we are dealing with in class.

However, I have been looking for such a list, to bolster what I mention in class and to serve as a handy reminder. I just came across one on the University of Toronto website here, which hits on virtually everything that I would want it to.  It’s also available as a printable PDF and free to print and distribute, according to their Fair-Use policy.

Hopefully other people will find it useful too.