I want to talk about pronouns. Because, well, who wouldn’t want to talk about such a compelling topic? #nojoke
Montclair State University already has begun important conversations on pronouns through their LGBTQ center, in which they provide a suggested language for a course syllabus, giving students a comfortable space to discuss the pronouns they wish to be referred by in a classroom. I too want to talk about pronouns on a syllabus, but in a different manner. Last fall when I was editing a syllabus of mine, I noticed I switched from “students” to “you” quite a bit. I paused, wondering which word was better. “Students” seemed rather general as if I wasn’t in the room with them, but “you” didn’t feel quite right either. I was unsure why but the tone just didn’t fit. I wound up choosing “students” in general course descriptions but used “you” elsewhere to directly address students in my course. I didn’t think of it again until I went to the MLA conference this winter break.
Going to MLA for the first time and sitting in on various panels on composition and rhetoric energized my excitement for the spring term. The most useful panel I attended was entitled Academic Language of Measurement: Considerations and Best Practices. A trend that came up in two of the presenters’ papers was that of pronouns, sending me back to my syllabus revision of last fall. Erika Johnson of Texas Woman’s University discussed pronouns in course syllabuses, and Don Fette, Arizona State, questioned pronouns in instructor feedback for student papers—another topic I briefly encountered last semester but didn’t spend much time thinking about as to-do lists grew and paper stacks loomed.
In Johnson’s presentation, she shared her extensive research on the Basic Writing programs within North Texas, looking at three districts. In addition, she referenced other programs and syllabuses outside of this area to support her assertions. She has been studying the specifics of a syllabus now for five years. In her presentation, she pointed out that the use of “you/your” in a syllabus, often found in course descriptions or learning outcomes, “directed information outward,” thus separating content from the audience. When giving out an informal survey to her own Basic Writing students about her syllabus, which had also incorporated “you,” one student said the language appeared to be “talking down” to him, as if barking orders: “you should do this!” or “don’t you dare do that!”
So “students” it is then. Reading through my current syllabus again, I found this to be true. “You” seemed to automatically have a pointed finger attached to it.
Another problematic pronoun in a syllabus, according to Johnson, is “we.” This is also used in course descriptions or course rationales; the lines she showcased were: “the language that we all read” and “we must all know how to write in Standard English.” This diction attempts to be inclusive, showing how students and teachers alike utilize and need such skills. However, since teachers come into the classroom with the knowledge of Standard English and already have a love of reading, Johnson stressed that this use of “we” becomes a “false construction”—and students can tell. She further articulates that even we don’t actually use Standard English in all contexts, citing social media or text messages. Sure instructors’ texts or posts might be more grammatically correct than most, but come on, be honest—you’ve used abbreviations or emojis before (note the admonishing “you” here!) Johnson emphasized that instructors need to discuss the purpose and place for formal writing and Standard English right in the syllabus, specifying context for students. Or at the very least, she invited instructors to ask themselves why and how they are using this pronoun in each part of a syllabus—this notion can certainly correlate to assignments as well.
*An aside from pronouns, but worth noting: Johnson’s research also revealed that many instructors bold parts of a syllabus, often stressing the importance of an aspect of the course, highlighting key dates, or full-on warning students. At Rutgers-Newark, another campus I work on, we are encouraged to bold this lovely tidbit: All work must be turned in to pass this course. Again, this type of language, or rather formatting here, reprimands students before they have even walked in the door since a syllabus is often posted on Blackboard/Canvas before the course begins. To learn more about Johnson’s work, go to http://presentain.com/user/erikatj76 and click on the January 9th MLA link. **Another aside: For all the Multimodal lovers, check out this resource, Presentain! It not only provided access to the information after, but it also recorded her voice during the presentation and allowed the audience to ask questions via their phones during it.
Meanwhile…back in pronouns.
This detailed look at the diction of a syllabus can be carried on throughout the semester whether on a Canvas page, in assignments, or through grading. Fette’s presentation revolved around student assessment ; he detailed his own style of commenting and encouraged the audience to share their own feedback. In his presentation too, instructors’ flippant use of “you” came into question. Fette solidified ideas instructors have all been taught before—try to highlight the positive before providing constructive criticism, use a rhetoric of improvement in comments to keep students engaged and motivated. He, like Johnson, stressed that “you” can come off in an isolating, nagging way. On the other hand, he did add on to that point by mentioning how the “you” can be beneficial. He applies “you” in his positive comments to students: “you did a great job with finding evidence,” in order to keep the praise as personal as possible. Likewise, he tries to keep the “I” out of the comments, focusing on the writing project instead of the student; however, he often ends with the first person, trying to be personal for student praise: “I’m confident you can improve in the next paper.”
In my own paper comments, I have used “the reader” before in an effort to focus on the writing versus the student. This past semester, I also dabbled in the “we” to keep an upbeat tone. Yet the “we” did seem fake to me—I experimented with it a few times, but again just like my syllabus, I didn’t fully take the time to consider why I didn’t quite like it. Sitting in on Johnson’s presentation as she detailed the why and how of the troublesome “we” qualified my previous concerns through specific research. Yes, in the classroom we work collaboratively and instructors guide and facilitate the writing process for students. However, we aren’t in the room with the students when they type or edit at home. “We” might ring true in movies about teachers, the ones who only have one class of less than 20, yet still they must sacrifice their own lives, divorcing the attractive Patrick Dempsey to save those kids. I discussed this with Fette, commenting that “we” appeared to have this “holding hands and running through the meadow vibe.” I asked him what he suggested, as “the reader” can get a bit clunky. He replied that he uses “let’s”: “let’s work on developing claims in the future.” This has the same spirit of “we” without being as over the top. I plan to test drive it this spring.
While mourning the loss of the Netflix binge in order to fine-tune my own syllabus before classes begin, I invite us all to take a second look at our pronouns now as well as throughout the semester. What’s more, I’d love to hear more feedback on other helpful ways to write to our students this year. Let’s work on developing these ideas.