Gender Inclusivity in the Classroom
This guide addresses gender inclusivity at Barnard, particularly in classroom settings. While many faculty and staff may identify as transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and/or gender questioning, our guide is specifically focused on supporting students who fall within any or multiple of these categories. Using gender-neutral language and respecting people’s pronouns goes a long way in making students feel a sense of belonging and allowing them to feel present in their learning experiences. Therefore, it is crucial to learn about and integrate gender inclusive language, practices, and general knowledge into classroom settings. By doing so, we can empower all students at Barnard to forge forth in their learning processes uninhibited by gender oppression. For more information about LGBTQ+ resources within the larger Columbia University community, please see The Columbia University LGBTQ+ Guide: Resources to Foster an Affirming Community for LGBTQ+ Faculty, Students and Staff.
Contextualizing Gender at Barnard
“...Barnard embraces its responsibility to address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency and to help students achieve the personal strength that will enable them to meet the challenges they will encounter throughout their lives.”
Barnard is a space that encourages students to engage with gender in thoughtful, “[complex],” “[urgent]” ways. In turn, faculty have a responsibility to further this mission in the classroom. We practice basic human decency when we respect, affirm, and empower all students in their learning processes with particular attunement to gender nuance.
Despite Barnard’s identity as a women’s college, it’s important to recognize that not all Barnard students identify as women after enrollment. While this may at first seem like a paradox, consider that college is a transformative time for many students, in areas of life not only confined to academic growth, and that gender is fluid and can change over time. Some students start their time at Barnard identifying as women, but change the way they engage with and embody gender during the course of their college career. Others still might evolve and change in other ways, or align with different pronouns, gender identities, and gender expressions over and across time. In other words, gender, in all of its iterations, is fluid. Furthermore, many students value Barnard for its potential to facilitate self-growth, authenticity, and positive transformation in multiple areas of life. This is an aspect of the college experience which can be helpful to keep in mind when reading this guide.
When thinking about gender in the classroom, it’s necessary to advocate for feminist theories and practices of intersectionality in your teaching and learning. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor who coined the term intersectionality in 1989, explains it as “a prism for seeing the ways in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” Within this line of thought, strive to interrogate your own relationship to applied feminist practices in the classroom and the broad range of ways that students articulate gender identities in relation to other categories of identity, which may be based in racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or national membership. Consider what actions you can take to empower both women and gender diverse students, as well as to deconstruct power dynamics which may lead to oppressive and/or disempowering gender-related experiences.
Addressing the Student Body in the Classroom
Although the college continues to use gendered language that reflects Barnard’s identity as a women’s college, when you are addressing the student body in the classroom, use gender-neutral pronouns and language in order to shift the assumption that everyone at Barnard is cisgender (an assumption known as cisnormativity). This can be as simple as using the term “Barnard students” (rather than “Barnard women”) and using they/them pronouns when discussing the student experience (e.g., “by the time a Barnard student is a junior, they will have declared their major). Even if it’s true that the majority of Barnard students use she/her pronouns and/or identify as women, using cisnormative terminology to address the general student body is exclusive of many people within the Barnard community. We will focus more on gender-affirming practices further down on the page, but this initial shift in the way you think about students at Barnard is a crucial first step towards engaging with gender inclusivity.
For updated or more information on any of these ideas, the Vanderbilt University guide "Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom" is a very helpful resource. Terms evolve quickly and take on different social and political meanings at different times, so it is important to stay updated on your language usage.
Gender-Inclusive Pedagogical Practices
What follows are some suggestions for gender-inclusive pedagogical practices you can implement in your classroom, digital or otherwise. This list does not serve as a conclusive guide, but a jumping-off point for you to begin engaging with gender inclusivity and to develop some of your own strategies that might best suit your and your students’ teaching and learning needs. Additionally, along with the following, Vanderbilt University offers a guide regarding pronoun usage that may be helpful in the classroom.
Classroom Strategies for Applied Gender Inclusivity
This can look like:
- Substituting gender inclusive language for gender binary language (e.g. “everyone,” “people,” and “folks” instead of phrases like “ladies and gentlemen”)
- Normalize using they/them pronouns—or no pronouns at all (e.g. "Sam wrote in Sam’s paper")—when referring to people who have not explicitly told you what pronouns they use
- Stating your pronouns when you introduce yourself
- Including your pronouns in your syllabus, email signature, office hours page, etc.
- Including your pronouns in your Zoom display name, if teaching online, and encouraging students to do the same if they feel comfortable
These practices can help create a more comfortable environment for students who feel they have to be explicit about their pronouns or risk being misgendered. Additionally, when introducing your own pronouns, it may be helpful to follow the model, “I’m Professor X, and I’m using (insert pronouns) today.” This model helps affirm that pronoun use can be fluid and may change over time.
In a face-to-face classroom, you could pass out a sign-in sheet that asks students for their name, and, if they choose, pronouns. In a digital or hyflex classroom, consider sending out a pre-class survey asking students for this information, as well as in what settings they are comfortable with you using their name and/or pronouns (in the classroom, in office hours, in communications with other faculty members).
Give students an option to share their name and/or pronouns rather than requiring that they do so. Many people need to feel a sense of trust in a space or with a person in order to share about their gender identity, so do not take it personally if some students don’t yet feel comfortable doing so. Additionally, be sure you have students’ consent before distributing this information to others outside of the immediate context in which you’ve asked for it. Whether or not students are comfortable sharing these aspects of themselves may vary depending on environment, audience, and context.
This can look like:
- Including discussions of gender when addressing community guidelines / course expectations around respect so that gender inclusivity becomes embedded in the classroom culture
- Embracing interdisciplinarity, e.g. engaging with different perspectives and class contributions that may include material from other fields, including gender studies
- When mentioning a reading by a specific author, or a work by a specific individual, being explicit about that person’s pronouns so that students refer to them correctly during discussions
- Assigning course material by gender variant authors and/or that engages with gender variance
Misgendering describes the act of referring to someone using terms, pronouns, or identities that do not match that individual’s gender identity. Misgendering is often unconscious and may occur through assumption (e.g. assuming someone’s gender identity based on their gender expression or other factors). It can make gender variant students feel alienated, uncomfortable, and dissociated from the learning process. Ideally, the below pedagogical practices will help you to avoid misgendering. However, mistakes do happen, and it is important to think about how you will proceed if misgendering occurs. The below Instagram post by user @tai.draws offers a helpful guide for how to engage with pronoun use and the possibility of misgendering someone. Building off of this, here are some strategies for addressing misgendering in classroom settings:
- Be up front if you’re not sure about someone’s pronouns (“____, could you remind me of your pronouns again?”)
- Acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake about someone’s name and/or pronouns, and correct yourself swiftly
- Refrain from giving a drawn-out apology if you do misgender someone; this burdens the person who was misgendered with the pressure to forgive you, or placate your guilt
- Politely intervene when misgendering occurs in the classroom, whether that person is present or not. This can look like, “Thanks for your point! (X person) actually uses they/them pronouns,” or even “I really liked what (X person) said. She directed us to this passage”—“he”—”Right, sorry, he—,” etc. It’s important to remember that, in this case, a quick interruption is ok, and should be normalized.
Practicing Gender Inclusivity in Daily Life
Because we live in a cisnormative world, it is normal to initially feel challenged by incorporating gender inclusivity in the classroom. Before you enter classroom settings with new ways of approaching gender, it can be helpful to implement these practices into your personal life. This can look like: challenging your assumptions about gender as you walk by strangers on the street, using no pronouns or they/them pronouns when referring to people you have just met, and interrogating your own relationship to gender, inside and outside of the classroom. For example, how has your gender impacted the way you engage with your academic field? What specific challenges and/or privileges has gender afforded you in your personal life? Reflecting on these questions can be a helpful tool for learning more about your own relationship to gender, and what gender-related practices might be specifically helpful for you as an educator.