English department officially recognizes they/them/their pronouns

Back to Article
Back to Article

English department officially recognizes they/them/their pronouns

Julia Goldberg, Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






As of this year, the English department will recognize a student’s choice to use the gender-inclusive pronouns they/them/theirs as singular, non-binary pronouns in place of he/him/his and she/her/ hers.

“On one level, it’s a profound change, but on another, it’s really not that different from what we were doing before,” Head of the English Department Vernon Wilson said.

The shift is profound because of its ramifications in personal identity, but grammar rules such as the matching of pronouns to their antecedents will still be taught, Wilson said.

“As English teachers, who teach pronoun/antecedent agreement rules, we had to confront the issue, and we agreed that supporting the ways our students choose to identify themselves was of paramount importance to us,” English teacher Dr. Wendy Steiner said.

“I myself use they/them pronouns, and something I’ve been told by people is ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’ll have an easy time adjusting to that, because they/them is for multiple people, and you’re only one person,’” Dylan Acharjee (10) said. If an English department accepts the use of they/them, they’re validating the pronouns and showing that the pronouns can indeed be used for singular people, they said.

“It’s a big moment when an aspect of the community authentically decides to let people be seen,” Co-Director of the Office of Identity, Culture and Institutional Equality (ICIE) John Gentile said.

“We teach grammar in ninth and 10th grade in varying ways, but this seemed like a perfect way to show that language is always changing,” Wilson said. “We tell [students] that, but it often seems theoretical and abstract… but here, you can see it actually changing,” he said.

The change signifies that the department is teaching students in profoundly different and new ways, Gentile said. “It’s an opportunity for us to participate in a larger cultural moment that is sustained; it’s not just a trend, but the future,” he said.

Gabby Fischberg (11) said that she thinks some people might protest the breakage of grammar rules but believes that grammar can change and evolve over time.

“[Grammar] is a social construct; we created it, so there’s no reason why new rules can’t be added,” she said. Wilson hopes that through this shift, students will form a better understanding of the flexibility of language, he said.

 

Acharjee’s class went around saying their names and pronouns, they said. “In [other] classes, I haven’t announced my pronouns, just because it’s really awkward to bring up and there’s never a right time,” they said. The policy makes them feel more safe, Acharjee said.

“I think once you write something down, you have to make sure you’re practicing it consistently,” Gentile said. The policy is not just about the written aspect, but also about how it will impact the larger student life experience, he said.

Throughout last year, Wilson had been working on a statement explaining the change, he said. Some months back, a colleague of his mentioned that certain students had said their English teachers stated that students were not to use gender neutral pronouns, he said.

“I told him that there was probably a misunderstanding, and I doubted that the teachers were saying that that was incorrect grammar,” Wilson said. “However, that made me think that maybe we should have a statement about what we’ll be teaching, in regards to what is, culturally speaking, a changing landscape.” Before this year, aside from the teaching of pronoun usage as a part of general instruction, there was no real policy, he said.

In the statement, the department noted that the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook both affirm the use of “they” in reference to a singular antecedent.

“The major way in which the policy has affected my teaching is that at the beginning of the year, I ask all of my students their preferred pronouns,” Steiner said. The topic of pronouns can also lead to some interesting discussions about the assumptions made about a speaker’s gender identity in a poem, she said.

The document expressing the new policy has stated that the Upper Division English department finds it important to “embrace the commitment among a growing number of students and scholars to use language that mirrors both their own identities and their hopes for the creation of a more equitable and caring society.”

“Handing the letter out to students was never the idea, as this communication is, in the spirit and the letter, aimed at parents,” Wilson said. “Often parents are somewhat unaware of what their kids are learning, but because this is a fairly meaningful change, we wanted parents to be aware of it.”

Though Wilson considered distributing the document last year during either a fall parent night or a later point, he did not want the change to feel like a monumental one, he said. Instead, he decided to wait until the start of this year and simply use an email blast to notify parents, he said.

“The shift had a good amount of significance, but I feel like it could’ve been announced in a bigger way,” Acharjee said. “That’s not to say [the department] was not accepting before, but a public show of acceptance can really go a long way.” For example, the change might’ve had a more significant impact if the English department sent the email out to students as well as parents, they said.

Cecile Caer P‘19‘21’24 said that she thinks that it’s progressive of the English department to adopt the policy to be more inclusive, and that it’ll give more freedom for students to express themselves.

“I respect people who want to be referred to with different pronouns, and if I am aware of it, I will try to honor their wishes as much as I can,” she said.

Jack Blackman (12) thinks the situation is more complicated than it seems, he said. “You obviously want to make sure that everyone feels safe and included in the classroom, but I fear a situation where a student gets in trouble for assuming or forgetting one’s pronouns.”

Upper Division Parent Association Secretary Amy Federman P ‘21 supports the new policy, she said, as it institutionalizes the values of the school’s community.

“As a PA member and a parent, I want all students, regardless of race, gender, or economic diversity, to feel included, valued, validated, and respected; that’s the only way students will reach their full potential in and out of the classroom,” she said.

Fischberg said that this shift is a positive marker of a step towards recognition of the fluidity of gender and LGBTQ+ rights in general. “I think it’s pedantic to use old rules ‘just because,’ and it’s not much work to adjust your speech to make people more comfortable with their gender identity,” she said.

“I hope that students will see our shift in policy as indicative as a broader change in culture, which requires all of us to see each other in our full humanity,” Wilson said.