By Constance | Writing Center Consultant | September 13th, 2018
As autumn leaves start to fall and a new semester of classes and work begins, I have again been faced with a dilemma that has followed me since I first decided to start using pronouns to refer to myself that were not “she,” “her,” or “hers”–the internal debate of whether or not I ought to announce to professors and work colleagues the pronouns I do use. I have several professors who ask, on first days of classes, for their students to share this small factoid of identity; one of them insists upon offering her own pronouns whenever she meets someone. But most people do not ask, not thinking to refrain from assuming others’ pronouns, and I am considerably nervous about the whole scenario–if I could, I would keep my mind far from the topic of gender identity and all the rampant complications it has for me–but when I stay silent, I am referred to as a woman. And my pronouns, on the contrary, are “he,” “him,” and “his,” or “they,” “them,” and “theirs.”
In the couple semesters I’ve been working at UW Oshkosh’s writing center, I have never announced my pronouns to those students with whom I meet. I wear a pin, sometimes, indicating my preference, slipping the needle through the shirt fabric over my heart–this morning, though, I couldn’t find the pin. And I don’t always feel like wearing the damned thing.
A writing administator at the University of Kansas, doctoral student Jacob Herrmann offers one solution: “The KU Writing Center,” he notes, “uses the WCONLINE appointment system. When students first create a profile on the system, we have them select their preferred pronoun usage. During the Fall 2016 semester, we had 13 clients that identified with they/them/theirs, 2 clients who preferred ze/zir/zirs, and 11 clients who marked ‘other’ and provided us with their own pronoun usage.” In addition to this, “all consultants have a placard on their table during their shift which lists both the consultants name and major, as well as the consultants’ preferred pronoun usage” (Herrmann).
Given that the UWO Writing Center also uses WCONLINE, a similar action to that of the KU Writing Center, perhaps, could be done. It’d be nice, maybe, to not be alone in sharing (or not sharing) my pronouns with others within the space of our writing center. And yet that answer isn’t a perfect one to the problem at hand–not every individual visiting or working in this space might be comfortable disclosing their pronouns. And people will assume things, likely, regardless of the presence of placards.
A graduate student and writing center employee at UW-Madison, Neil Simpkins notes another potential symptom of such an action: “Occasionally,” he writes, “students ask me questions about transgender identity in the session that are not relevant to the task we are working on; in one session recently, a student asked me if Neil was a gender neutral name and what my ‘real gender’ was at the end of our time together.” Rather than advocate for the use of placards, he offers three suggestions for building “spaces of acceptance for LGBTQ students and tutors”: “Anticipate that student records will not represent many student’s preferred names and genders… [c]onnect with campus resources that meet the needs of LGBTQ students… [and] [a]ddress LGBTQ issues directly in tutor training” (Simpkins).
Our writing center here at UWO does require such training, and allows writing mentors and mentees both to choose the names by which WCONLINE refers to them. Perhaps, though, we ought to connect more often with those campus resources that assist LGBTQ+ students, and to a greater extent. Or, perhaps, we simply all need nametags.
Would such nametags or placards work well? If not, what else might be done to achieve a similar effect?
Herrmann, Jacob. “Brave/r Spaces Vs. Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ in the Writing Center: Theory and Practice at the University of Kansas.” The Peer Review, vol. 1, no. 2, 2017. http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/braver-spaces-vs-safe-spaces-for-lgbtq-in-the-writing-center-theory-and-practice-at-the-university-of-kansas/.
Simpkins, Neil. “Meeting the Needs of LGBTQ Students in the Writing Center.” another word: from the writing center at the university of wisconsin–madison, 18 Nov. 2013, https://writing.wisc.edu/blog/meeting-the-needs-of-lgbtq-students-in-the-writing-center/.