WriteCast Episode 46: Inclusive Language: Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Identity-First Language
© Walden University Writing Center 2017
MAX: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Max Philbrook,
CLAIRE: and I’m Claire Helakoski. This month, special guests join us to talk about Walden’s new policy on gender-neutral pronouns and identity-first language.
MAX: Today we’re talking with Brian Timmerman, director of the Writing Center, and Amber Cook, Associate Director of the Writing Center. Brian and Amber are also both members of the Writing Center’s social change working group.
CLAIRE: We invited Brian and Amber to talk about Walden’s new gender-neutral pronouns and identity-first language policies. These are two policies that have been recently approved by Walden’s Chief Academic Officer and posted on the WC website. So we wanted to invite Brian and Amber to share a little more about why these policies were put into place, what they entail, and how they might impact student writers here at Walden. Welcome, Brian and Amber!
AMBER: Hi, Claire, hi, Max.
MAX: Thank you very much for joining us. It’s great to have you explaining to our listeners about these new policies. So let’s start off with some definitions. First, what are gender-neutral pronouns?
AMBER: I’ll take that one, Brian.
BRIAN: Sounds good.
AMBER: Gender-neutral pronouns are pronouns that are a little outside of the traditional he/she/him/her. So a lot of people are familiar with the substitution of the more plural pronoun “they,” in cases where an actor or subject in the sentence doesn’t have a determined gender or the writer chooses not to identify the gender. And there are other pronouns as well. They’re kind of not totally gelled yet, out in the culture, but there’s a list of them that are available within our policy.
CLAIRE: Great. Let’s do another definition as well. What do we mean when we say identity-first language?
BRIAN: That’s a really good question. In fact, identity-first language is not something I was familiar with until a few months ago. Following APA, I’d always been taught that person-first language was the primary responsibility of the author. For instance, you would say “a child with Autism.” What we’re learning from identity-first language is that the identity, in some cases, should be primary. So in the example I gave, I would say “Autistic child” because Autism is associated with the identity of the person that I’m referring to.
MAX: Thanks for that run down. So now that we know a little bit more about what topics we’re discussing here, next can you give our listeners an overview of the two policies? What do they mean for the Writing Center and for writers here at Walden University?
AMBER: Sure, Max. I think really the intention of both of these policies is to provide some guidance and a little bit of freedom to Walden writers. So it’s not so much that we’re making hard and fast rules about how these two concepts need to be applied, but that when students and their faculty run into cases where they’re maybe kind of bumping in to these notions of gendered pronouns and person-first language, that they have some guidance and some freedom to move within them.
For example, with the gender-neutral pronoun policy, we’re not saying that every student and every piece of writing should use alternative pronouns. He and she and him and her may work just fine in most circumstances for most student writing. But there will be cases where students are writing about certain populations where gender binaries aren’t appropriate, or where the participants that they’re working with have pronoun preferences that maybe don’t show up already in the APA manual. And we wanted students to not be hindered by that. We wanted them to feel free to go ahead and use those pronouns, those preferred by the population that they’re studying, rather than feeling hampered by an APA policy that might be a little outdated or by a policy that’s not fully fleshed out, given that, you know, eight or ten years or so have passed since the APA manual and now. So just to provide students with a little bit more guidance in terms of flexibility in language.
And the same is true of the identity-first language as well. We expect that we’ll still probably see mostly people-first or person-first language when students are writing about various elements of disability, but there are going to be cases where they’re working with populations who have expressed a preference for identity-first language. And this policy allows them to make that choice without feeling like they have to adhere to a really rigid APA or Walden University policy that doesn’t allow for that.
MAX: So Amber, what you’re saying is that, since Walden primarily follows APA by the book, and that’s a standard practice here at Walden, these new policies are giving some flexibility to certain APA style guidelines?
AMBER: Right. I think the idea is not so much to create exceptions to APA, because in most cases APA doesn’t have a strong, clear guidance on these manners. It’s more that we’re adhering to the spirit of APA, which, in cases of discussing populations, the guiding principle really is participant preference and respect for participants. So I think what we’re saying is, given the evolving language around these two sets of language concepts, that we want to acknowledge this progress and that students can feel free to use that in their own writing.
CLAIRE: So now that we understand more about why these policies are in place, can you go over the specifics of these policies for students?
BRIAN: Thanks Claire, I think I can answer that one. Both policies then should provide the writer the opportunity to write about his or her participants or people being studied in the way that those people prefer to be identified. So for instance if a subject would like to be identified using a gender-neutral pronoun, now students at Walden can employ that gender neutral pronoun in writing. It’s the same then for the identity-first language policy. If we have a community that prefers identity-first language instead of people-first language, the student is able to employ that.
MAX: So it sounds like a lot of thought and deliberation have gone into revising these policies, because they affect the university overall. So I’m really kind of curious, Brian and Amber, what was the process like for developing these policies? And what kinds of discussions happened kind of internally?
BRIAN: Thanks, Max, that’s a really good question. What does it take to get a policy made here at Walden University? It typically means getting scheduled for a number of governing bodies at the institution. First by raising awareness that this is something that we wanted to pursue, that we wanted to kind of open up language for students. And that means, you know, meeting with the chief academic officer, it meant meeting with the Center for Social Change, and it also meant meeting with other governing groups. I’m happy to report that we really saw zero resistance to this, as it really was a matter of making sure we were respecting the communities that our students write about. It was a pretty smooth process.
MAX: That’s good to hear, especially since it seems like the policies are really intended for the groups and the communities that are participating in research with Walden students. So I’m glad to hear that for sure. And so, just a reminder, listeners, we’re talking with Brian Timmerman, Director of the Walden Writing Center, and Amber Cook, Associate Director here at the Walden Writing Center, about our new inclusive language policies. If you are interested in reading the specific text of these new policies, you can access those on the APA pages on our website and if you’d like a bit more explanation and discussion of the policies, you can do that on our Writing Center blog.
CLAIRE: So, we’ve had some really great examples about how students might use these policies, especially the gender-neutral pronouns. What are situations where a student would use the identity-first language? And how do they know when they should be using this language?
AMBER: That’s a good question and it’s one that we’ve gotten already from the groups that we’ve presented this to, so the faculty groups and the governance groups that Brian mentioned before. That’s one of the first questions is how do you operationalize this? How do you know when to use which sort of language? And I don’t know that there’s a real cut and dry answer to that, although again the spirit behind it is to make sure that you’re using what’s preferred by the population being discussed. And as a writer you don’t always know that, you don’t always have a chance to speak one-on-one or group-to-group with the people that you’re writing about, so due diligence for sure, making sure that you’re, you know, doing the research and then looking at the literature around populations that you’re writing about. You’ll probably pick up on what the preferred language is among that community. In some ways it’s more art than science. It’s not so much that there’s a right or wrong answer or a chart somewhere where you can say “Here are the groups that prefer this type of pronoun” or “Here are the groups that prefer this type of identity-first or people-first language.” It’s more about knowing the population that you’re writing about and making your best, educated decision on how to refer to that population.
BRIAN: Yeah, I agree, Amber. It’s about talking with the community that you’re working with or that you’re studying. Or if you’re talking with a specific individual, making sure that you’re using the language that they prefer and that they most identify with.
CLAIRE: Thank you both so much for that clarification. Are there any other common questions and misconceptions that you’ve encountered so far with the policies?
BRIAN: As I understand it, Claire, the only real questions that we get about the policies are concerns from folks who think that they are going to have to learn, for instance, every gender-neutral or gender-fluid pronoun that’s out there. And that’s not the intent of these policies at all. It’s a matter of, again, deferring to the populations that you’re working with or studying, or the person or persons that you’re communicating with.
AMBER: I would agree. That’s the question that I’ve probably gotten the most. And I think also the question of scope. Some people, I think, have worried about—and I think it’s always coming from a good place, of wanting to make sure they understand the policy and that they’re being respectful and sensitive to the language that’s evolving here—but that maybe they’re responsible for making this change everywhere in their writing. So we’ve had faculty ask, “Should we make sure that the pronouns that we use in course assignments are all gender-neutral?” And we’re not necessarily going that far. It’s not within our scope to do that anyway, but this is really something that’s applying to student writing, freeing up people who would like to use these two language concepts in ways that aren’t necessarily spelled out in other places. So this is a way to spell those out so that people feel free to use them. But it doesn’t necessarily mean, as Brian mentioned, that someone has to know every possible pronoun that’s in use, or that they need to memorize a list of which communities prefer which type of identity language. So it’s really just a matter of creating this opportunity for people as opposed to creating a sort of a new job of figuring out how this applies in every single possible circumstance.
MAX: I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind. That it’s not so much about memorizing these new things, although maybe that will come from it, but more so just being aware that language is evolving and identity is evolving and we can, as researchers and scholars and practitioners of social change, we and our Walden researchers can kind of embrace that by--I’ll use your word from earlier, Amber--by operationalizing this idea of positive social change and inclusiveness. And being aware that things are in transition. So. That’s a really nice way to say that, thank you for the explanation.
And so, there’s nothing to worry about, about…this isn’t the beginning of descent into linguistic anarchy or anything like that?
AMBER: No certainly not. Although I think it’s interesting too, one of the interesting responses that we’ve gotten to this and some other policies that have come down the pike, I think that people when they see a writing center byline or they see that we’re writing center people or that they find out we’re English majors or grammar people, the assumption is that we’re very rigid in terms of grammar rules or language rules or style rules. And I think that was part of the inspiration for doing this, is making sure that nobody looked at the writing center and said, “Well, I would like to use this language that’s more appropriate, but it doesn’t really fit strict APA so I better not.” We’re not necessarily the holders of the line when it comes to those things. So I appreciate you saying that, Max.
MAX: You’re welcome, Amber. And it’s funny when I tell people that I work in the writing center, I can immediately sense that they stiffen up a little bit and they start, you know, practicing their verb conjugations and things like that. But my experience is that most, you know, people in the writing center, a lot of language practitioners, people who think and study the language, are even a little bit more open to the fluidity of language. And I think it’s really nice to have an acknowledgement of that. So.
AMBER: I think it’s one of our best kept secrets. That we’re actually secretly pretty flexibile about this stuff.
BRIAN: Yeah and I agree with what all of you are saying. And that part of, I think the reason that we wanted to develop this policy was just out of concern that we somewhere within the university, we’d be instructing a student in a way that wasn’t sensitive to the culture or the identities that that student was working with. So, for instance, if a student is very intentionally using a singular “they” I wanted to really make sure that there is a time and a place for that and that the student can employ that sort of responsibility, and that grammar or APA compliance didn’t squash that attempt to use very precise language.
MAX: So one thing that often comes up on the podcast, all you loyal listeners will know, is the Walden mission statement, which includes positive social change and working to achieve that end. Brian and Amber, we mentioned that you were both part of the Writing Center’s social change group. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What kind of projects are you working on now?
BRIAN: Thanks, Max. The internal social change working group that we have in the Writing Center is new for 2017. It was an opportunity in which a lot of us saw that we really could support the mission of the university and its commitment towards social change. Particularly with regards to things that fall within our expertise. So, certainly these language policies that came out, we felt they were an opportunity to kind of broaden social change and imbue student writing with the opportunity to talk about social change and make sure that communities and populations were being respected by the preferred use of language and identifiers. But we’ve also worked on some other things, too.
One of the most recent endeavors we had was an opportunity to volunteer for a small organization in Minneapolis, and work with students that were practicing drafting their response to the ACT essay component. We’re early in the process as far as this working group, and trying to identify areas in which we can positively affect social change. And I should mention, too, Beth Nastachowski who has been a member of this podcast. She is kind of our unofficial chair and she’s done fantastic work and identified places in which we can be a little bit more proactive within the university and sometimes even outside the university.
CLAIRE: Thanks so much for sharing more about the Social Change group. If Walden students have any questions about the policies we’ve discussed today, you can contact us at [email protected] and we want to be sure to give a thank you to both Brian and Amber and a big shout out to Beth Nastachowski who helped with the creation of this episode.
MAX: Thank you, Brian. Thank you, Amber. You two are wonderful to interview and so smart and the work you’re doing here in the Writing Center and for Walden University and for all student writers out there, is beyond reproach. So thank you very much for sharing with us today.
AMBER: Thanks so much, happy to be here.
BRIAN: Yeah, thanks, Claire, thanks, Max.
CLAIRE: Thanks for listening, everyone. Until next time, keep writing!
MAX: Keep inspiring!
MAX: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. We’d love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter @WUWritingCenter, and on our blog: WaldenWritingCenter.blogspot.com. Thanks for listening!