According to a leaked syllabus for Nancy Bishop’s online class, she docks points for using “mankind” instead of “humankind,” for writing “he” or “him” or “man” in reference to both men and women, and for employing what she describes as “generalized pronouns.”
“Thanks to evolution,” she said in the syllabus, “generalized pronouns and other biased references are no longer acceptable in any class.”
But Ariana Vigil, a UNC professor in the women’s and gender studies department, said gender-inclusive writing, like other good habits, should be positively reinforced.
“Personally, I don’t dock points for gender inclusivity,” she said. “I just don’t know if that’s the most useful way to change behavior.”
Instead, Vigil circles words like “mankind” and asks students if they really mean to be exclusive with their writing.
“Generally, they don’t,” she said.
But Vigil said her policy does not excuse divisive language.
“I support the overall goal, and I ask students to be reflective about language use,” she said. “Words matter, and my role is to help students be more precise.”
At the request of a UNC student, The Writing Center revamped its own handout on gender inclusivity — which had not been updated for about 15 years.
The new handout, released last week, offers alternatives for more subtle instances of divisive language — like substituting “first-year student” for “freshman,” “machine-made” or “synthetic” for “man-made,” and “chair” for “chairman.”
A student suggested in an email last spring that the handout might be in need of special attention over the summer, which is when The Writing Center reviews its online content.
Vicki Behrens, assistant director of The Writing Center, said online handouts are modified to reflect the language of the time.
“Language is always changing, and language use is always changing,” she said.
At Washington State University, an instructor wrote in her syllabus that even the use of “male” and “female” can be “oppressive and hateful.”
But Ari Cohn, senior program officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said this kind of oversensitivity in academic settings stifles healthy discourse.
“Professors who scold students to keep an open mind should practice what they preach,” he said.
Cohn said professors mean well but they should respect students’ ability to reach their own conclusions.
The movement extends beyond academic writing. The Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville further calls for professors to note students’ preferred names and gender pronouns in lieu of traditional roll call.
“With change come opportunities for dialogue and engagement,” the office explained in a newsletter for its inclusive language awareness campaign. “We no longer use words like, ‘crippled,’ ‘retarded,’ or ‘crazy’ to refer to people with physical and mental disabilities.”
Kimberly Abels, director of The Writing Center at UNC, said that ultimately gender inclusivity is a choice — and an important one.
“We think it’s always important to be aware of your audience in a way that they will hear you.”