By: Anita Grace
As I wrapped up a TA workshop on participatory classroom activities, I was feeling positive about the energy in the classroom and the engagement from all the participants. Everything seemed to have gone so well. But when I reviewed the index cards that I had used to gather feedback, two responses stood out: “Watch your gendered language. Avoid saying ‘you guys’”; “Don’t gender folks (e.g., you guys).”
Admittedly, I felt defensive at first. “You guys” is a colloquial expression—everyone knows that! Just as humour and banter with students create a friendly environment, I thought a phrase such as “you guys” indicates that I am approaching participants as peers. But as I thought more about it, I realized that while in no way had I meant to “gender” or discriminate against participants, my language did not reflect my goal of inclusive pedagogy. I began to question myself and my teaching methods, just as Lesley Coia and Monica Taylor asked themselves: “Are we the feminist teachers we think we are?” (2013, p. 5). Am I in practice the inclusive, feminist educator I want to be?
Diversity is a term that once referred primarily to race and ethnicity, but it has expanded in the last decade to include multiple and intersecting characteristics of social identity (Bart, 2012). Diversity of gender and gender expression should thus be included in any understanding of diversity and in efforts to create an inclusive, supportive classroom environment. As Sherry Zane (2016) notes, it is the responsibility of educators “to reflect on and challenge our gender assumptions so we can create more gender-inclusive spaces where all students are free to be who they are.” Do gender nonconforming and nonbinary individuals feel comfortable being addressed as “you guys”? And what about female students in general? English language patterns have historically assumed that, by default, all creatures are male unless otherwise specified (Miller and Swift, 1976; Khosroshahi, 1989). In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists argued that this tendency serves to make women invisible and perpetuates an andro-centric view of the world. I have long been aware of this issue with regard to the written word such that I would not dream of using the generic “he” or terms like “mankind.” Now I am coming to realize that the term “you guys” also reflects, and communicates, a “male-as-norm” assumption. To be inclusive thus requires that I adapt not only in my writing, but also my speech.
To facilitate an inclusive and non-gendering classroom space, Zane (2016) suggests that instead of calling participants “guys,” educators use terms like “folks,” “everyone,” “you all,” or “you.” Yet speech patterns are hard to change. We do not have the benefit of proofreading as we do with our written word. So while I strive to remove “you guys” from my speech, I admit that this is much easier said than done. Recognizing that it takes time to change speech patterns, however, I now say at the beginning of each TA workshop I facilitate that I am making an effort to stop using the phrase “you guys.” I invite participants to call me out if they hear me say it. I will also correct myself. These acknowledgements of mistakes, and of efforts to change, are important for fostering inclusivity and demonstrating to students that I am making a concerted effort (Zane, 2016).
I have also found that this opening discussion serves as a “teaching moment.” For example, after giving this preamble in one TA workshop, a female participant remarked, “I don’t mind if you say you guys.” “You may not,” I replied. “But I know some people do and I am trying to be more inclusive.” I added that we have shifted our written language away from the generic “he,” and that I’m trying to do the same with my spoken language. This sparked some positive discussion about inclusivity and language before we moved on to the rest of the workshop.
Clearly, practicing inclusivity in the classroom involves more than replacing “guys” with “everyone” or “you all.” In their reflection on what makes a feminist educator, Coia and Taylor (2013) advocate for principles such as empowerment, community-building, and respect for diversity of personal experience. Yet to put such principles into action requires awareness of (and perhaps changes to) our speech patterns. As educators, our comments in the classroom should serve to create safe spaces in which all students feel included. Our actions, and our words, should model respect and the celebrate diversity. The words we use to address our students are fundamental to the development of inclusive pedagogy such that all learners—of all backgrounds, genders, and gender expressions—feel equally valued and included.
Bart, M. (2012). Strategies for creating a more inclusive classroom. Faculty Focus. 23 April 2012. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/strategies-for-creating-a-more-inclusive-classroom/.
Coia, L. and Taylor, M. (2013). Uncovering our feminist pedagogy: A co/autoethnography. Studying Teacher Education, 9(1), 3-17.
Khosroshahi, F. (1989). Penguins don’t care, but women do: A social identity analysis of a Whorfian problem. Language in Society, 18(4), 505-525.
Miller, C. and Swifte, K. (1976). Words and women. New York: Anchor.
Zane, S. (2016). Supporting transgender students in the classroom. Faculty Focus. 25 July 2016. Retrieve from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/supporting-transgender-students-classroom/.