Whose (dis)comfort? Claiming, Naming, and Holding Pronouns in the Classroom

By Susan B. Marine

Hi, my name is Susan, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers.

So goes my standard introduction these days, at everything from faculty meetings, to church functions, to meeting the new barista at my local coffee shop/office. It rolls off my tongue quite naturally, but this was not always so. I used to hesitate a bit, as cis folks often do, feeling the self-consciousness that comes with trying on a new practice designed to de-center one’s own privilege. Turns out we like being comfortable, we cis folk.

photo of author, Susan Marine
Susan Marine, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Higher Education at Merrimack College. Her research interests include feminist praxis in higher education, LGBTQ studies, and critical theories and methods, among others.

I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort – and discomfort – in my classroom lately. I’m getting ready to start teaching my summer course, an introduction to the history and contemporary issues facing higher education in the US context. I absolutely love the course because it’s my first opportunity to get to know and learn alongside students in the new cohort. You see, I teach in a one-year accelerated master’s program, and in such a context, every decision has impact. There’s little time to make up for serious missteps of trust, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that discomfort and mistrust are not mutually exclusive states of being.

This is where the politics of pronouns come in. Even as little as three years ago, I would have proudly and confidently proclaimed, “I always share my pronouns at every first class session, and I always expect all students to do the same.” I thought this was the feminist standard: Name it! Give it Voice! Loud and Proud!

Erroneously, I believed that modeling pronoun disclosure and then asking everyone to follow suit was the best way to signal a welcoming environment, to demonstrate an ethos of normalizing the identities of people of all genders, a value I hold dear as a feminist teacher.

Then one day as I was enacting this rather mindless assumption, I noticed something troubling. All of the cis students in my class either shared their pronouns effortlessly, or did a ‘shrug and smirk’. This is my name for when a cis person says something to the effect of, “my pronouns are…he/his…or she/hers… I’ve never really thought about it before”, with an accompanying shrug, and a smirk, and sometimes either a nervous or dismissive laugh (every seasoned teacher knows the difference).

The shrug and shirk is common, but it doesn’t bother me. I too sometimes behave nervously when I feel unaware of the expectations of those around me and worry I might not achieve them. What troubled me more was the phrase, I’ve never really thought about this before. In just one class, at least ten students – all cis identified – used this phrase. The two trans students in the class, who had come out to me previously and privately, paused – perceptibly, and without self-consciousness, but not without deliberateness – before sharing their pronouns.

In the six minutes it took to circle the room, there were long drawn out moments when cis students slowly, haltingly admitted being previously oblivious. This, compared with milliseconds of perceptible pause, when the trans students were calculating….their safety? Their energy level? The time that might be required to explain themselves to others? All of these?

In this time warp of pedagogical insight, I understood deeply again about the relationship of feminist principles to others’ lived realities. One may be comfortable in the moment, even when one is minoritized, but it may be very hard won, from years of uphill effort to claim one’s truth in the face of enormous oppression. And the kind of discomfort that comes from suddenly coming face to face with a question you’ve never had to ask yourself, as with most cis folk around gender, is the best kind of discomfort we can usher in. It’s the kind of discomfort the truly feminist classroom should support, indeed, should proliferate.

In that moment, I realized something important about my own smugness as a cis person trying to make space for gender diversity to flourish.

The obligatory ‘go-round’ did nothing to empower those who have been minoritized; instead, it imposed my timeline on those who typically have many very legitimate reasons to conceal their pronouns, and ultimately their trans-ness, in a group setting.

Instead of expecting everyone to claim their particular truth and vocalize it, I thereafter shifted to sharing a few lines of reassurance that returned agency to my students. I now say, “I’d like us to share our pronouns with one another, but I recognize that’s a different proposition for some of you than others. On this information sheet, I’ve added some blank lines so that you can tell me how you feel about doing this—and unless we have complete consensus, we won’t do a go-round.”

Over the last few years of this practice, more than one cis student has said, “I’m not sure I understand why we need to share pronouns…,” leading to an invitation from me to come and learn about the practice. More than one trans student has said, “Can I just share mine with my project group, and you can call me by my name all term? That would feel better to me.” More than one student has also said, “I’m still deciding how I want to identify, so if we could wait until midterm, that would be great.”

Does it feel like I am reinforcing stigma or normalizing it by not insisting everyone share pronouns? I hope not.  Agency, after all, is about choice, including the choice to remain silent, to opt out when energy preservation is foremost in one’s mind.

Audre Lorde did say, “your silence will not protect you.” She also said, “I have to believe that caring for myself is not self- indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” By making space in my classroom for students, especially those of minoritized genders, to consider how much (and when) they want to be known, and how that process can unfold as they see fit, I center self-care. I let them know that that caring for themselves is far and away more central to their learning than being out about their pronouns or their identities for the benefit of others. I hope it makes it easier to be themselves, on their own terms. I know that it helps me to remain humble in the process of coming to knowing them fully, as learners, and as human beings and to not forget that my classroom may be a space I can work to make safe, but the world outside is most assuredly not (yet).

So I’ll continue to share my pronouns, and I’ll continue to ask my students if and only if they wish to, to share theirs. Naming, claiming, and holding: all are valid choices in this continuously transphobic world. And until the world is 100% safe for people of all genders, I’ll continue to do the most feminist thing I can: to defend and uphold the right to proudly speak one’s pronouns, to protectively conceal them as needed, and to also work ardently for the world to change.