As part of a new policy, students can now input their gender pronouns into MySwarthmore. Those pronouns will appear on faculty rosters, T. Shá Duncan Smith (she/her/hers), associate dean of inclusion, diversity, and community development, announced in an email in December.
To update their pronouns, students can login to MySwarthmore, go to the “Personal Information Main Menu,” and click the “Pronoun” menu. There, students can choose from an extensive list of gender pronouns, spanning from she/her/hers/herself to ey/em/eir/emself. Currently, students cannot write their own pronouns in because of technical complexities. Nyk Robertson (they/them/theirs), interim associate director of the Intercultural Center, said that anyone who uses pronouns not on the list can contact them at email@example.com.
According to Smith, the pronouns update came about through a long process, starting with the Campus Climate Study published in November 2015 by the consulting firm Rankin and Associates. The study, which included an extensive survey of community members and various focus groups, revealed a need to create more awareness around non-binary gender identities.
“People make assumptions,” Smith said. “People make assumptions about what people’s pronouns are, so really having a culture where we are affirming about who people are and how they want to identify on a daily basis is something that’s important.”
After the Campus Climate Study, Smith and other administrators formed a Self-Study Action Committee, which gave a report in April 2016. One of the priorities the report suggested was the creation of a way for students to input pronouns. The “Pronoun” form in MySwarthmore is the result after over two years of discussion and technical and logistical difficulties.
To facilitate the culture that Smith described, Robertson is leading 2.5-hour training sessions for faculty and staff, which began in December. So far, there have been over 85 participants in the workshops in which faculty and staff can practice using pronouns correctly. For example, in one exercise, they are randomly assigned pronouns that they have to use in role-play situations. Robertson said the trainings have gone very well.
“It makes my day when I leave those trainings,” they said.
Recognizing that the trainings reach a limited audience, Robertson is also going to visit department lunches and give shorter trainings there. For example, they will give a short training to the Health and Wellness team soon. In addition, they are training the IC interns and DPAs to co-facilitate training sessions that will open to students in mid-February.
They also think that the pronouns update will allow for a larger dialogue about the gender binary on campus.
“Through this training we are opening up a wider conversation around gender and the binary and the ways in which it still functions both here on campus and in our society, and I think that will grow,” said Robertson. “We speak about language and just saying ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ when you start your class, things like that … I think we will see a change in other ways in which the binary functions here on campus.”
Although the pronouns update was only implemented a couple weeks ago, students have already observed positive effects. Maya Henry ‘20 (she/her/hers) and Gretchen Trupp ‘18 (they/them/theirs) commented on the policy and offered suggestions as the heads of the Swarthmore Queer Union.
“For me personally, it’s definitely been a positive change, because sometimes it’s really hard to come out to your professors, or your co-workers, or your boss, especially if you’ve known them for a while, so for me it was really helpful,” said Trupp. “Instantly I noticed that people who saw my pronouns have shifted [their language] … I’m glad there’s the option to do it.”
Henry agreed and was glad that the administration had continued focusing on pronouns even during years of heavy administrative change.
“I definitely think it’s a step in the right direction. I’m really glad that they have multiple people who are on this and thinking about it, and that way it’s not just a few people’s side-project, like it’s actually something that they thought was important,” said Henry. “I think it’s cool that they haven’t let something die, as other projects have.”
One of those projects, according to Henry, was the administration’s reaction to the controversy around the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship. From her perspective, the administration didn’t act early enough to publicly combat SCF’s policies concerning gay leaders in the group.
Trupp and Henry also want to ensure professors are held accountable for engaging with the issue of pronouns.
“It’s great that we have these things but if professors and staff ignore them then the situation kind of stays the same,” said Trupp.
Henry added that students can help hold professors accountable.
“That goes along with the student training and I’m hoping that the student training will give us the tools to, in a respectful way, especially for allies, to go and talk to professors about people’s pronouns,” said Henry. “Professors should be ready for students to correct them.”
The changes are still a work-in-progress, and there are many other variables, both from student and staff perspectives.
“Some people, especially people who are starting to transition, might not necessarily be comfortable with entering their pronouns in and with changing their pronouns right at the get-go or trying out new pronouns,” said Trupp. “But I think some of that is making a space where people do feel comfortable changing and trying different stuff out. I think that’s the most important — that people feel safe and respected.”
Along those lines, Smith encourages faculty and staff to continually check their students’ pronouns over the course of the semester in case students change their pronouns. She also hopes community members will create guidelines in their classes around issues of inclusivity and pronouns.
“I think maybe it’s about classes really setting the guidelines for how they want to operate as a class, as an inclusive classroom, and as a community for the term that they’re together,” she said.
While Smith always believed the changes were important, she said she didn’t realize its full magnitude until talking with a student after the policy was implemented.
“The emotional reaction that I got in interacting with that student, I was like ‘Wow this is way bigger than what I thought it was,’” she said.
Over the coming months, as the changes roll out and the impact grows, Robertson and Smith will share information about more training sessions for faculty, staff, and students. This Friday, there will be a Community Conversation about Inclusive Pronouns, with lunch provided, in Upper Tarble from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.