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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Pronouns in YES: Behind the scenes

Getty Images/iStockphoto

On March 12, Vanderbilt announced that students could select their pronouns in the YES portal. The pronouns will show up on faculty rosters and be given to the Office of Residential Education.

VSG passed a resolution this week commending the change, giving special thanks to The Office of LGBTQI Life, The Office of the Provost, The Office of the Vice Provost for Learning and Residential Affairs, The Office of the Dean of Students, The Office of the Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence, The Faculty Senate, The Office of the University Registrar, The Center for Teaching and The English Language Center.

“The Vanderbilt Student Government Senate extends its greatest gratitude towards the efforts of The Office of LGBTQI Life, transgender, and non-binary students in making this change a reality and demonstrating extraordinary resiliency … Vanderbilt Student Government reaffirms its deep commitment towards fostering a collegiate experience that is inclusive of all genders and accessible to every individual in regard to gender identity, gender expression, and sex,” the resolution, which was written by Off-campus & Greek Housing Senator senior Quinton Turner, said.

The module in YES was created to benefit transgender and gender non-conforming individuals on campus.  

Senior Shawn Reilly, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs, said that most faculty they have interacted with are at least understanding and will apologize and try to educate themselves if they stumble over a student’s pronouns.

“I think the educational foundation is there, to the point where I don’t think there will be a lot of negative pushback,” Reilly said. “I’m actually very hopeful, I’m not sure how well it would have been taken 5 years ago or 10 years ago, not necessarily because people are hateful or whatever but because people just don’t know. There are a lot of people don’t understand themselves as transgender or don’t understand what trans means even at all before they come to a college setting. I think just based on the education that people have done I think it will be received pretty well.”

While the implementation of chosen pronouns has been a long administrative and logistical journey, which has tested the change management skills of administrators, faculty, staff and students, it is vastly influential for gender nonconforming and transgender students on campus.

“A lot of students have to go to teachers beforehand and have this big conversation with every one of their teachers and say ‘This is my name and these are my pronouns. Please don’t misgender me on our first day,’” Reilly said. “And sometimes that’s respected and sometimes it’s not.”

I want everyone to respect students’ pronouns selection, but they aren’t required to observe it if they for some reason don’t feel comfortable.

-Cynthia Cyrus

Turner added that the addition of pronouns to rosters removes the burden on students of having to educate their professors.

“I know a lot of students that have to take time and write an email like ‘Hey, I know that my roster will include this name. I like to be referred to with this name and these pronouns,’” he said. “And I know students who, if they don’t get a positive affirming response, then they will not take that class, just because they have run into so many times of having to be an educator in the class for the professor and not being able to be just an organic student.”

Reilly noted that the change also benefits international students whose names are not understood as gendered to an English speaker.

The addition of chosen pronouns to YES has been in the works since the fall of 2015 when VSG began collaborating with the Faculty Senate on how to increase gender inclusivity around campus.

“Soon after the fall [2015] semester started, Vanderbilt Student Government President Elizabeth Shahnasarian, VSG Speaker of the Senate Jackson Vaught and VSG Chief of Staff Julia Gabriel approached the Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee about a desire to engage with faculty around issues that foster a more welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. We were immediately on board,” said Paul Lim, the immediate past chair of the Faculty Senate at the time, in a MyVU article.

The minutes from the September 2015 Faculty Senate meeting mentioned that the body would also work with Chris Purcell, Director of the Office of LGBTQI Life, to oversee the development of educational materials for use in panel discussions and eventual dissemination to the four undergraduate schools.

Several meetings between representatives of VSG and the Faculty Senate throughout the 2015-16 academic year culminated in two gender awareness and inclusion forums in April 2016. Following these meetings, Dean of Students Mark Bandas said that he had high hopes for the faculty and was in the process of investigating “what we can do to afford students the opportunity to include not only their preferred names in class roster materials, but also preferred pronouns” as well as other potential initiatives that would improve the academic experience of transgender and gender non-conforming students on campus.

VSG passed a resolution commending the faculty senate on the forums and recommending that the Office of LGBTQI Life be an “active participant” in future gender-inclusive initiatives.

“VSG strongly believes that the University can continue to make great strides regarding gender inclusivity with specific emphasis on gender-inclusive housing and pronoun options on class rosters,” the resolution, which was proposed by Reilly, Speaker of the Senate Jackson Vaught and Chief of Staff Julia Gabriel, said.   

While both the student and administrative support was there for a mechanism for putting pronouns on rosters, technological difficulties postponed its implementation. The university was in the process of transitioning to the use of the Oracle system, which replaced the university’s business, financial and administrative functions. Additionally, there were change management processes taking place in the technological infrastructure due to the split between the university and the Medical Center. While these changes were occurring, Vanderbilt administrators were instructed not to carry out any technology work, Cyrus said.

It was the end of the summer by the time the resources were available to implement the pronouns selection option and the technological work was done, and the final checks of the system were not complete by the start of the academic year. Cyrus and the others involved in implementing the change knew they wanted to implement the system at the beginning of a semester, and by the start of spring semester, the conversations about pronouns had fizzled out. Instead of implementing the system at the start of the spring semester, they decided to allocate their time and resources towards training and education about pronouns.

“One of the things we realized for the students pronouns are very much a matter of course,” Cyrus said. “For some of our faculty colleagues, pronouns had dropped off the radar, so we have used this year to do a fairly substantial campaign of education across the community about what pronouns are, the variety of pronouns that are in use, the ways in which pronoun usage is encouraged.”

From my point of view, everything started with the VSG and it’s both exciting and heart-warming to see another aspect of this initiative come full circle with these latest developments.

-Richard Willis

The Dean of Students letter announcing the pronoun selection module said that faculty are not required to respect students’ pronouns selections.

“Faculty and staff have been encouraged by university leadership to use students’ chosen pronouns, but it is not required,” the email message said.

However, Vice Provost for Learning and Residential Affairs Cynthia Cyrus has yet to hear of any pushback from faculty and doesn’t expect any in the future.

“I want everyone to respect students’ pronouns selection, but they aren’t required to observe it if they for some reason don’t feel comfortable,” Cyrus said. “I think most people will observe it, because people want to be creating an atmosphere in which students feel respected and comfortable in doing the work of learning. We weren’t actually imagining a lot of pushback, but it’s important to also recognize that we try to be careful not to tell the faculty how they must approach their teaching.”

Cyrus noted that the administrative is viewing these beginning stages as educational opportunities, and said that she has heard that some faculty members have been calling the Office of LGBTQI Life and saying that the change makes them nervous and asking for advice on how to approach it.

The Office of LGBTQI Life collaborated with the Center for Teaching to create resources and host training sessions for faculty on how to incorporate pronoun usage into their classrooms.

“My role has been being a consultant to all these parties about helping them talk to each other and contributing what I know from hearing trans and nonbinary students and encouraging folks to talk to us and keep us in the loop, which tends to be my role in policy-related matters,” Purcell said. “I try to do my best to be the best resource I can. I’ve been helping with language; I’ve been helping describe what other schools are doing.”

The Office of LGBTQI Life conducts 50 to 60 trainings per year about gender identity and sexuality, and during the last several months, Purcell has been attending department faculty meetings as well.  

“I’ve been attending faculty meetings and explaining the change, why it’s important, where they can get more information if it’s a new topic, and giving them resources and answering questions,” he said.

The Vanderbilt English Language Center also developed a Pronoun Guide in hopes of informing students, staff and faculty whose first language is not English about pronoun usage and their options for choosing their own pronouns.

While the pronoun module funnels a student’s pronouns onto YES rosters, the pronouns do not appear on Brightspace. This is due not only to the fact that administrators don’t yet have the technology to add the feature to Brightspace, but also because of the intentional decision that adding the pronouns to Brightspace may unintentionally out transgender students to their peers. Turner said that there was disagreement on the subject.

“The LGBT community is not just a monumental one block and they’re not completely all in agreement,” he said.

Richard Willis, who was the chair of the Faculty Senate when the collaboration with VSG began, is optimistic that this change is a step in the right direction for gender identity inclusivity on campus.

“From my point of view, everything started with the VSG and it’s both exciting and heart-warming to see another aspect of this initiative come full circle with these latest developments,” Willis said. “With Vice Provost of Inclusive Excellence, Melissa Thomas-Hunt, now onboard as part of Provost Susan Wente’s leadership team, I look forward to more steps forward across a spectrum of issues designed to embrace and treat all people with dignity and respect.”

Mac Ploetz, president of the Vanderbilt Lambda Association, Vanderbilt’s Gender, Sexuality, and Intersex Alliance, emphasized that this change was well-timed given the current political climate surrounding gender identity.

“I think this is an excellent step forward in affirming students of all gender identities and expressions,” Ploetz said. “Of course, there are more steps to take, but I think this is especially important given the national hostility toward transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.”
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About the Contributor
Sarah Friedman, Former Editor in Chief

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Woke Alum
6 years ago

Ze??? LOL!!!