Teaching Outside the Binaries


“To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students
is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions
where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” 
— bell hooks
— bell hooks

Students from Generation Z yearn for authenticity, can easily spot when they’re considered a monolithic group with no individualization, and actively seek equitable environments. Increasingly, students from Generation Z are realizing they don’t fit into binary categories of gender, and “female” and “male” are no longer applicable as the sole choices for their gender identity.

Students with non-binary gender identity are often attracted to courses that seem like safe spaces–e.g., Gender Studies, Social Justice, Literature. These students talk! They tell their friends about professors who are most equitable and fair toward variant identities, who stick to traditional beliefs, and who are making an honest effort. They also post their experiences online through anonymous comments on instructor rating sites, on their blogs, and on social media platforms. As educators who care about our students’ overall wellbeing, both inside and outside the classroom as well as during and beyond their college experience, I hope we can make sure non-binary-identifying students receive respect for their identity in our classes.

Based on my research and in my practice, I’ve found there is no single route toward fairness and equity in the classroom, and when a pedagogical method works, it will most likely need to be adapted to fit future cultural trends and shifts in demographics. I recommend these strategies if you want to communicate openness toward all identities in your classroom environment:

  • Respect Name Changes
    • I encourage you to email your classes during the week before the semester to ask if anyone has changed their name to something different from what shows up on the class roster; this way, if a trans student has chosen a name but thinks it’s too much of a hassle or can’t yet afford to change it legally, or perhaps they are not yet “out” or accepted by their family, you won’t call their name assigned at birth (also called “deadname”) during roll call on the first day of class, which outs them to the rest of the students.
  • Request and Use Correct Pronouns
    • On the first day, you might ask the class to write their pronouns on a sheet of paper to give to you so that you won’t unintentionally misgender anyone. Notice I didn’t say “preferred” pronouns; my identity is who I am, not what I merely prefer.
    • One way to make this request more subtle is to ask students for information that might already be available to you elsewhere. For example, I attach an information sheet as the last page of the syllabus, requesting the following:
      • Pronouns
      • Phone (in case of emergency)
      • Major/Minor
      • Career goal
      • Activities (music, work, family, activism, etc.)
      • Favorite movie(s)
      • Favorite author(s)/genre
      • Last book read for pleasure

These questions will not only allow you to get to know your students better, but they will also help you keep your discussion of media examples current and can also lead to suggestions for research topics.

  • Accept “They” as Singular
    • English language aficionados like I am might cringe, but I hope you’ll accept “they” as a singular pronoun in spoken and written expression. After all, “you” evolved to be singular and plural after a long history of “thee” as the singular version.
    • Pronouns are possibly the most dynamic part of speech. Journalism is catching on to a wider range of pronouns, such as this chart from the BBC.
    • Keep in mind, too, that “they” follows similar grammatical rules as “you.” Whether singular or plural, the pronoun “you” needs plural verbs (“you are/were”); the same is true for “they” (“they are/were”).
  • Avoid Gendered Honorifics, Titles, and Group Names
    • Gen Z students as well as their earlier millennial counterparts just don’t like old-fashioned, overly formal prefixes of Miss, Ms., and Mr. to their last names, and they also frown on being called “Ma’am” and “Sir.” These words reinforce the gender binary and will alienate students in general.
    • While “guy” has become a generic group name, it excludes individuals who identify as women, and if a trans woman is in your class, it can be offensive and hurtful if she is grouped into a “guy” category. Alternatives could be “everyone,” “students,” the Southern “y’all,” or many other non-gendered words. If you’re resisting this one, consider how “he” used to be the generic pronoun taught in English Composition classes.

Respecting our students for who they are is the mark of an inclusive classroom, and when instructors respect the students, it’s more likely to be returned in kind. A classroom that gives dignity to everyone is where learning will occur.

For a gold mine of information about these and other topics related to non-binary identity, see the wonderful Trans Student Educational Resources site.

One thought on “Teaching Outside the Binaries

  1. This is a great article that can help teachers trying to think of ways to be more gender inclusive in the classroom. It is well-structured piece, concise in laying out its main points, and flows well from one topic to the next. End result? Complicated subject matter turned into easy reading! This article should be mandatory reading material in professional development seminars and teacher trainings across academia. Go Florentini femminista!

    Liked by 1 person

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