Writing the Body: Writing Centers and Pronouns

Technology, Uncategorized / Monday, October 2nd, 2017

By Neil Simpkins

Neil is a Ph.D. candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison. He works at the UW-Madison Writing Center and teaches English 201.

During my sophomore year of college, I was starting my gender transition, coming out to my friends and family about my disability, and taking a class about disability studies and personal memoir. In that class, we read Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, Harriet McBryde Johnson’s Too Late to Die Young, and Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s Willow Weep for Me (among others), and I drank it all in. I had already started reading every book I could get my hands on to help me understand what I was going through, to help me put to words knowledges about myself that I’d never been able to articulate. I wasn’t ready to come out as trans or to switch pronouns–it was way too early for that. I was simply seeking the words that would help me move through my feelings.

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body

This search bled into my writing for that class, where I decided to write a paper about Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body as a final project. I wrote a rather weak paper about embodiment and gender, and how disability functioned metaphorically in the book. In that text, the narrator struggles with losing their partner after abandoning her after a cancer diagnosis. There is a lot of hay to make about the way that illness and embodiment functions as a foil to love in this text, how disability is used as metaphor, and how the narrator fails to embrace interdependence. But what I was stuck on, for better or for worse, was the narrator’s ambiguous gender–probably because that was what I was stuck on about myself at the time.

As a conceit, or a feature, of this novel, Winterson never refers to the narrator in the first person nor reveals the narrator’s name. Written from a tight first-person perspective, the lack of third person pronouns can come across as slightly fustian upon rereadings (and reread this book I did, all throughout college and into my “adult” life). When you write about this book, you have to go along with this feature–but how do you do so when you cannot avoid pronouns by adopting the narrator’s name? For the paper, I chose to use they/them pronouns and then wrote a short footnote about attempting to preserve the ambiguity of the narrator’s gender. This was before they/them had reached the status it has today. When I wrote my paper about Written on the Body, my professor strongly disagreed with my choice for a variety of reasons. But it was also the first time that I can remember defending a choice I made in my writing beyond supporting the argument of my paper. It was also the first time I felt like I could write my way into my new experiences with transgender identity.

My experience writing about Written on the Body shows both the precision and openness that academic writers need with regards to pronoun usage. In a culture where pronouns are a touchstone for transgender inclusivity, encouraging flexibility with pronouns and skills with gender neutral pronouns has become a priority for many writers–and by extension, writing center instructors. Writing center can help students learn about options for navigating these moments. Our centers could be places where writers and tutors can question the grammatical rules of pronouns that are both codified and evolving (as all grammatical rules are).

Personal pronouns influence how we view our students and how our students experience our services. As such, writing centers that have statements about gender neutral pronouns often prioritize self-representation  and the social nature of gender pronouns. For example, the University of Minnesota Center for Writing guide has a page about gender neutral pronouns that presents a common problem and solution that nonbinary pronouns can cause for writers and speakers who are unfamiliar with them. (Notably, the problem-solution format is consistent across most of the content for their “quick help” pages.) The problem–a writer feeling unsure or uncomfortable with gender neutral pronouns–is solved by learning the typical forms they take. Importantly, this resource doesn’t question the validity of gender neutral pronouns, and it also extends beyond encounters with academic writing. The resource helps model the grammatical conventions of gender neutral pronouns for any users who are skeptical. This resource, along with asking for pronouns on their scheduling software, sends a subtle but strong signal to trans students about the values of the Center for Writing.

Screencapture of the University of Minnesota Nonbinary Pronoun Guide

This summer, we wrote a similar page about using gender neutral pronouns for our online Writer’s Handbook, and we asked a lot of questions about how to make this resource unique from existing writing center resources like the the University of Minnesota Center for Writing’s guide. We also wanted to have the guide fit the rhetoric of our Handbook. As a member of this project, I also wanted to consider how such a page could add new layers to the messages sent by guides to pronouns that already exist. You can take a look at the whole page here, but I want to highlight two angles we incorporated into our page.

Screencapture of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Gender-Neutral Pronouns Guide

First, we wanted to help writers understand how and when to use gender neutral pronouns in academic writing. Transgender and cisgender writers alike need some guidance on these choices. Here’s what we suggested:

When writing about a person who uses gender–neutral pronouns, there are several ways to figure out which pronouns to use. If you’re writing about a person you can contact, you can ask this individual about pronouns and utilize the pronouns this person uses. For example, if a person uses “ze/hir/hirs,” it is inappropriate to replace those pronouns with “they/them/theirs.” You can also trace the pronouns other writers and researchers have used when writing about your research subject. If you are writing about a person for whom there isn’t consensus around one set of pronouns, we advise using the most current pronouns you find.

Thinking back to the precision and openness writers need when using pronouns, we tried to reflect both values in this advice. The attention to specificity–not substituting one set of gender-neutral pronouns for another–is an important issue that I’ve discussed with several non-binary friends. I have similar feelings about being “they-d” by people who I’ve made it clear I use he/him pronouns. Trans people choose pronouns for complex, personal reasons, and substituting different sets of pronouns for another still counts as using the wrong pronoun. However, at the same time, openness to someone’s pronouns changing was a concept we wished to convey. To me this was particularly important after being part of a class in my undergraduate career where a professor refused to use a trans author’s correct pronouns and also referred to him by his birth name because he had published under that name previously.

Second, it was important for us to offer models for advocacy around using gender neutral pronouns to writers. We wrote two footnotes as samples that writer might model if they use gender neutral pronouns in writing, which you can see below:

1 In this paper, I use the self–reported gender pronouns my participants provided, including the gender–neutral pronouns “ze/hir” and “they/them.” For more information, see the UW–Madison LGBT Campus Center guide to pronouns (https://students.wisc.edu/lgbt/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/07/LGBTCC-Gender-pronoun-guide.pdf).

1 The narrator of Winterson’s Written on the Body is never given a gendered pronoun or any specific gendered characteristics. To preserve the gender–neutral presentation of the narrator, I am choosing to use “they/them” pronouns in reference to the narrator in my paper.

You might recognize the writer of that second example…

These models lay out two tools we wanted to offer to writers. First, we wanted to encourage writers to use resources that support the grammatical correctness of gender neutral pronouns to assuage skeptical audiences. We also wanted to model ways that writers can explain their rhetorical choices to readers around the use of gender neutral pronouns. For the first writer, the context of their study and their methods stipulate the use of gender neutral pronouns in order to ethically represent her subjects. For the second writer, the use of gender neutral pronouns was a rhetorical choice to enhance the narrative’s strategic avoidance of gender.

To conclude, I want to offer you a few questions I hope you will respond to in the comments. First, I’m wondering what questions you have about discussing gender-neutral pronouns in your role as a teacher of writing. Second, how might you create a resource about pronouns that reflects the values of your writing center or program? Third, where do you see the future of grammatical instruction about pronouns going? How can this sync with other conversations that help push against the concept that grammar is static and value-neutral? Finally, what observations and thoughts do you have about our new resource? Thanks for reading!

13 Replies to “Writing the Body: Writing Centers and Pronouns”

  1. Neil, thank you for writing this excellent post. I appreciate how the new Writer’s Handbook page prompts students to think carefully and critically about their use of pronouns. I’m proud to see this new page included and especially impressed by how much information you’ve managed to fit into such a concise but informative resource!

    I was recently watching a 1970s Japanese show that features a gender non-conforming character. Because Japanese (along with other languages) does not use pronouns in the same way as English—in Japanese, they’re often omitted—the appropriate English translation was not straightforward. (We might also think of Spanish and other Romance languages here.) I mention this because your discussion of Written on the Body reminded me of it, and because your post makes me wonder how we can better help students navigate pronoun use across languages and cultures. This seems particularly important to me, given how many ELL students seek grammar tutoring through the WC, and how many of the students we meet are working on cross-cultural projects. I realize this is a big question—but I plan to keep thinking through it.

    1. This is a really excellent point, and something I think a lot about when I’m working with ELL students. It’s hard work explaining the rhetoric of grammar along with the rules of grammar, too. The point you bring up about translation is really important, too. It makes the suggestions of being both precise about pronouns and open to change more complicated…

  2. This is really interesting and important to me as a provider/practitioner but I am even more invested in how you wove in your own narrative. This is important for me to see and for my friends and students to see esp re: integrating personal entry points, reflection, and deep feelings into Scholarly Work where we’re often told to keep it ~neutral~~ and stop feeling so strongly. Thank you for setting such a lovely example.

  3. I love this post, Neil. I especially appreciate how Wisconsin’s resource contains both “how and when” and “models for advocacy.” Minnesota’s Quicktip does include a sample footnote, but I think we could add more models to show the variety of contexts in which a person might use nonbinary pronouns. I really like how Wisconsin’s model is not constrained by the problem/solutions format that we have at Minnesota (even though I know the utility of that format!). I’m about to link to your resource on our quicktip page!

    One more thing that I think writing centers and instructors could do is to use singular “they,” for example, in grammar/language resources, handbooks, course syllabi, and so on. In our consultant handbook, we use singular “they” (with an explanatory footnote) and include a section on using the pronouns provided by the writer. We also have singular “they” as a category and example in our subject-verb agreement quicktip (writing.umn.edu/sws/quickhelp/grammar/svagreement.html). I’m glad you read the message of them as reflective of our values and as a strong signal to trans writers! I would love to think about how we can reach secondary audiences, like faculty, with those same signals. (Can our WAC program provide syllabi or statements to include about pronouns?)

    One idea I’ve been thinking about is offering (in collaboration with a colleague in the Gender and Sexualities Center for Queer and Trans Life) a workshop for writers on gender pronoun self-advocacy—writing the footnotes that you include, for example, and sharing strategies for navigating classes like the *Written on the Body* one you describe. I’d love to think about how and whether a writing center could support faculty in becoming more aware of/in tune with gender pronouns in assignments and syllabi…

      1. I would also be interested in such a workshop. We’ve been thinking about pronouns among other language equity issues in our center a lot lately and simultaneously thinking about ways to partner with our LBGTQ Resource Center. I think a pronoun workshop would be very useful and very appealing to a range of students (and perhaps some faculty as well). Thanks for the ideas and for sharing.

    1. Katie and Neil, these thoughts on the singular “they” remind me of the conversations I’ve had with students about the grammatical issues presented by sentences like, “Everyone has their own perspective,” or , “Does anybody think they fully understand this concept?” Strictly considering this move from the singular “everyone/anybody” to the plural “their/they” as grammatically incorrect forces writers to either pick a gender identity to assign to “everybody” or wrestle with the unruly his/her construct. Simply using “they/their” pronouns in these situations seems like the easiest solution.
      And, Neil, I really enjoyed learning more of the backstory behind this great writing center resource! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Neil, thank you so much for highlighting (and helping create!) this urgently needed resource. I am excited to share it with my students and would love to incorporate it into the course on histories of the English language that I hope to teach one day. In my own writing, about generally anonymous (and presumed male) authors and scribes in the Middle Ages, I have occasionally found myself uncomfortable with using masculine pronouns for individuals about whom we know practically nothing. We don’t have names or pronouns to rely on for the authors of /Beowulf/, /Andreas/, or the Exeter Book Riddles, just to name a few, but boiling the conundrum of authorship down to he/him/his–even with a footnote explaining that most literate individuals were men, and this was probably copied by a monk, etc, etc–precludes the possibility that somewhere in the web of oral and manuscript transmission, someone was involved in the creation of such poems who was not the cisgender masculine-identified monk we imagine as “him.” Perhaps gender-neutral pronouns are a better way to encapsulate the ambiguity of unnamed medieval authors. Thank you for giving me a lot to think about on that front and thank you especially for sharing your story. I truly admire your willingness to share your experience so that your readers, myself including, can think more critically about what we think we know about teaching, writing, and gender.

    1. This is a great question! It makes me think about how medieval and early modern authors used the singular they frequently as well!

  5. Thanks for writing this post, Neil! I didn’t learn about how gender-neutral pronouns are used until coming here to Madison from Alabama in 2014 (and that should tell everyone something about Alabama). I remember having a conversation with my former roommate who attended Rooted in the MSC a few times; he had noticed that students shared their preferred gender pronouns when introducing themselves. The conversation was very informative for me. Since then, I’ve been highly conscious of gender pronouns and build gender neutral pronouns into my own teaching. As a first step, when I taught E100 and E201, occasionally I would note in students’ papers to consider the range of gender identities when making general statements about people. I’m happy that other teachers are also doing similar instruction. I teach academically talented high school students during the summer, and some students have told their teachers that they have a preferred gender pronoun. And the teachers were more than happy to honor these preferred pronouns. These are good foundations for wider reflection and action.

  6. Hi! I work at U of M SWS, so thank you for the shoutout! In a weird coincidence, Written on the Body is one of my favorite books of my life ever, and I always thought the main character used they/them pronouns. I’m glad that “they” pronouns are accepted by the academics of The Institution and I wonder when other gender-neutral pronouns will also be “accepted” as grammatically correct as well. As someone who uses they/them the arguments around their “grammatical use” from others have slowed down, but continue.

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