Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part III

So far I’ve shared a few resources and readings on supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students in the classroom (Part I), and in the last post I shared some practical strategies that can be planned out for the first week of classes (Part II). In this post I’m going to focus on how I’ve been talking to my students about contacting me and visiting my office hours. Though a “contact me” discussion may seem off-topic considering the theme of these posts, I believe–especially in the first-year composition class–my role is not only to answer students’ questions about academic writing and the class in general, but also to be knowledgable about resources available on campus and to help connect students with those resources. This role seems even more important considering the unique challenges gender non-conforming students run into as they navigate and are asked to participate within an institution that often privileges binary gender identities (I’m thinking now of the debates currently surfacing at UWM about who is allowed to use what locker rooms in our athletic facility and question of whether or not the university has enough inclusive bathrooms around campus). I would like to be transparent as an ally in light of these challenges, and one way to do that is to consider carefully the language used to invite students to contact me during office hours, email, etc.

In addition to these concerns, as I was changing some of my first day policies and revising my syllabus, I came across this funny/goofy/endearing video created by an Arizona State professor on faculty office hours. This video pushed me to consider why so few students came to my office hours (or did not contact me until they were in a position where they were nearly failing the course). Again, I always thought of myself as friendly and inviting in demeanor, but when I looked back at some of the language in the “Contact me” section of my syllabus, I realized that sense of ethos wasn’t being communicated there. For example, this was my old syllabus “contact me” description, :

UWM requires staff to use UWM email accounts to email students. I will not respond to emails written from personal accounts. If you have any questions, always feel free to email me (kmravel@uwm.edu). I will do my best to respond to all emails in 24 hours.

When I read this section more carefully, I realized I was modeling the professional aspects of contact with instructors (don’t use personal emails, I will get to you within a specified time frame, etc.) but I don’t actual encourage students to come see me during my office hours nor do I specify what they should contact me about.

During this semester, I revised and expanded this section, making sure to dedicate a lot of time to reading it on the first date of class:

UWM requires staff to use UWM email accounts to email students. I will not respond to emails written from personal accounts. If you have any questions, always feel free to email me (kmravel@uwm.edu). I will do my best to respond to all emails in 24 hours.

Generally, keeping in contact with your college instructors is a good idea. I have office hours […] at the […]. I am also available via a scheduled meeting. Whether something is going on in your personal life or with your work or with your health, please contact me if something is preventing you from completing the work of the class. This doesn’t mean you need to provide details or that you will not be responsible for any missed work. However, we can meet up to discuss and work around the specific circumstances.

In addition, if you are struggling with the work of the class, the discussions, the readings, etc., please let me know sooner rather than later. I am open to making adjustments, especially if that means it may improve the community of our classroom. That said, this class will have a vigorous workload and should challenge you: it is important that you dedicate your time and energy to completing the work to the best of your ability.

Rather than being solely focused on establishing a professional relationship, I wanted my syllabus language to reflect how I ideally wished to work with students, that is, as three-dimensional individuals with identities and lives that aren’t limited to solely being a student in my classroom.

I understand this may invite a lot of emotional labor on an instructor’s part (I’ll make another post about the emotional labor of teaching and being a “good” feminist later–all which have been written about extensively in comp/rhet), but I believe in acknowledging that students have lives and the quality of those lives that may be effecting their work, I make room for meeting them in terms of their specific challenges. I hope this new language emphasizes to students that I am her to listen, I’m not here to judge.

So far, dedicating time and syllabus space to emphasize the relationship I want with students seems to have been effective. I feel like more often students are telling me information about why they missed the assignment or a class, whereas oftentimes they would just disappear from my class or not acknowledge that there was work they were missing. They have also been good about proposing alternative deadlines. For example one of my students is an police officer, and had to work long shifts between Monday evening until the start of our class on Wednesday. He let me know his work hours were shifting in the next week, but that he was more strapped for time for any long readings that needed to be completed. I’ve also had students come to me after class and quickly ask for suggestions and advice, some related to the class and some just information they thought I knew or would be willing to help them with. For example, one student was caught up in an email phishing scam. Another student came to me to tell me they had failed the class last semester and wanted to do their best to prepare for the research that was required for our class (this student uses the singular they).

I guess all in all, though I don’t have any numbers to compare student’s actively contacting me this semester  over previous semesters, my experiences so far suggest students are more comfortable reaching out. And once again, though the language and attention I put into inviting students to contact me stemmed from the concerns I had in regard to supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students, these practices seemed good for the whole of the class.

-KR

Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part II

In the last post, I shared some resources and articles on supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students in the classroom. With this post, I wanted to share the ways I adapted 2 of the strategies from Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” for the first week of the semester.

Model pronoun etiquette for students

On the first day of class, when I introduced myself, I told students I go by she/her. I also wrote my pronoun preference on my syllabus.

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By modeling these preferences myself, I hope to set the tone for how pronouns will be handled in the classroom during discussion. And since I work with students mostly in first-year writing classrooms, for many this is one of the first times they have encountered pronoun naming. Modeling this behavior may be the first step in developing further awareness about pronoun preferences.

Take a written course poll on the first day instead of taking attendance out loud

By taking a written poll, I was able to take attendance while also allowing space for students to let me know their preferred name. On our first day I asked students to write out answers to the following questions and hand them into me:

  1. Name on the roster:
  2. Name you use:
  3. Pronouns you use:
  4. Major/minor:
  5. What social media do you use and/or are familiar with? (Instagram, Snapchat, Pokémon Go, Youtube, Myfitness Pal, Twitter, etc.)
  6. Please describe your access to technology (Smartphone? Laptop? Home computer? IPad? Access to Internet at home? Etc.)
  7. What are some of your favorite activities (in and out of school)?
  8. Anything else you would like your instructor to know about you at the start of class?

After the poll, students were asked to take turns sharing their preferred name, major, and something they are excited about this semester.

*I included some questions about social media and technology because the theme of the course is research in social media culture, so we would be reliant on using different digital tools to write with and analyze.

**I suggest modeling the pronoun etiquette before taking the poll, because some students may have forgotten what a pronoun is or not realize what you are asking.

***I did not ask students to share their preferred pronoun out loud–just their preferred name. This article goes into more details about why I made this decision.

As I was reading my students’ responses, it became clear that the poll not only helped the gender non-conforming students (and yes, it appears to be helpful for them), but also the class as a whole.

With the technology questions, I learned about insecurities with technology (EX: using Microsoft Word or navigating D2L), and I also learned who may struggle to access readings or materials I share through our course management system.

The final question gave students a space to share other information that may affect their work or the classroom environment: I learned who was working full-time jobs, who commutes from out of town, who had children they had to drop off at daycare in the morning, etc. Having an awareness of the potential obstacles individual students have positioned me to be better prepared to build flexibility into our course plans.

The final question also helped prepare me to understand certain in-class behaviors: one student, for example, stated that during discussion he always looks down at his desk.This position didn’t mean that he was not listening, but instead was a way to help him focus.

That’s it for now: just two simple things to do on day 1 of a writing course.

More later!

-KR

Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part I

In my past years of teaching, I was always under an unchecked and unquestioned assumption that my courses were friendly and welcoming to transgender and gender-nonconforming students. I believed (wrongly so) the standards of respect and responsibility I worked to prioritize in the classroom would take care of any situation.

I began to question my assumptions when a friend teaching an LGBTQ course asked me to recommend writing instructors who were supportive of transgender students. I could name lots of instructors off the top of my head who were friendly, and approachable, and understanding…but when I actually stopped to think about actual classroom practices and strategies, I came up short for suggestions.

At that time, I was also toward the end of my work on the WPA committee as the English 101 course coordinator. In my three years on the WPA, I couldn’t remember a single conversation, professional development project, or meeting that posed the question of how to support transgender and gender-nonconforming students. And as I led orientation after orientation for new graduate teaching assistants, I never planned any discussions on this topic, nor had I incorporated it into our meeting agendas or planning.

I’m hoping to make up for this mistake now by writing a few posts that describe how I retooled my classroom for the Fall 2016 semester. This is Part I in a series of posts I hope to release on this site.

The first action I took toward accommodation for transgender and gender non-conforming students was to educate myself and find resources; despite my identification with the LGTBQ+ community, my knowledge about the T and the + was…less than outstanding.

Below, I’ve included a list of articles and resources to help other writing instructors get started with these considerations:

  • One of the first things I learned as I tried to make a more accommodating classroom, was that there were several more non-binary conforming identities than I ever realized. This wiki offers a helpful list. It also reminds readers that some nonbinary gender identities have names that are reclaimed slurs, and some may see these names as offensive or as hate speech.
  • Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” from Faculty Focus suggests several strategies college instructors may incorporate into their classroom practices. (In a future post, I’ll discuss how I used and revised some of the suggestions for my writing and research course). I highly recommend this source because it is so helpful and practical.
  • Andrea Lunsford has recently published a blog post on “mispronouning” and how it has affected her teaching and writing. She also offers a draft and asks for feedback on a section of her new textbook on pronouns and gender. This may be a useful read to for those who would like to see how these conversations play out in the field of Composition and Rhetoric.

If you have other resources to suggest, please let me know.

More to come on this subject,

KR