This paper was originally presented at MLA in 1992.
A third gender issue that I have noticed in my studentsâ€™ writing is their use of sexist language. Even though at the start of every semester I discuss with them the implications of using sexist language, cite research which shows its prejudicial effect, and discuss my policy of counting off for the use of sexist language in their writing, my students, both female and male, continue to use sexist language in their papers. And all of them use â€œheâ€ as opposed to the possible implementation of exclusionary use of â€œshe.â€ They continue to do this despite the fact that such usage negatively impacts their grades.
One student wrote on the productive employee, â€œhe,â€ though the student writing the paper was female. Only her one page summary of the paper used inclusive language. I have found a few students who attempt to vary their use of â€œheâ€ and â€œsheâ€ rather than use a â€œhe/sheâ€ split or the plural pronoun. At least half of the students who have used this alternating of pronouns have used the â€œsheâ€ pronoun for subordinates and the â€œheâ€ pronoun for managers. The other students either alternated pronouns every paragraph or every scenario.
At first, when thinking about this topic of gender issues, I thought that the use of sexist language was connected to the fact that I presently teach at a small Christian university in the South.
In reviewing my student papers, however, I found that the students at a large public university in the Midwest also used sexist language.
I have not found a theory about why students would use sexist language, even when its employment is detrimental to them, but I would propose that either they are more comfortable with the sexist language than they are uncomfortable with the grade or the use of sexist language, when I have specifically prohibited it, is an attempt at a power play.
My present students have a stereotype about feminists as loud, aggressive, and rude. Perhaps this view influences their language usage. They want to fit in with their peers and find this more important than a paper grade. Sometimes I wonder if their language would change if their circles of influence frowned on exclusive language, but only sometimes. The rest of the time I try new techniques for presenting the material so that they will understand the importance of using inclusive language. So far I have not found a means of impressing them with the real world significance of their language.
To be continued…