Queerness in the classroom

Hello! My name is Alexis McKnight; I currently serve as the President of the Order of the Gown. Recently the Order of the Gown held a panel and button campaign with the Queer & Ally House and Spectrum. The goal of this campaign was to discuss queer identity in the classroom. Some of the main issues that came up in the course of this campaign were the burden of having to serve as a representative of the queer community and the struggles that some students experience with gender identity recognition, particularly with respect to the use of preferred names and pronouns. We will be partnering with the CfT to hold a panel on “Queerness in the Classroom” on Thursday this week (10/28) at 12:30pm to give faculty an opportunity to hear students’ perspectives on these issues. In this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to share a few of my own experiences as a Sewanee student as a way of previewing some of what we’ll be talking about on Thursday. We very much hope you’ll be able to join us there!

I identify as a queer woman in a largely heteronormative institution. During my time at Sewanee, I have had to represent my identity in the classroom. Like many other students, I have had awkward conversations in classrooms when the topic of sexuality arises. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I had to read a piece in one of my courses that contained homophobic themes. My professor provided a warning before assigning the homework and held a conversation about what to expect in the work. I knew what the theme was going to be and prepared myself before reading a hurtful poem. My professor’s thoughtfulness was incredibly helpful during what was a vulnerable time for me. I was grateful to be able to engage in a very important learning experience without having to throw myself into murky waters. The professor did an excellent job fostering an environment that offered discussion on the topic but did not invalidate anyone’s experiences. Professors can make students feel comfortable in the classroom, and luckily for many Sewanee students, many of them are doing just that.

As a cisgendered woman, I have not had instances in the classroom where my gender identity has been difficult for me to discuss. However, through talking to my peers I have heard the concerns and witnessed the challenges faced by non-cisgendered students The heaviest day for many non-cis individuals is the first day of classes. Aside from the prospect of being addressed by the wrong pronouns, they also face the possibility of their non-preferred names being shared with their peers. A non-preferred name is also colloquially termed a dead name, emphasizing that the name is no longer a part of their identity and intentionally declaring the need to remove its association with the person in question. It causes emotional stress when students have to correct their professor after roll call, and it also places students in the difficult situation of their classmates now knowing a name they do not want to be said aloud. Most students recognize that none of these actions are intentional on the part of professors, but there are a few simple things that faculty can do to ease students’ concerns. One example is to provide a piece of paper on the first day, allowing individuals to fill out their preferred names and pronouns. If this is done before the roster is shared, it removes students’ anxieties around the possibility of their non-preferred names being spoken aloud. Although it might seem challenging to recognize a person’s preferred name if you are unaware that it differs from the name on the roster, a simple solution is to check with the student’s last name, as these will often match up. Another solution is to make use of NameCoach, which is now available for all classes through Brightspace, to allow students to state their preferred pronouns and share the correct pronunciation of their preferred names. These inclusive steps allow students to feel safe in their gender identity in the classroom and to feel comfortable remaining there. 

To find out more about how you can support students in the classroom, please join us for our “Queerness in the Classroom” panel on Thursday this week (10/28) at 12:30pm in the Center for Teaching. We’d love to have you there!

Alexis McKnight ‘C22, President of the Order of the Gown