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I’m a trans-identified graduate instructor working with college students for the first time. My students are used to calling their teacher by an honorific, and while I’ve insisted they shouldn’t, it’s clear that they’re uncertain about my gender, and it’s making some of them hesitant in class. Addressing it in class seems unprofessional, but not addressing it seems to add elephants to the room. What should I do?
First off, thank you for all the hard work you’re doing teaching undergraduate, and first-year, students! It’s hard work worth doing, and you’re presiding over some young brains undergoing a lot of changes! As a first-time instructor, it sounds like you’re also developing that sort of on-the-feet thinking each new class presents. In addition to this potent mixture of shift and stress, you’re also faced with a situation in which you may be misgendered or otherwise microaggressed against. You also seem particularly concerned that you may have to balance your person reactions to their people behavior while staying within the role of care and authority you’ve assumed in class.
My first instinct, coming from my own experiences of identification, is to think of casual ways to stress and reaffirm my (gender) identity whenever being a bit folksy. I do think this can work pretty well, but I want to stop, really full-stop, and note that it’s an added effort — of wit, of thought, of emotional attention, of personal risk — that you shouldn’t have to expend. Honestly, darling, you don’t owe them that. Merely stating your name and maybe saying, “if you must, please call me Ms./Mr./Mx./Professor” at the beginning of class is your sole responsibility: or, it’s as much as a cis instructor does. (Well, a cis man. They’re the only ones with uncomplicated honorifics. Still, a cis woman is unlikely to be misgendered even if she’s being named inappropriately.) I think this may be less an issue of making students comfortable and more an issue of exploring an opportunity for creating a gender-inclusive classroom.
One way to explore is to step back. Absolve yourself of what may be in their heads, choose to do the same job your cis colleagues may be doing. Another way is to center the way genders impact your subject matter—from the “what’s a preferred pronoun and what’s yours” on the first-day-of-class-in-my-dreams conversation, to readings, to discussions, etc. Including trans writers and scholars when appropriate is another way to normalize the inclusion of gender experiences abroad from cis-land. If you feel it would be inappropriate to bring your “personal experience” (that is, being trans) into the conversation, change the parameters of the conversation. I have faith that you already know how to do so and keep it profesh.
Regardless of what you’re choosing to do in class, my hope for you is that you are extravagant in your self-care. You’ve most likely already developed a lot of ways to understand and respond to a wide range of reactions to your gender, and I think these strategies will continue to work, with your teaching-specific adjustments. Best of luck, and thanks for all the work you do!
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 187.