Practical advice on running an LGBT-friendly class
August 16, 2018 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting ready to teach my first-ever class (grad-school level) and want it to be a safe zone for my students. Since this wasn't really a thing when I was going through school, I could use some practical advice on achieving that goal.

Here's what I'm looking at: graduate school, so the students are all adults. The subject matter of the class is pretty technical and doesn't touch on LGBT issues. Since this is my first time teaching, I won't know much about the students in advance.

Here's where I need help: how do I help students feel safe in class, and how do I educate those who might not see the need for doing so? I've included a note in the syllabus about campus resources for LGBT students, but I'm not sure what more to say about the subject on the first day when going over the syllabus. I'm also planning to have the students let me know on the first day what their preferred salutations and pronouns are. I don't have any specific plans beyond that, so any ideas and experience people could share would be very much appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I (a nonbinary person) found this Medium article on all the factors to consider in asking pronouns interesting and on point. I realize that it doesn't give clear-cut advice, but I think it does a good job laying out things to consider.
posted by ITheCosmos at 11:04 AM on August 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

As a student and a lesbian, I'm not really sure if I need the space to be explicitly LGBT-friendly if the subject of the class is not related. I think asking for pronouns is a good enough signal. Using "they" as a neutral pronoun instead of "s/he" would also be nice.

Other things that would be neat: 1) if for some reason you talk about romantic relationships (as context for a problem, or something), not defaulting to a male/female relationships, 2) not equating genitalia to gender (for example, I know some lesbians say "I love pussy" because they believe it's an equivalent statement to "I'm a lesbian"-- that kind of thing) (maybe search up casual transphobia?) 3) on ITheCosmos' note, noting that students don't have to share their pronouns if they don't want to.

Also, how big is the class?
posted by typify at 11:09 AM on August 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Don't use any gendered language!!! "Y'all" instead of you guys. No gender essentialism or sexism either. Also if anyone has names that they would rather be called that isn't on the roster, they can talk to you privately and you can announce that at the start.. Do not call roll based off paper until you get confirmation.
posted by yueliang at 11:10 AM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you use examples while teaching, like "Say Marcie and Kai buy 315 lbs of tensile steel..."? I strongly recommend going for gender parity and rotating names to reflect lots of different kinds of people. I kept name-drop tallies in a programming class once, it was a 9:1 ratio of hypothetical "men" to "women" and all the "ladies" held customer service roles. Gee, I wonder what that teaches the techies of tomorrow?
posted by fritillary at 11:16 AM on August 16, 2018 [25 favorites]

Most schools have a program where you go to some kind of training and get a sign for your door identifying you as LGBT(QIA) friendly and maybe get added to some kind of online list posted by the group sponsoring the training. This helps students feel comfortable coming to you and also increases visibility in your department.

Rather than a note about LGBT campus resources (why, if your class doesn't cover relevant content?), include a reference to any relevant campus code of conduct about respect and inclusivity. Then uphold that code of conduct in class.
posted by momus_window at 11:25 AM on August 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

Don't ask an individual to speak from their experience as any one thing. If they want to offer their perspective great, but no one should be asked to speak for all of the whomevers.
posted by wellred at 11:51 AM on August 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

One thing that immediately made me see one of my professors as a "safe" person was really just one of those little "safe space" stickers on the corner of the window to her office. All it had was a rainbow triangle on a black background with the words "this is a safe space" on it. I liked it because it required no work from me, no bravery or inquiry, it was just there.

Another thing I liked was when professors would be thoughtful with the names and genders in their examples for word problems. If you're using "Alice and her spouse Bob" maybe swap it out for a Beth now and then, you know? And instead of Alice going bracelet shopping and Bob trying to figure out how much fence to use, let Alice do a little farming and Bob do a little retail therapy.

Other than that in the context of a technical class, I would just expect to focus on the material. Gently explaining things to curious straight people is already kind of in the background radiation of my life, having it leak into math class would be a bit tiresome. Any "Just Asking Questions"or "hey, you're (gay trans nb), can you explain...?" needs to be shut down immediately.

(FWIW this kind of open take-it-or-leave-it question is fine. It's when there's a captive audience or a specific demand that get .)
posted by one of these days at 11:53 AM on August 16, 2018 [11 favorites]

When I wrote math problems for my students I got a lot of mileage out of gender-neutral names like Alex, Taylor, Morgan, Lindsay, Cameron, etc.
posted by coppermoss at 11:57 AM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you ask each student to fill out a form on the first day (IE "what classes have you taken? Will you need any accommodations?"), ask for pronouns. It's a low pressure way for students to volunteer it. Asking straight up to individuals can be alienating, especially if you only ask the students you think are androgynous.

In general, try to behave as if they're any other student unless they volunteer something about their queer identity. A lot of us prefer to think we pass, or compartmentalize it to something we express more outside of class or work.
posted by ikea_femme at 12:02 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

This may or may not apply to a technical class (I suppose it depends on the kind of examples you use), but this past fall I had a class that dealt with child development, and our professor sometimes adorned her slides with photos of a hypothetical / case study child's hypothetical parents, and she matter-of-factly used pictures of LGBTQ couples in some of those case studies. It made me realize that at 43 years old, after an embarrassing amount of schooling, that was the first time I had ever seen lesbian and gay couples depicted in a class that wasn't explicitly about gender issues.
posted by DingoMutt at 12:29 PM on August 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Here's what I do:
- Have cards on day one where I ask for pronouns and any info I need to know. Don't have people say this out loud.
- Mix up any examples to be all sorts of couples.
- List of resources on campus.
- Code of conduct, especially for discussions.
posted by k8t at 12:34 PM on August 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm gonna say that gender-neutral names skew masculine, though, cuz that's the lens we interpret them through in technical settings. "Alex, Taylor, Morgan, Lindsay, Cameron" aren't neutral, they're white American. Where's Sílvia, Hugo, Jožefa, Precious, Piotr, Miguel, Chen, Tae, Malik, Saanvi?
posted by fritillary at 12:37 PM on August 16, 2018 [19 favorites]

Any images on slides (probably less of an issue in a grad class) should be as diverse as possible.
posted by k8t at 12:43 PM on August 16, 2018

Something I’ve seen is: the first time you call roll, do it by last name only and have people share what first name they would like to be called by, which may or may not be what’s listed in your roster. This way you don’t single anyone out for having a different name or share anyone’s incorrect/“dead” name with the class.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:48 PM on August 16, 2018 [11 favorites]

On day one I hand out a short questionnaire (digital now) that has a few easy questions relating to class. In it I also include this question: "Is there anything that you would like me to know about you, how you learn, or what I can do to support you over the semester ? For example, the name you prefer to be called by, if you are registered with the [whatever name of the place students go for extra time/other accommodations at your institution], if you need to miss classes frequently because of sports activities or for religious reasons, or anything else you think I should know." When I give them the questions I let them know that this question is optional and that they don't need to write anything if they don't want to. This allows students to let you know about names/pronouns but also lets students who may be anxious, shy, need to stand up and stretch because of back issues, live two hours away and have a hellacious commute, have a dying parent, and any number of other things, to self identify if they are comfortable with it.
posted by Cuke at 3:00 PM on August 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm a trans guy and I'm going to disagree with devrim. How will the other students know how to refer to each other correctly, unless everyone knows everyone's pronouns? If you normally do name cards or name tags, you can include pronouns. Otherwise it's going to be confusing when you're referring to a student as "they" and someone else in the class refers to the person as "she" or "he."

If student A gets student B's pronoun wrong, don't make a huge deal about it as the attention may embarrass student B. If it seemed malicious or mocking, have a word with A alone.
posted by AFABulous at 3:44 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a lesbian and a student. I've had professors, as they review the syllabus and get to the boiler plate stuff about harassment policies that the school requires they include, stop and say, "and I take the harassment policy very seriously" or "and I really have zero tolerance or this kind of behavior." A little thing that always made me feel better.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 4:06 PM on August 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

I am trans and vote against asking students to volunteer pronouns with introductions. You know what feels really shitty? Having to misgender yourself because you're not ready to be out. You can certainly supply your own pronouns and/or other preferred forms of address when introducing yourself to signal that you think it is a reasonable thing for someone to do. If you intend to have students fill in some sort of information card, that's an appropriate place to ask for pronouns. You can certainly make it through the first class without gendering people and without anyone noticing that you're doing it.

Frankly, odds are very high that anyone who is concerned about pronouns or an old name on the roll will be emailing you before the first class, which moves all this into the realm of performing "support" or "acceptance".

I had a math professor who would always give us a bit of trivia about whatever mathematician's birthday it was, regardless of whether they had anything to do with complex analysis. Mentioning who was queer would go a long way.
posted by hoyland at 4:19 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Also, please don't say that "they" is an okay pronoun for you unless you'd genuinely be willing to have someone take you up on it. I have the impression many cis people say "Oh I don't have a preference" when they do but they're (subconsciously) secure in the knowledge that no one is ever going to go against that preference.)
posted by hoyland at 4:22 PM on August 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

The safe place sticker, mentioning taking the harassment policy seriously, and using non-heteronormative examples are all good ideas. Regarding pronouns specifically, another vote against asking students to say their pronouns during introductions. Loads of cis-presenting genderqueer/nonbinary/agender/etc. folks who feel alienated by all pronouns end up stuck between having to claim a gender identity they're uncomfortable with to avoid making a big deal that only brings more unwelcome focus to their relationship with gender, or having to say "no preference/any is fine," and getting read as some "I don't care whether you're red, brown, or purple, we're all the same,"-type dismissive cis person. However, it's important to know and use the correct pronouns of the many people for whom pronouns matter. Filling out info cards or a questionnaire like above posters have said seems like a good middle ground between putting folks on the spot and making sure everyone has the opportunity to communicate.

An effective way to maintain a feeling of safety is to lightly correct any mis-gendering -- "I was confused about his question," "Their question, yes, let's go over that again."
posted by Pwoink at 8:44 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your campus likely has some folks in your Center for Diversity and/or Center for Teaching (or similarly named centers) who would love to be asked this very question. Ask them!
posted by nicodine at 1:39 PM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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