Students! Demanding weird pronouns! OFFENDED!

I was asked if I listened to this interview with Peter Boghossian.

No! I had not! Thanks for asking!

But, out of morbid curiosity, I did click on the link. I even listened to it for 15 minutes, in sick fascination.

He’s very annoyed that students ask him to address them by their preferred pronouns. How dare they! This is the problem with The Left nowadays, they take offense at everything, and are actively looking for excuses to be offended. It’s ridiculous that we professors are expected to master the impossible, arcane skill of talking to students appropriately.

Boghossian must be incredibly stupid, because I’ve found that it’s really easy — the harder task is to remember all those names, and when I’ve got 50 students in a class, it sometimes takes the entire term before I’ve got them all straight. Pronouns are trivial. If I could address everyone as he, she, they, or “hey, you”, it would be so easy to sail through the semester, never bothering to recognize students as individuals. It’s even easier to adapt to these pronoun requests because most students are gender-conforming and wearing clothing that signals their gender identity, and it’s only a few exceptions that you have to consider…and again, it’s no big deal, no more difficult than recognizing that Student A needs help with statistics, Student B did really well on the last test but is struggling in organic chemistry, Student C is looking for a chance to do summer research. Student D wants to be addressed by “they, them”? No problem.

Boghossian doesn’t get it. He seems to think students are his enemy, and that this is all a leftist tactic to make him suffer. Try a different point of view, guy: maybe your students are looking for respect, and would like you to recognize that they have a history and a context and opinions and needs and desires, too, and would appreciate that being acknowledged. Maybe they’re not looking to be offended, but are already tired of being treated as faceless, interchangeable tuition-paying blobs, who are expected to conform to your expectation that they will readily fit into two and only two boxes.

I had to stop listening after a quarter hour, though, because he started complaining about how these pronoun issues are taking away from his valuable class time, and important issues like establishing his seating chart (???) for the class.

P.S. I’ll mention this because I know it will infuriate self-identified Classical Liberals like Boghossian. One simple tip I got at my conference at Howard Hughes Medical Institute was a suggestion to help foster more inclusion: professors should include their preferred pronouns in their syllabi. I had never thought of that, because of course I am an obvious male figure who would be addressed as “he/him”, and then I realized…yep, that’s my privilege talking, that I’m your standard male-conforming American citizen, and the only “of course” in this situation is that I assume the minority will have to take the effort to explain things to me, while I will benefit from the default assumptions.

So naturally, as a craven leftist, I’m going to follow the recommendation of a major granting authority and take 5 seconds to type in “Preferred pronouns: he/him” into all of my syllabi next term. I know, it’s a disgraceful submission that will snatch away so much time that I could have spent teaching cell biology or evolution, but hey, I’m taking the long view that respecting student identities will actually help them learn. And if I slip up, and a student needs to correct me, I won’t take it as a conspiracy by the Left to attack me, but will thank them for helping me improve my awareness of who they are.

P.P.S. Remember when people got all outraged at the introduction of “Ms.”? It was very important to know whether a woman was a “Miss” or a “Mrs.”, for some reason, but we didn’t have to make any such distinctions within the category of “Mr.”


  1. says

    Personal pronouns aside. In Denmark we have solved the Miss, mrs conondrum. We address people mostly by their first name, or perhaps by their full name.

    Rarely do you preface it with anything. Our kids teachers are named by their first name. My boss, and her boss, and his boss, and hiss boss are named by their first name.

    My professors were named with their first name, I have adressed anyone with their edcuational or professional title in Danish in my life. No Doctor Andersen, whether she was a medical doctor or a Ph.d. No mrs Jensen for a teacher, or a friends mom.

    Well thats not entirely true. As a boot in the army I had to adress the sergeants and the officers by their titlew and last name. When boot camp ended it was just Brian, and Thomas, and no longer sergeant Schmidt and Captain Olsen.

    I do not know if you appreciate how old fashioned and authoritarian your style of addressing people seem to many Europeans. (not the Germans, and not the Austrians. Worlking in IT I once gave apresentation to a Doctor Doctor Schmidt, the head af a department in Austria, with two doctorates he wasn’t gonna be named by just one doctor. His sign on his door actually said “Doctor Doctor Schmidt”)

  2. Bill Buckner says

    100% agreement. In the past four years I have had two transgendered students in my class. I simply asked them what pronouns they preferred. In addition, I had one student request that I use a specific pronoun (I had been using the wrong one, but it was a simple enough correction.) I think the students are reasonable here, and if you take the first order approach of using appearance and clothing cues they will not be offended if you get it wrong. They will just tell you. No big deal.

    You are right, it is way harder to learn the students’ names.

  3. says

    At the outset, students don’t necessarily know whether you’re the kind of person who will respect their pronouns, or the kind of person who will complain that they’re taking time away from establishing seating charts (wtf). Mentioning your preferred pronouns, even if you think it’s obvious, is a good way to establish that students may also express their preferences.

  4. says

    #1: It varies. I tell all my students to refer to me as “PZ”, and always have; some are more formal, but they’re the minority here. I don’t think any of the biology faculty insist on using their title.

  5. says

    #5: Yes. I do have a sign on my office door explaining that I should be addressed as “PZ”, but nothing about pronouns (again, because I assumed from an entitled position).

  6. says

    Boghossian seems such a contradiction to me. This is the same guy that promotes “street epistemology” to talk about religion/atheism, correct? If so, I’ve heard him talk about “meeting people where they are at” in interviews about this. And I recall his reasoning for this being that it leads to better discussion. So why the fudge is it such a big problem for him to meet his students where they are at? Does he simply not see this situation as analogous?

  7. Dunc says

    In the past four years I have had two transgendered students in my class.

    This is another thing that makes me suspicious… Just how many transgender students does Boghossian have in his classes, for it to start taking up meaningful amounts of valuable time?

  8. says

    You know who else does “street epistemology”?

    Ray Comfort.

    I’ve seen some of these “street epistemology” videos, and they all seem to be about forcing the interrogated person into a series of questions that channel them to a desired conclusion, rather than honestly engaging and discussing ideas. Just like ol’ Ray.

  9. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I’ve been trying to drop pronouns from my speech, to be clear to whom I;m referring in each sentence. 45 is prime example. Never refer to 45 as “him” or “it” or “them” or “whatever” always 45 regardless only title 45 ever earned (through a technicality). 45 even has 45 full name excluded, unlike most other people, where I’ll usually default to name and omit title. Honorifics, like Dr. or Prof. are usually maintained.
    English is most difficult of languages.

  10. says

    #9: It’s a tossup. With his reputation, I’d expect students to avoid his classes, but he also claims to get lots of students who enroll to challenge his views (or as he puts it, to find excuses to get him legally fired).

    I don’t know if I believe him. With my reputation, I get creationists signing up for my intro course, but they always seem to listen fairly attentively (sometimes more attentively than the students who take it all for granted), looking for an opportunity to raise their hands and ask questions, so I’ve never had any complaints about them being there.

    Boghossian always seems like the kind of guy who would respond to a student challenging him with indignation.

  11. Siobhan says

    @9 Dunc

    Just how many transgender students does Boghossian have in his classes, for it to start taking up meaningful amounts of valuable time?

    It’s not like we go out of our way to pay thousands of dollars in tuition enrolling into classes we know will treat us like trash, either. I always did a quick Google of a prospective professor’s work before enrolling, and I suppose that little bit of effort is meaningless if it’s a core course and I have no choice. But I’m certainly not going to make things harder for myself by enrolling in electives taught by transantagonistic asshats.

    As for PBog, he definitely needs to take his own damn advice.

  12. goon says

    Wah wah, this place really is the poster boy (oops, terribly sorry… poster person) for the regressive left.

    It’s because of people like you that Trump won. And your tears make the Trump presidency slightly more bearable.

  13. Siobhan says


    Wah wah, this place really is the poster boy (oops, terribly sorry… poster person) for the regressive left.

    Excuse me? Boghossian is the one who has now spent several hours on public record whinging about the most basic of courtesies you can extend to a person. What should be an exchange taking no longer than a few seconds has to turn into a public spectacle of self-impalement, but we’re the whiners?

  14. Chancellor says

    Haha! Fools, trying to communicate efficiently with those that haven’t been traditionally accommodated by modern society! You use letters to not be unnecessarily annoying, now I mock you!

    Lewk! My trendiness is apparent!

  15. says

    Goon #14:

    If you’re trying to be sarcastic, it didn’t really work.

    If you’re sincere, you’re an idiot.

    Sorry. You just can’t win.

  16. Chancellor says

    I was born with a “Keep away from children!” label, you can’t handle my fire-yah!

    You’re the reason why an asshole is president! Don’t ask me to prove it though, cuz my evidence is mountain-tier, haha!

    That ^ was FUN.

  17. rpjohnston says

    I had to do a doubletake re: “remember when people were outraged at the introduction of Ms.?” I thought, surely, you don’t mean literally remember? Hasn’t that title been around…well…as long as modern english honorifics have been around? My mom used it so it just had to be one of those things. Then Wikipedia told me that it’s only been mainstream since about the 70’s. I had no idea.

  18. cartomancer says

    Although if Boghossian does have this little respect for the desires of its students then getting back at her should be as easy as refusing to use the pronouns they prefer too.

  19. opposablethumbs says

    There’s only one pronoun Peter Boghossian respects – ego.

    :-))))) nice one.

    I remember the facepalm moment of seeing a class list at university where somebody had carefully and thoughtfully listed all the students by surname with their “titles” as Mr., Ms, Mr., Ms, Ms, Mr., Ms, Ms, Ms … Mrs.

  20. kalimac says

    One more thing for all of you to change to Finnish. We have the same personal pronoun for everyone – the whole grammar is totally gender free. And besides the language is more logical and superior in any other way also … perhaps ;)

  21. rietpluim says

    Would it be fun if we cis men requested to be addressed as “she” and cis women requested to be addressed as “he”, just to piss of Boghossian and his ilk?

    As a more serious note, we Dutch solved the Miss/Mrs issue by addressing every woman, married or unmarried, as Mrs in formal situations. School children call heir female teachers “miss” for historical reasons, but it doesn’t reflect their marital status.

    @14: I respect that you prefer to be addressed as “goon”. FYI “goon” is not a compliment.

  22. magistramarla says

    I had a student who requested to be called Seth, after an Egyptian god. She was questioning her sexuality at the time, eventually deciding that she was definitely a lesbian. She really didn’t like the very girly name that her parents had given her.
    It was extremely easy for me to type in (Seth) next to her first name on my class list.
    Apparently, I was the only teacher in the high school who did this, and who called her by her preferred name. She appreciated it immensely. I truly don’t see how doing something so simple that can mean so much to a student can possibly be difficult for a teacher.

  23. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    One thing that confuses me about all the complaints about how difficult it is to remember a student’s preferred pronouns–how often do you even have to use them? I mean, how often do you actually refer to a student in the class in the third person? Aren’t most interactions two-way, so that mostly you have to use the genderless second-person pronoun? So maybe this is an issue once or twice during a class period, at most. Is it really that taxing?

    I’m much more vexed by the Mr/Ms distinction because I’m often corresponding formally via email with people I don’t know. This is especially problematic with Chinese and Korean names, which by themselves generally don’t offer a clue to the person’s gender, but of course even with English it’s presumptuous to presume. If I know they’re a PhD I’ll use Dr., but if not, I often just use the person’s first name, but that doesn’t feel right.

    Recently it occurred to me that we should just replace the whole lot with a genderless M.

  24. Dunc says

    He should be had that he’s not British… I happen to have here a copy of Debrett’s “Correct Form” – the definitive guide to the various titles, styles, and forms of address used amongst the upper echelons of British society, and some of the associated etiquette. It runs to nearly 400 pages.

  25. says

    I wonder if people like this get equally upset if they’re asked to call someone by the name they prefer for their people. “No, I’m not going to call you Cree when appropriate, I’m going to keep calling you Indian because I’m not politically correct!” Or how about the names of places? Will they get in a snit if they’re asked to use Mumbai instead of Bombay?

  26. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 chigau

    Name tags for everyone!

    Yes, yes yes!!! In large print and worn as badges on back and front.

    I, generally, have an good-to-excellent memory for faces and personal details. Names I retain for about 30 milliseconds especially if I am meeting more than one person in day.

  27. Erp says

    @20, yes Ms is recent (all my female high school teachers in the late 1970s were either Miss or Mrs [except the French teacher who was Madame]). It is also within living memory that one used Mrs husband’s full name in formal situations. For example a newspaper article would have, “Mrs John Smith was elected president of the Girl Scouts”.

    The Quakers tried simplifying things back in the 1600s but calling everyone friend and they opted for a single second person singular, ‘thou’ (at that time ‘thou’ was used for addressed social inferiors or close social peers [or God], ‘you’ for addressing social superiors [and also for addressing more than one person]).

  28. Johnny Vector says

    Siobhan # 13:

    It’s not like we go out of our way to pay thousands of dollars in tuition enrolling into classes we know will treat us like trash, either.

    Well sure, you would say that, being a real person and all. We’re trying to have a discussion about nonexistent problems here. Do you mind?

    Won’t someone think of the straw farmers?

  29. LicoriceAllsort says

    It’s wonderful that you’d include that on your syllabus. One thing I’ve been asked to do was drop the “preferred”, as in, “My pronouns are she/her”. An explanation from here:

    Using “preferred” to qualify someone’s pronouns suggests that terms they are claiming don’t really belong to them — they are just preferred over their “true” pronouns. In reality, a transman using “he” as a pronoun doesn’t just prefer that word over “she” — that is the only pronoun that is acceptable to use in reference to him. The fix: Instead of asking someone’s preferred pronouns, ask, “What pronouns do you use?” It’s a small yet substantial difference.

    But maybe ask around a bit because that might not represent majority opinion among good advocacy sources.

  30. says

    I know the names problem. The student who comes to me and says “Could you please use pronoun XYZ” would probably be the first student whose name (and pronouns) I can remember because now there’s some additional information about them.
    My usual names learning curve (middle and high school) is basically like this: The students who always disturb class, the students who are really good and then slowly the rest until there’s probably one very quiet student left whose name you deduct by eliminating all the other names on your list.

  31. blf says

    whose name you deduct

    They lose brownie points for having a name? (Apologies, I realize that was a Tpyos offering… and I readily admit I do a lot of those, unintentionally, myself!)

  32. A. Noyd says

    Giliell (#35)

    “Could you please use pronoun XYZ” would probably be the first student whose name (and pronouns) I can remember because now there’s some additional information about them.

    Yep. I have hundreds of students every year (elementary and middle, here). The poor things are lucky if I can remember their names after teaching them for three years straight. And they even have their last names on their uniforms and desks. I’m just that bad at remembering things like names.

    But you better believe if a kid asked me to use particular pronouns, I’d remember their name and request no problem. (Given a lot of factors, this hasn’t been a thing so far here in Japan, though.) I mean, I’d probably screw up sometimes, but I’d know what I was supposed to say.

  33. Saad says

    sorenkongstad, #1

    Personal pronouns aside. In Denmark we have solved the Miss, mrs conondrum. We address people mostly by their first name, or perhaps by their full name.
    Rarely do you preface it with anything. Our kids teachers are named by their first name. My boss, and her boss, and his boss, and hiss boss are named by their first name.

    I like this idea. One issue with the idea of making young people call older people mister or miss by default is that it just unnecessarily increases the power differential that already exists. It makes no sense for a teenager interacting with a complete asshole adult man and being expected to call him mister because reasons.

  34. Scott Petrovits says

    Ugh, Penn’s guest list was only one of a long list of reasons I stopped listening to that podcast. I like his magic act, and his thoughts on religion were refreshingly blunt, but since he found his own religion in the form of a quack diet guru, and endorsed that sociopath Gary Johnson in the most juvenile way possible, his Libertarian schtick has just gotten intolerable.