My attention was drawn to this headline for an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that asked “Do Professors Have a Right to Mistreat Students?” My immediate reaction was “Well, duh! Of course not!” and was wondering why that question should even be asked.
It turns out that the article was prompted by a college professor who had refused to use any gender identification terms other than male and female.
Nicholas Meriwether, who teaches philosophy at Shawnee State University, in Ohio, and routinely addresses students as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” refused to address a transgender woman by the pronouns or honorifc she uses. Meriwether explained that he was not willing “to communicate a university-mandated ideological message regarding gender identity” that conflicted with his Christian beliefs. When he sued the university for violating his rights to free speech and equal protection, a district court found that the student “dreaded participating in plaintiff’s class but felt compelled to do so because plaintiff graded students on participation.” The college had tried to accommodate Meriwether by proposing that he refer to all students by first or last names only, without using gendered titles for any of them. That would have treated everyone equally, and it would not have required him to say anything he did not believe.
Meriwether refused, declaring that titles “foster an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect that is befitting the college classroom.” Instead, he proposed using the last name, without a gendered honorific, for the transgender student only. Of course, “seriousness and mutual respect” would have then been unavailable to her, and her alone. She would be conspicuously singled out, treated worse than all other students.
Racism and sexism are also matters of public concern, and they have sometimes had religious justifications. Suppose a teacher thought it appropriate to address only the Black students by their first names, a demeaning treatment that was once common, to signify their subordinated status.
Notice that he had refused a compromise of calling all students by just their first or last names because doing so would not “foster an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect that is befitting the college classroom” but he was willing to call just that one student by their last name, implying that they did not reserve that respect. Meriwether clearly felt that his pious Christian disapproval of gender fluidity justified singling out that one student. Teachers know (or should know) that students generally dislike being singled out for whatever reason.
Meriwether’s attitude is utter rubbish. Respect is not just determined by the way one is referred to but also by the tone and attitude underlying it. When I was director of my university’s teaching center, I would tell those faculty who were discomfited by the casual forms of address adopted by some students, thinking that they were not being respected, that it is perfectly possible for a student to respectfully call you by your first name while calling you “Professor X” in a voice dripping with contempt.
When I started teaching in the US decades four decades ago, I struggled with the question of names. I like the classroom atmosphere to be informal and so wanted to call my students by their first names. But I was aware that the power differential between teacher and student would mean that many students would hesitate to call me by my first name, and this would reinforce the sense of inequality. I did try one semester to call all of them Mr. and Ms. but that seemed so artificial to me. (This was long before discussion of transgender issues became commonplace.)
The solution I hit upon was, before the semester began, to send out a letter to all students telling them that they could call me Mano, Mr..Singham, Dr. Singham, or professor Singham, whichever they felt comfortable using, and asked them to tell me how they would like me to address them. It worked fine. There was never any issue with respect or the lack of it, because that arrangement was mutually agreed upon. Meriwether thinks he is being respectful by using Mr. and Ms. but in fact he is imposing his approach on everyone, irrespective of their feelings, and unilaterally deciding when and with whom to make exceptions.
College faculty should not forget that almost all their students are over 18 years of age and thus adults who can drive, get married, get drafted to fight in wars, vote, and do pretty much anything we can do except buy alcohol and tobacco until they are 21. We should not infantilize them by ignoring their legitimate needs and concerns. And respecting their gender identity is about as legitimate a concern as it gets.
In a biography of anthropologist Margaret Mead (Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in America (1999)), Joan Mark writes about Mead’s work in 1931 among the Arapesh community in a very remote interior region of mountainous New Guinea.
Among the Arapesh, the personality and roles of men and women were similar. The people were quiet and unassertive. Both sexes nurtured and cherished their children. The most complicated part of the culture was the language, which had 11 genders or grammatical categories (English has three – male, female ,and neuter), 22 third person-pronouns, and many ways of making plurals. (p. 50)
These religious bigots are freaking about using gender neutral honorifics and pronouns. Their brains would explode at having to deal with 11 genders and 22 third-person pronouns.