Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Characteristically for me, I have read someone whose work I like, and yet will focus on the place where I think they got it wrong.

Anne Curzan is a linguistics professor at UMichigan.  I first heard of her by listening to her work on The Great Courses. Recommended. From that, I decided to look her up and discovered that in addition to a TEDx talk (I no longer listen to those), and co-hosting an ongoing series of short takes on Michigan public radio, she blogs under the Lingua Franca section at The Chronicle of Higher Education. DuckDuckGo tells me she is also on YouTube, likely for the TEDx* talks.

Side note: Her bios do not include the years she completed her various degrees. I suspect she has to actively edit them out at places like Wikipedia, and I approve of this. People are not entitled to all your personal information.  If they are curious, they can work for it and discover it somewhere online, I am sure. But people draw quick impressions from age, especially of women, and she's not obligated to help them do that. She can present in her own way.  It is not something that matters in the least to me, but it does others.

Freshmen. In one of her posts she notes that she was slow to effect some gender-based language changes after she became an assistant dean and had actual power and authority at Michigan. She simply notes that it is easy not to notice these things and reminds people to be alert for them when they have some influence. She mentions two: the use of gender-neutral they and their for he, he/she, his, his-or-her, and the use of first-year to replace freshman. I agree with the former.  It was already present in speech and less-formal writing for decades and is not a difficult transition. I never thought using the masculine forms to represent both men and women was that big a deal, but then, I'm old, and male, and unlikely to. The other neutral choices like s/he or his-or-her are clunky and awkward. They still sounds a bit informal and sloppy to my ears, but not terrible. As for it being a plural used as a singular, that bothers me even less. All languages, including English, have idiosyncrasies, and speakers of a language that doesn't have a plural form of "you," except in our dialects are in no position to get stuffy about that part.

Freshmen, however seems like an unnecessary loss. The names for the four classes were always playful, with a subtext of reminding students that they are not quite adults. Even senior has hint of irony in it. Eliminating freshman will undermine the use of the other three, and over time may drive all of them out. They are fun language. I understand the drive to eliminate "men" from compounds that include both males and females. It is part of a general pushback in language against the exclusion of women from power.  Many of the alternatives don't hold up well; others do. Chairwoman is not terrible but limps a little, and "chair" works quite well.  Congresswoman seemed odd years ago but seems fine now.  When the plural is required, we have to go to the formal member of Congress or the jocular congresscritter, so we have lost an intermediate form, but that's not huge. "Freshwomen" sounds a little snarky and using humor to be dismissive, but "freshman" was already that. Does anyone think "sophomore" isn't humorously dismissive?

Once someone points out the problem with a word people start to respond to it differently. It says "men." That means women are excluded. This is part of the systematic erasing of women. 

First-year student is boring. It is also less accurate to use the number the years of attendance, as students increasingly do not finish in four years. There may also be an intentional reduction in taking that teasing attitude to students anymore. They are customers, and we have to pretend they are adults as a business strategy. I don't think this has worked well. Telling them that their opinions are valuable in their current form is silly.  They and their opinions are works in progress and should know that. Human nature already has too great a tendency to settle into what one perceived authority or another tells us and think no more about it. Social psychologists have disturbing evidence how much our reasoning is post hoc. We shouldn't be encouraging that in students, who are already among the worst offenders.

The intended meaning is likely "We want all students to know we take women seriously." There are additional meanings. Those meanings are intentional but unacknowledged. I don't think it will do to ask students what they think the meaning is. They want to identify with a tribe, and they will recite back the meaning they believe their desired tribe wants. That will usually be the tribe of the professors, as they want to look like educated, high-minded people who "get it." Even if they don't fully feel that way, that's what they're going to say.  They are trying to build places for themselves in the world, and are practicing to say - and even to believe - what they should, to the authorities and to their cohort. They will do this fairly automatically.  (Yes, some students delight in the opposite. There is a tribal status in that also.)

Two second meanings are "We consider the low, even merely theoretical possibility that anyone would have been offended before we pointed out the difficulty to be more important than four centuries of humorous academic tradition. And we are watching everything you say." The fact that many people in the authority structure do not strongly intend that meaning is irrelevant.  If there are any, with any power, then it must be attended to. For safety. If I were a student at that college I would think. "I consider myself duly warned. I am undecided what I will do about that."

*When did the "x" come in?  What's it for?


ErisGuy said...

In one of her posts she notes that she was slow to effect some gender-based language changes after she became an assistant dean and had actual power and authority at Michigan. She simply notes that it is easy not to notice these things and reminds people to be alert for them when they have some influence

So she’s a departmental tyrant who demands everyone use words exactly as she does. I choose freedom.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

So far, it has only been that the UMichigan publications use they/their and "first-year student." Institutions do have the right to choose whatever they themselves wish to use. Next, I think that schools have some right to have requirements for academic submissions. They can require MLA format or Chicago Manual of Style, for example. However, what about op-eds in school publications? How about the brochures that go out to prospective students? Does the Board of Trustees have to follow that style? What if they refuse? It would also be a significant burden in creative writing. Perhaps some departments would wish to have their own individual rules. It becomes hard to lay out bright lines of what is public communication and what is private.

Texan99 said...

I confess to having disliked the term "co-ed" since I first heard it. To me it meant that a student was a man, and if men graciously allowed women to join, the women would be the "co-students" with the real students. If it were otherwise, co-ed would refer generically to anyone participating in a two-gender college, which was never the usage.

But I rarely bother with "chair" or "chairperson." Chairman's good enough for both sexes, I think.

We used to know a married couple named Huffman who referred to themselves as the Huffpersons, a joke I always enjoyed even for for the fact that of course it was politically incorrect for Mrs. Huffperson to have taken her husband's last name at all. I took my husband's name, though. It was more important for me that we should share one than that I should win the battle over whose we would share. I thought we would have children, and I didn't see any future in hyphenizing past the first generation. Must the grandchildren be Annie and Billie Smith-Jones-Wright-Roberts?

Texan99 said...

PS, People keep asking me jocularly how they should address me now, so I come up with titles like Exalted Madame Commissionatrix-Elect. Perhaps Electrix.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The Commissioner Electrix. I like it.

Tom Grey said...

"first-year student" -- this is actually an important distinction, that those who start but don't finish in 4 years don't have, except for the first year.

Yet, I'd more support the shorter, gender neutral "Fresher" -- I was Fresher in one year, she might be a Fresher in another year. I also prefer Chair, a bit, to Chairman, especially if it's a woman. I'd go for Congresser (or Congressor) to go along with Senator (neutral!).

But "Seller" instead of Salesman is perhaps a bit problematic due to it being used already in so many other ways.