PSU policy addressing gender inclusion gets mixed reaction

Gender, binary terms being removed from course curricula

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State classes soon will be available to first- through fourth-year students — not freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors — and reactions to the change have been mixed.

The University Faculty Senate last month approved a set of policy recommendations brought to the floor by the Committee on Curricular Affairs — by a vote of 125-13 — that will remove “gendered and binary terms” like “upperclassmen” and “freshmen” from all course curricula, admissions materials, scholarship information and other documents.

“Upperclassmen” and “lowerclassmen” will be replaced with “upper division” and “lower division,” while words like “freshman” and “sophomore” will be changed to “first-year” and “second-year.”

Some skeptical

Some students, like Lakyn Meeder, a senior double-majoring in political science and public relations, are skeptical of the measure.

Meeder said she has “never heard of students speaking out about” the university’s use of year terms in course curricula.

“As someone who makes sure to ask for pronouns and use people’s preferred names, I don’t see year titles as issues I need to change my vocabulary for, so I don’t intend on making any changes,” Meeder said. “I think there are a lot more issues trans and nonbinary students would like to see focused on instead of names … such as putting period products in male bathrooms, having more nonbinary bathrooms, etc.”

The proposal, called the Preferred Name and Gender Identity Policy (or AD84), will also allow everyone to choose which name and pronouns they prefer through Penn State’s systems.

Umar Aslam, a sophomore computer engineering major, called the policy “unnecessary.”

While the words may have held a certain meaning in the past, he doesn’t think they do anymore.

“I think people are still going to use old terminology because of old habits,” Aslam said. “When I think of (year terms), I don’t think it’s a male-dominated subject. I just see it as, ‘Oh, it says what year of college or high school they’re in.'”

Intention ‘progressive’

Alicia Decker, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State, said that while the intention behind the legislation is “good, decent, solid (and) progressive,” the manner in which it was enacted is “a bit curious.”

“I was surprised that it’s an initiative out of Curricular Affairs versus the Educational Equity and Campus Environment Committee, which is the main senate committee that deals with equity and diversity issues,” Decker, who was chair of the latter committee two years ago, said.

However, Decker welcomes the change and said language used in professional settings can have a real impact.

“Language absolutely does matter,” she said. “It goes way beyond having a men’s and a women’s bathroom — it’s about feeling like there are spaces where everybody is included and belongs.

“I can absolutely see why sexist language in particular — for example, saying ‘policemen’ versus ‘police officer’ … needs to go, because they’re problematic and isolating for those who don’t necessarily identify in those particular ways.”



Erin Boas, the Penn State student body president who has been in the Faculty Senate for the past three years, said the reasoning behind the proposal’s origin was likely that Curricular Affairs deals with everything relating to LionPATH and course registration.

She views the proposal as a “great push” to “institutionalize inclusivity.”

Boas said one of the conversations she’s heard surrounding terms like “freshman” is in regard to older students, who may feel like the term connotes inexperience.

“It’s already hard to adapt into the culture and adapt into being older and not among the ‘normal’ demographic of college students,” Boas said. “And then having that (term) tagged onto you can be an extra thing.”

The reason behind the change, according to the document, is that many currently used terms “are decidedly male-specific” or “can be interpreted as both sexist and classist.”

“Terms such as ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ are parallel to western male father-son naming conventions, and much of our written documentation uses he/she pronouns,” the policy states.

The proposal will not change the phrasing of course descriptions detailing the “academic” study of gendered terms, such as feminism.

Goes beyond language

Jake Snyder — a junior studying biology and the president of Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schreyer, an organization for LGBTQ students in the honors college — said the need for inclusion at the university goes beyond language.

There are still school-disseminated surveys, for instance, that ask students to identify as “male,” “female” or “other,” he said.

“Colleges release demographic information, but only acknowledge the existence of two genders,” Snyder said. “There is change to be made in how colleges, and Penn State as a whole, treat gender and sexual diversity.”

Renan Beckman, a junior studying geosciences, said she was impressed that the Faculty Senate thought to change Penn State’s course language in this way.

“I think the average person will continue to use the usual (terms), but I think ambassadors will be asked to use the new words, and professors as well, which eventually will have an impact,” she said. “I don’t know anyone at Penn State who uses they/them pronouns, but I like how we can add our pronouns to our name now.”

William Kenyon — the head of Penn State’s Lighting Design Program and the committee member who introduced the recommendations — said they were drafted after the Faculty Senate passed a different recommendation to allow students to choose their preferred name and gender in Penn State computer systems.

Kenyon said many faculty have noticed a sharp uptick in the number of students choosing alternate pronouns, and that student reactions to AD84 have been “really positive.”

“This is hopefully the first step in many to ensure that our words throughout the university are inclusive and welcoming,” Kenyon said. “We are not asking that everybody submit new course proposals across the university. What we are asking is for permission to essentially administratively replace these gendered terms … with gender neutral terms.”

Kenyon said he believes this is just the beginning for universities across the country in terms of gender inclusion, and that other American schools have already taken steps similar to Penn State.

“Most international universities have already done this, and it’s been standard practice for years outside the U.S.,” Kenyon said. “With many pop stars and others choosing nonbinary pronouns, I think it will become much more prevalent across the U.S. in the future.”

Lilly Riddle is a Penn State student and a Mirror intern.


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