Teaching Inclusive Communication and Evolving Language as a Professional Skill

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“Oh TK, that’s just politically correct BS!” “Let me guess, we’re ‘woke’ in this class?” “I always use that word. It’s not a slur.” “Am I going to be ‘cancelled’ now?” “What about my First Amendment rights to say what I want?”

Hello everyone! This is Teresa Kelly–TK–from the Department of Composition and WAC. Whenever I must correct a student’s language to improve inclusivity and sensitivity, I inwardly cringe and wait for the blowback. After all, popular culture surrounds students with the idea that changing the way they speak and write to embrace diversity is at best trendy or “woke” and at worst a bad thing or a way for “liberals” to change society.  At the extremes, people who oppose diversity and inclusion cry “censorship” and “First Amendment” without really understanding what they mean.

Newsflash! Inclusive writing is not “politically correct” or “woke.” Writers do not define if something is a slur. The people it offends do. Correction and consequences are not “cancelling.”  The legal definition of censorship and the First Amendment apply to “state actors” such as the government–not to workplaces, social media platforms, or feedback to students. Moreover, society does not support professionals saying anything they want in any way they want.  

English naturally grows, evolves, and changes.  We see it every year when the Oxford English Dictionary adds new words. Consider, for example, how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our language. PPE, social distancing, and variants -and not the many Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) characters of that name (Loki, Lady Loki, Classic Loki, Alligator Lok) that dizzyingly populate the MCU – have become common expressions. As educators, we have a responsibility to teach the ongoing evolution of inclusive and appropriate communication as a professional skill. Not only do employers value effective verbal and written communication, but students who do not learn to let their use of language evolve continuously–even after they complete their degree–risk derailing their careers. We see multiple examples of that in popular culture–and not all of them are intentional. Some infractions stem from ignorance that language changes. We must arm our students against the risk of making those mistakes as well as teach them how to respond if they do commit an error.

Once we accept that we have a duty to teach inclusive writing as an ongoing skill, the question becomes how to do so without creating an adversarial relationship with some students who simply do not recognize why it matters. One way involves creating a culture of linguistic inclusion that models and teaches that language changes in real time. There are five principles faculty in any subject area can employ to build this culture.

1. Model the behavior you want students to emulate. While this sounds simple, it sometimes requires deep reflection and analysis of the ways we communicate with students.  For years, I used an informal “Hi guys” to greet students in seminar. My recent studies into gender inclusive language beyond APA 7th edition changing to “they/them” as acceptable first-person gender-neutral pronouns made me realize that I was not being as inclusive as I thought. I now greet students with “Hello everyone!” I also encourage students to share if I’m mispronouncing their name, share how to change their preferred name, and suggest if they have anything else they want to share about how I address them, just to let me know. This is a less direct way to encourage students to share their preferred pronouns and avoids putting students in uncomfortable positions. I do share my pronouns (she/her) without commentary. All of these approaches make inclusion a normal part of my class delivery.

2.  Be vigilant but supportive in all parts of the course. As faculty, we tend to have “eyes” on live seminars, initial discussion posts, and assignments. We should pay attention to all formal and informal interactions and seek teachable moments. Not only can we use these opportunities to help students recognize where their language needs to change to be more inclusive, but we can also teach them things like how to ask effective questions, to give constructive feedback, and to use skills with “soft” criticism. Obviously, some words and actions require harsher immediate responses, but others can be opportunities for students to learn.

3. Give examples from the past on how language has changed in your subject area. In Composition, all changes to English are relevant, but there are plenty of examples from all subject areas.  One I like to share is the move from the term “Global Warming” to “Climate Change” and why it happened. Examples such as this help students see that language changes often stem from increased understanding of a subject or mistaken assumptions due to original terminology.

4. Use contemporary examples so students experience change as it happens. Hardly a day goes by when the fallout from language choices does not appear in the news–be it renaming certain insect species to avoid slurs or changing product labels. The recent decision by Desire to Learn (D2L)to change its theme to remove the word “pioneers” from its annual conference theme after feedback from indigenous people who find the phrase triggering shows people are more empowered than ever to call out the words and phrases that marginalize them.

5.  Acknowledge mistakes will happen. Teach students how to deal with them. Educators and students are only human. All of us will make mistakes. What sets successful people apart is how they acknowledge mistakes and learn from them. “Doubling-down” will not change how society views insensitive or discriminatory language. Showing remorse and a willingness to change can save a job–or even a career. Empowering our students to own mistakes by giving examples like USDLA, NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, or Country Music’s Morgan Wallen can provide them another necessary skill for success.

Research tells us that effective teaching is reflective teaching. How do you actively promote inclusive communication in your courses? Are there areas where you can improve? I’d love to see some ideas in the comments below. After all, we learn best from each other.

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