The Crucial First Five Minutes of the Semester
Many students spend the first day of class braced against various types of disrespect—professors who mispronounce their names, call them by the wrong name entirely, misgender them, and so on. Students who are worried about not being treated with respect can’t concentrate on what we’re saying. Here you will find a few reliable techniques to establish mutual respect with students in the first class meeting.
First off, don’t read from the roster. Instead, try one of these attendance-taking methods:
- Send an email to students prior to class asking students for their names (if different from the roster) and their pronouns. Use their preferred names to take attendance on the first day.
- Pass out index cards or first-day surveys, asking students to write their names, their roster names (if different), and their pronouns. Some professors also ask for other relevant information, like Year, Major, Languages, Anything I Should Know (Commuter, Student Athlete, Coming to See Me About Accommodations), Why Are You Taking This Course, and so on. You can also have them do this online before the first day of class.
- Bring supplies for students to make name tents for their desks. Make it clear that you’re asking students to write their name (which you know is not necessarily their roster name). Invite students to also include their pronouns if desired. Collect the name tents at the end of class & hand them back to students at the beginning of all subsequent classes. Be sure to make one for yourself as well.
- When you introduce yourself, tell students what you prefer to be called (Professor X or your first name) and, if you’re comfortable doing so, tell them your own pronouns.
- If you do introductions for the whole class, have students interview and introduce each other, their pronouns (make it optional), and something related to the course.
- Don’t assume you can tell what pronouns someone uses based on their appearance.
- When you begin the semester acknowledging that pronouns and names matter, students are more likely to feel comfortable in your class, and thus be able to focus on the material you’re teaching.
We all make mistakes. As professors, when we do make a mistake, we have the opportunity to set a tone of respect in the classroom and model active learning for our students.
A few tips from Dean Spade’s classic “Making Classrooms Welcoming for Trans Students.”
- “If you make a mistake, correct yourself. Going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronoun assumption that has now been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
- If someone else makes a mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun as misused is present, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.”
- More tips here and a useful video from students here.
Adapted from a contributed tip by:
Prof. Elizabeth Markovits
Mount Holyoke College Teaching & Learning Initiative
Mount Holyoke College