Improving the use of inclusive language in convention proposals and presentations

Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence?  If you regularly walk the walk of equitable and inclusive language, you may have recognized the error immediately.  And if you truly engaged in an examination of the language in those first two sentences, you can stand up and give yourself a hand for identifying at least two new errors in this sentence alone.  Did you find the errors?  In three short sentences, I have described for you four potential lapses in inclusive language, particularly language that may be considered ableist.  In this piece, I attempt to highlight a few of the ways that each of us engages in language that may be considered non-inclusive and challenge each of you to work toward examining your proposals for marginalizing language and incorporating inclusive language into your program proposals and conference sessions.

Here are a few examples:

Trans Inclusive Language

Without a doubt, trans inclusive language is a topic that we grapple with within our association and on many of our college and university campuses.  In the Developmental Pathways to Trans Inclusion on College Campuses document released earlier this summer, Brandon Beck and I wrote that people should:

“Provide your pronouns when introducing yourself, on your emails, business cards (see Appendix E), door signs, syllabi, and on other relevant documents.  When able, provide reasoning for why you are sharing your pronouns.  For example, you may say, “My name is Kay Wright and I use they/them pronouns.  I am sharing my pronouns so you do not have to guess my pronouns and so you do not misgender me.” 

Additionally, ask others what pronouns they use and use them correctly every time.  If you are unsure of somebody’s pronouns, or forget their pronouns, you may simply ask for that information, or use their name.  Also note that somebody may change their chosen pronoun, so make checking for chosen pronouns a regular part of your routine.

Seems simple enough, right?  But inclusive language goes beyond gender identity and beyond an introduction.  It is my insistence that each presenter, session chair, reviewer, and attendee become cognizant of the many ways that language shapes our interactions either through inclusion, or marginalization, in both the ways we communicate with each other, but also in our session titles, abstracts, handouts, and during our sessions.

Writing Convention Proposals

Often times, when we submit  program proposals, we have a desire to submit a catchy title for our session.  This year, we are engaging in potential and action in C-bus, OH.  Many textbooks in American primary schools have provided the narrative that Columbus discovered America, despite a clear knowledge that North America was inhabited by many Native peoples prior to Columbus’ landing on the Eastern shores.  To play along with the city’s name, we might be tempted to “Discover student potential through engaging orientation training courses,” or “Cross the ocean blue: International student engagement on American community college campuses.”  In many other convention locations, this wording may not be seen as problematic.  In this case, context is important.

You may have also noticed that I highlighted the word America/n.  This word is used regularly in our course titles, books, and other documents.  However, America consists of many continental regions including South America, Central America, the United States, Canada, and Greenland.  Utilizing the appropriate word is not only a matter of inclusion, but also a matter of correctness.

Using Inclusive Language at Convention

Once a session is accepted, inclusive language does not stop there.  When we are in our conference room presenting, we should also be thoughtful of our speech.  Being inclusive of our gendered and ableist language is a good first step, but we might also consider how our language is racialized, sexed, ageist, heterosexist, or not inclusive of various socioeconomic statuses (SES).

For example, we might provide advice or participant feedback that does not take into consideration one’s race, sexual orientation, and SES.  As an example, during one of my job searches, I would converse with people who would give me the advice to “take any job” or “go anywhere to get in the door.”  However, as a gay man of color, who is single, and does not come from a high SES background, the prospect of moving “anywhere” was potentially both life threatening and dehumanizing.  This is advice I could not take and advice that was certainly not inclusive of my identities.

Another example of language that I find problematic is language that many of us use everyday in jest.  Two of these include: “You’re killing me” and “I’m dead.”  For many people, these phrases express a job well done and a jovial expression of an inability to handle a generally comedic situation, respectively.  These phrases don’t necessarily reflect a lack of inclusion, however they do reflect a lack of sensitivity to a rampant culture of gun violence that affects many different communities across our nation.  It is abundantly clear that to be a Black or Brown person (additional consideration given for the intersections of one’s racial identity with one’s gender identity, SES, and gender expression) in our society means that one lives their life with the everyday chance that physical violence is enacted against them.  Language can cause trauma and therefore, language is important.

Here are some other problematic words and phrases commonly used:

  • You guys (Problem: Sexist)
  • Walk to each corner of the room (Problem: Ableist)
  • Think about LGBT success on campus (Problem: No noun, trans is a gender identity, LGB is a sexual identity, it’s not specific, and not all people utilize these labels)
  • Look up here (Problem: Ableist)
  • The best graduate preparation programs require students to partake in a full-time summer internship (Problem: Consideration of SES)
  • It’s a short walk to the restaurant in the Short North (an area in C-bus; Problem: Ableist)
  • If we think about a first year student’s engagement in the classroom, he/she may feel ill equipped to discuss diversity and social justice (Problem: Genderist)
  • It’s crazy to think that… (Problem: Ableist)

Yes, language patterns are difficult to break.  Most of us learn to speak when we are small children and formulate our standard language configurations around that time.  Our families, friends, and other socio-cultural signals around us dictate these patterns.  But as we all progress in our understandings of our identities, the language that describes who we are and what we do must develop as well.

In the end, we are asking ACPA members to provide a level of strict scrutiny when thinking about their language use in proposals and presentations before and during Convention. We each have our own work to do in this area, including myself.

Doing so will require each of us to move beyond our normative ways of being and doing and to challenge ourselves and each other to do better when it comes to inclusive and welcoming language.  There are many other examples we could consider, but the work of equity and inclusion is not just one individual’s. The work is everybody’s.

Best of luck in submitting your proposals. I encourage you to refer to the #ACPA17 Universal Design Principles as you are thinking of your presentation, and if I can offer any assistance in your work, please contact me, or anybody on the Convention Equity and Inclusion team. I can’t wait to see join you in Columbus!

headshotDian Squire uses he/him/his pronouns.  Dian is a visiting assistant professor in the Iowa State University (ISU) student affairs program. Prior to starting at ISU, Dian was a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Denver’s Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (in)Equality (IRISE). Dian’s research focuses on issues of diversity, equity, and justice in higher education from a critical race feminist (CRF) perspective. He focuses on access to graduate education and the experiences of diverse graduate students. He utilizes critical organizational perspectives to help explain individual behavior and experience in order to transform organizational structures to support equity and justice. He also writes on student activism, racial justice, campus institutional change, and critical praxis in student affairs. Dian serves at the Director of Equity & Inclusion on the ACPA Governing Board.

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