Inclusion in convention programs: Language and behavioral improvement

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.

Indeed, 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 sociocultural signals around us dictate these patterns. Therefore, they’re hard to break. But as we all progress in our understandings of identity, language that describes who we are and what we do must develop as well, leading us to a better understanding of what it means to use inclusively excellent language in our every day lives.

Without a doubt, trans inclusive language is a topic that we have grappled 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 by simply asking, “What pronouns do you use?”. 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.

Let’s take for example the desire to submit a catchy title for our session. In Columbus, OH, we engaged in potential and action in C-bus, OH. Many of our textbooks 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 have been 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. As we engage in other contexts, such as Houston, Boston, or Nashville please be cautious of the language we assign to our sessions as they may reflect histories that extend oppressive vestiges today.

Once we are lucky enough to have our session accepted and 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 socio-economic 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 are “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. I have my own work to do as well.

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)

Lastly, we also want to ensure that we are recognizing the lands of Native peoples upon which we hold our ACPA events. Every powerpoint should have a land acknowledgement in the beginning and that acknowledgement should be read aloud. A Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories. To recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on, and a way of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial.

Related to presenting, there are also disability inclusion protocols. Please review the inclusion documents provided by convention to ensure that all our members are able to fully engage in convention. A few examples include:

  • Only use powerpoint and check for accessibility using the ACPA protocols.
  • Do not use programs such as Prezi which are not accessible
  • Read all materials on your powerpoints
  • Utilize microphones in the rooms instead of assuming your voice is loud enough
  • Prepare and provide a couple large print handouts to those needing them
  • Be cognizant of how you have members move and engage in the space
  • Upload your powerpoint to ACPA databases early

In the end, I am asking ACPA members to provide a level of strict scrutiny when thinking about their language use in proposals and presentations before and during Convention. 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 everybody’s. Together we can all make our convention more welcoming and inclusive!

Best of luck and I can’t wait to see join you at Convention!

Dian D. Squire PhD (he/him/his). Dian is a visiting assistant professor in the student affairs program. Prior to starting at Iowa State University, 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 perspective. He particularly 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.

One comment:

  1. Nearly all the questions we ask begin with one of five words: “who,’ “what,” “why,” “when,” or “how.” Although these words help us gather facts and understand each other in conversation, not all of them yield wisdom. We’ve already eliminated “why” as a viable Wisdom Access Question. ” Who,” “when,” and “how” fall into the information question category. However, using “what” helps the brain behave as an efficient search engine. “What” questions force you to be specific in your query and being specific leads to solution and awareness; on the other hand, asking “Why?” leaves you with only the question.

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