A Somewhat Belated Take on Singular They

I know that I am late in speaking to an issue that has been addressed repeatedly and by many people who are in better position to do so than am I: singular they. Still, I do continue to teach and I am asked to be explicit and specific in promulgating specific standards of usage as I do so, so I do have reason to think about such things–in addition to the one that has prompted the present rumination.

In the interest of offering context, the issue of the singular they is that the pronoun in question, traditionally defined as exclusively the third-person plural, is increasingly being used as a singular pronoun–and that the use is being increasingly condoned by agencies and groups that have long been looked to as arbiters of “good style” and “the rules” by which language is supposed to work. As such, the phenomenon of the singular they has occasioned no small amount of condemnation–both by prescriptivists and those taught by them, who hold that the singular they is an abrogation of rules both ancient and sacred, and by descriptivists who look at the condemnations by prescriptivists as emblematic of the failures of such positions.

For the record, I tend to take more of a descriptivist position than a prescriptivist, owing in part to dimly remembered lessons taken during my abortive attempt to become a band director when I grew up (musical “rules” have grown up in much the same way that orthographic “rules” have, with many of the same problems) and in part to my own, more extensive (but maybe not more successful), study of historical Englishes. I confront often the fact that the language changes, and I try not to be one of the curmudgeons who have throughout history complained about cildas þissum dægum and yelled at them to afliehaþ gearde min (or words to that effect). And I recognize the fact that guidelines of “correctness” are used as rubrics to shut out people who might otherwise contribute well to broader discourses and the betterment of us all, functioning as perceived shorthand for intelligence and human worth. (Neither is truly the case.)

There are many who continue to rail against the construction for not better reason than that was the way they were taught English should be used–as if they were ever taught a “perfect” form that was not itself subject to decry by the grumpy elders of its own time, and, in many cases, as if they themselves deployed exemplary use of that form on anything resembling a consistent basis. (While I know that being wrong does not make identification of wrong impossible, I also know that it argues against sufficient knowledge to accurately assess what is and is not wrong, as a given standard would have it.) There are also many reasons to be okay with the singular they, as others have articulated and with which I tend to agree, maugre the heads of those who complain.

Which leads, at last, to the idea that has prompted me to write now. For in my current primary job (because, like many millennials, I have to have more than one to meet my bills), I work with protected health information. By ethical standards and by law, that information must be kept private–and if it must be discussed, it must be discussed with the minimum possible disclosure. To put it another way, the information I have about my organization’s clients must be kept as anonymous as can be–and that would call for the singular they.

Leaving aside the many other problems with a language that admits overtly of only two genders–and there are many, more than can be treated in the present piece–there is the issue that, in speaking of a client’s information with a masculine or feminine attached, there is some abrogation of that client’s privacy, however small. Given the right circumstances, a slipped “he” or “she” can reveal an identity, either affirming it or excluding it, and in neither case is the client’s privacy as protected as it ought to be.

The singular they gets around the problem, however. By eliding expressed gender–which is something that modern English tracks only loosely  in any event–the singular they eliminates one more item of identifying information from any discussion of clients whose information is to be protected. And while the argument could be made that the “correct” third-person singular personal pronoun–it–does the same, common usage practice continues to connect “it” to the inhuman. That is, calling a person “it” dehumanizes that person, which is not an appropriate course of action for them to take who purport to care for others. Additionally, in the case of such work as I do, working with populations whose members already suffer under a dehumanizing onus–because those who struggle with addiction are looked down upon by many–reference to clients as “it” would add to already-existing problems, however slightly, and those whom I serve need have no more burdens than they currently bear.

I know that I could refer to “the client” or to “clients.” I know that I could put all references into the plural. I know I could use s/he or “he or she” or some permutation thereof. But I also know that the language is what people use it to be, and that the singular they economizes words and accords more and more with prevailing popular use–as well as making parts of my work easier, allowing me to focus more on the central portions of the work to be done.

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Initial Comments for the November 2017 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

Not too long ago, I signed my teaching contracts for the November 2017 session at DeVry University in San Antonio, Texas, which extends from 23 October through 17 December 2017. I am pleased to be working with two sets of students across the eight-week span. One set is enrolled in a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition, a class I have taught several times at the institution and which I enjoy. Materials are going up in the course shell already–a benefit of having done the work before.

The other is enrolled in a section of ENGL 216: Technical Writing. I’ve taught technical writing before, of course, both as an upper-division class and as one more nearly equivalent to my present assignment–but this will be my first time teaching the course at DeVry. From what I have seen in the course shell so far, it looks much like what I’ve done before, if a bit more regimented in response to the shorter teaching time and the need to standardize sections across the institution. I expect my students and I will have a good time of things; I certainly look forward to having a go at it–and to developing the new materials for it.

Class Report: ENGL 062, 14 October 2017

After the non-meeting of the previous week, class discussion treated concerns of visual literacy and numeracy before moving into general mechanics and style questions and upcoming assignments.

Students are reminded of the following assignments’ due dates:

  • Discussion Posts, due online at 0059 on 15 October 2017
  • Essay 2 Revision, due online at 0059 on 15 October 2017
  • MRL: Reading Textbooks, due online at 0059 on 15 October 2017
  • MRL: Next Reading, due online at 0059 on 15 October 2017

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Rm. 114 of the DeVry San Antonio campus. The class roster listed five students enrolled, unchanged since the last class meeting. Of them, two attended, verified informally. Student participation was good. No students attended office hours.

Class Report: ENGL 062, 7 October 2017

Due to student non-attendance, class effectively did not meet today. Student work that was previously announced as due during the previous class meeting remains due as noted, with the following additions:

  • Discussion Posts, due online at 0059 on 9 October 2017
  • Essay 2 Revision, due online at 0059 on 9 October 2017
  • MRL: Reading Textbooks, due online at 0059 on 9 October 2017
  • MRL: Next Reading, due online at 0059 on 9 October 2017

Class Report: ENGL 062, 30 September 2017

After addressing questions from and concerns about the previous class meeting and earlier, discussion turned to concerns of paratext and mechanics before it reviewed assignments. Remaining class time was given over to work on assignments with instructor oversight and assistance.

Students are reminded of the following assignments’ due dates:

  • Discussion Posts, due online at 0059 on 1 October 2017
  • Summary and Response, due online at 0059 on 1 October 2017
  • MRL: Paraphrasing and Summarizing, due online at 0059 on 1 October 2017
  • MRL: Next Reading, due online at 0059 on 1 October 2017

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Rm. 114 of the DeVry San Antonio campus. The class roster listed five students enrolled, a loss of one since the last class meeting. Of them, two attended, verified informally. Student participation was good. No students attended office hours.

Class Report: ENGL 062, 23 September 2017

After addressing questions from and concerns about the previous class meeting, discussion reviewed assignments before turning to concerns of summary and mechanics. The class did a practice summary against coming assignments. Remaining class time was given over to work on assignments with instructor oversight and assistance.

Students are reminded of the following assignments’ due dates:

  • Discussion Posts, due online at 0059 on 25 September 2017
  • Essay 1, due online at 0059 on 25 September 2017
  • MRL: Implied Main Ideas, due online at 0059 on 25 September 2017
  • MRL: Next Reading, due online at 0059 on 25 September 2017

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Rm. 114 of the DeVry San Antonio campus. The class roster listed six students enrolled, unchanged since the last class meeting. Of them, two attended, verified informally. Student participation was good. No students attended office hours.

Class Report: ENGL 062, 16 September 2017

After addressing questions from and concerns about the previous class meeting, including matters of document formatting and basic essay structures, discussion turned to transitions before reviewing assignments for both the current and coming week. Revision received attention, as well. The remaining class time was given over to work on assignments with instructor oversight and assistance.

Students are reminded of the following assignments’ due dates:

  • Discussion Posts, due online at 0059 on 18 September 2017
  • Essay 1 Draft, due online at 0059 on 18 September 2017
  • MRL: Outlining and Mapping, due online at 0059 on 18 September 2017
  • MRL: Supporting Details, due online at 0059 on 18 September 2017
  • MRL: Next Reading, due online at 0059 on 18 September 2017

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Rm. 114 of the DeVry San Antonio campus. The class roster listed six students enrolled, unchanged since the last class meeting. Of them, three attended, verified informally. Student participation was reasonably good. No students attended office hours.

Still Another Office Piece

It has happened again that I have moved into another office. This time, however, was not simply relocating across a campus; instead, it was relocating off of that campus entirely. The anxiety about non-renewal I voice in an earlier pieceNote ended up being validated; I was not invited to teach at Schreiner again for the Fall 2017 term, and so I ended up moving out of AC Schreiner 207. The fact that I had not extended so much of myself into the space ended up being an advantage, as having unpacked less meant I had less to pack up–but it was still quite the chore to move boxes and boxes of books from the office down stairs and to my car.

Where they went to was not another academic office, as such. I yet retain my cubicle at DeVry University in San Antonio, to be sure, but I keep there only what I need to teach there–which is not much. A few textbooks, a style manual, and some assorted paperwork remain in place, largely so I need not carry things back and forth, but I am not on the DeVry campus enough to need to have more things present. I am, however, able to have an office in my home at long last, something for which I have hoped for a long time. Even if it is not my imagined ideal–and it is not, to be sure–it is a great comfort to me, and I am able to do quite a bit because I have it.

The new office occupies most of one end of my home, taking up what was a bedroom; the closet in it gives away its original function. It is a smallish room, some ten feet by ten, perhaps, and it sports only a single window that I generally keep blinded and curtained against the often-intense Hill Country sunlight. (Being at the end of the house, its ventilation is not as forceful as it might be, and keeping the sun out helps keep it bearable. An ever-running oscillating fan does, too.) A large wooden shelf left by a previous occupant currently graces one wall and holds up things I have been given or have gotten for myself over years of being a nerd; it rises over bookshelves my father helped me build and that hold other evidence of my decades-long nerdiness. It is a place in my home, one in which I need not worry that I am the person I am, and so I can afford to extend that part of myself into the outside world, to allow it to be embodied and displayed.

At the same time, though, I have to acknowledge it as a problematic space. I’ve not got my honors and awards on the walls as I did in other offices I’ve had, so the strange tension of justified pride and insecurity I’ve addressed elsewhere is not present–or it is at least less pronounced than it has been. But it is circumscribed by its smaller size; I still have not been able to unpack many of the books I would have in it, nor yet other pieces of writing that I might like to have ready to hand. And the furnishings I have in it, cobbled together from pieces inherited from one place or another, remind me that I am in a makeshift space. My identity as a scholar has been confirmed as contingent by the circumstances of my employment; a full-time continuing position in academia does not seem to be available to me, although I continue to work part-time at DeVry, and I may be picking up some teaching work at another university in a coming term. My contingency, my slap-dash and partial existence as a scholar is reinforced by the haphazard nature of my office’s accoutrements, though; I work in the room, and I am glad that my family allows me the room, but I am reminded by that room of what I have lost–and what I might have had.

Still, it is what I have, and it is allowing me to assert again the identity I have had at my root these many years. I got into scholarship in large part from having done–and desiring to do more of–what Mark Edmundson calls for in his 2009 Profession piece “Against Readings”; I entered the scholarly life in part because I had befriended texts and wanted to be a better friend to them. (I also entered it because of failure, in some senses, but I’ve discussed that elsewhere.) I made my attempt at participating in academe because I have always been a lover of reading, and I remained at that attempt longer than I ought to have because I had become by then a lover of writing. Having the office I have now, troubled as it may be, is allowing me to move back into the warm embrace I once knew and am only beginning to realize had been achingly absent from my life; it is filling a hole I had not known had been dug in me and through me. And I think it shows in that I seem to be doing more scholarship and better from the ragged edge of academe than I did while I was trying to burrow deeper into it, worming through the pages to arrive at some putative core that I do not know is even there anymore.

How long I will be in the present office is unclear to me; I seem to be going through them more and more rapidly, anymore. I can hope, however, that I will have the opportunity to set it as I would have it, so far as the room allows, and to get something out of seeing inside myself. For if the office I have is an extension of myself into the outside world, it must surely show something about me; I can hope that it will be something worth seeing.

I am not writing this as a sample for students so much as for my own need to carry forward an idea I have played with for some time. As such, I am not worrying as much about the formal demands of scholarly citation as I might otherwise do. Return to text.

Class Report: ENGL 062, 9 September 2017

After addressing questions from and concerns about the previous class meeting, for which the instructor was absent, discussion turned to sentence, paragraph, and essay structures before reviewing assignments for both the current and coming week. The remaining class time was given over to work on assignments with instructor oversight and assistance.

Students are reminded of the following assignments’ due dates:

  • Developed Paragraph, due online at 0059 on 11 September 2017
  • MRL: Vocabulary, due online at 0059 on 11 September 2017
  • MRL: Stated Main Ideas, due online at 0059 on 11 September 2017

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Rm. 114 of the DeVry San Antonio campus. The class roster listed six students enrolled, an increase of two since the last class meeting. Of them, three attended, verified informally. Student participation was subdued. No students attended office hours.

Class Report: ENGL 135, 21 August 2017

For the final meeting of the session, students were asked to complete the reflective postscript assigned by the University, as well as to address student surveys if they had not already done so.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Rm. 106 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed 12 students enrolled, unchanged since the previous class meeting; three attended, verified informally. Student participation was as expected.

No requests for out-of-class meetings were noted.