A sweating, hulking lumberjack wielding an enormous saw, which is, stereotypically, the very essence of all that is manly.
Of course, women can be lumberjacks, too. But the English language at least, the way it was taught to many of us doesn’t have room for that kind of nuance.
Matter of fact, what comes to mind when you think about a “freshman” in college? Or things that are “man-made?” What do you picture when you think about the history of “mankind”?
Starting to see a trend here?
I know for a fact that I’m guilty of this. Though I can’t pinpoint exactly when, somewhere along the line I started assuming readers would know what I meant when I wrote “policeman.” That they’d know I was referring to everyone on the planet when I said “mankind.” That “Hey, guys!” was a perfectly acceptable substitute for “Hey, everyone!”
The truth is that defaulting to the male version of a word or phrase is lazy and uncool.
That’s why UNC Chapel Hill is challenging its students to think more carefully about gender in their writing.
According to the guide, “Most readers no longer understand the word ‘man’ to be synonymous with ‘person,’ so clear communication requires writers to be more precise.”
It then goes on to give lots of helpful tips for students to use in their writing. They’re not issuing mandates; they’re providing guidelines.
For starters, there’s a nifty chart that gives students gender-neutral alternatives to certain problematic words. “Mailman,” for example, becomes “mail carrier.” “Freshman” becomes “first-year student.”
The guide also discusses topics like when and when not to invoke gender at all in academic writing and how to make sure the content of your writing is fair. (Referring to William Shakespeare as “Shakespeare,” and Jane Austen as “Jane”? It happens, and it’s pretty sexist.)
And, possibly, my personal favorite recommendation is the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, which is long, long overdue and, according to the guide, is a good alternative because “using ‘she or he’ or similar constructions can also inadvertently exclude people who do not refer to themselves using either pronoun.” (Relax, grammar enthusiasts; the world isn’t going to implode.)
And this isn’t the first time a campus initiative like this has gotten significant blowback.
Earlier this year, the University of Tennessee Knoxville had a post on its website encouraging students and teachers to ask each other
which pronouns they preferred and to consider using gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” or “xe.” After huge amounts of criticism, in which the policy was referred to as “liberal propaganda,” the post came down a few weeks later.
UNC Chapel Hill already looks like it’s headed for the same kind of opposition.
If you ask me, that’s not propaganda, it’s an important lesson for our next generation of leaders.