Whose Students?


Tweaking how academics refer to students may be swimming against the current, says Anne Curzan, and the question is whether it would be meaningful.

A few years ago I stopped referring to my students in my writing. It’s not that I ceased talking about students; I stopped referring to them as mine.

Or at least I try. I am sure I still fall into the phrase my students sometimes in my written work (one of the astute readers of this blog probably will discover that I have done so here on Lingua Franca), and I know that it also happens in my unmonitored speech. But I try, when I can, to talk about the students in my class, putting the possessive determiner where I feel like it belongs: with the class.

It’s a small change. But the message is potentially a meaningful one. Maybe. I’m still weighing the evidence on this one.

In contemplating whether this change in my own phrasing is merited, I have come to realize I am not entirely consistent in how I think about the phrase my [noun] in the academy.

I was thinking about this in a meeting last week when we were reviewing a departmental document, and I changed our students to the students in our classes. My colleagues rolled with it, deferring to “the linguist.”

But there it is: one of the inconsistencies. I have no problem referring to my colleagues. We are not in a hierarchical relationship, and so the possessive captures our shared status in the department. I also talk about my department. As a department, we’ll even talk about our chair. But it strikes my ear as a bit funny when a chair of a department talks about my faculty.

Similarly, it seems fine if a student refers to me as my professor. They have opted to take my class, and I am the professor that came with the class.

As I mull it over, it’s become clear to me that it’s about using a possessive pronoun when there is a hierarchical relationship within the institution and the grammatical possessor is in the more powerful position. With my students, I wonder whether it subtly undercuts the students’ autonomy in the class. They are not my students; they are taking my class as part of their schedule.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English proves that I am swimming upstream. In the academic part of the corpus, there are 1,151 instances of my student(s), and eight instances of the student(s) in my classes. Really, I’m swimming up a waterfall.

I certainly don’t want to argue that writing “my students” sends any kind of detrimental message, and these stats suggest that for most authors and readers it is probably unmarked — a neutral reference below the radar. Valid reasons to let it be.

I also realize some of the difficulties in defending my own hierarchical argument. For example, the phrase my advisees seems less problematic to me than my students. And I won’t even try to make a case for different kinds of hierarchies between advisers/advisees and teachers/students; it wouldn’t be a good case.

Here’s where I land: I’m still not comfortable referring to students as mine in my own writing, but I don’t think I have good grounds to advise changing it in anyone else’s writing. I look forward to hearing whether our readers — or rather, the readers of our blog? — have ever given the phrase a second look if not a revision.

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