A little more than four years ago, I wrote a Lingua Franca post on “the freshperson problem,” in which I described editing a university document and replacing the phrase freshman composition with first-year composition. Later in the post I mused: “I’ll be interested to see how this linguistic situation plays out — and I hope to play a part in it. Will local reforms like mine, which replace freshman with an alternative, help to make a more global difference in standard edited prose?”
This past fall, I realized that it was time to stop musing. Certainly I can edit documents as they cross my desk, but I wasn’t doing enough with the administrative position I had acquired. As a linguist serving as associate dean for humanities, I had the ability to go beyond the local — and yet I had not. I somehow had it in my head that the goal was to change style guidelines for the university as a whole, and I hadn’t figured out whom to approach about that and how it would work to coordinate a universitywide effort. But I needed instead to focus on my own college, which is within my sphere of influence.
Having had my “aha!” moment, I talked with the dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan to see if he would support a collegewide shift to (a) singular they, and (b) first-year rather than freshman. He listened as I made my case, considered the benefits and challenges, and decided he was willing to defer to my expertise as a linguist and my commitment to encouraging more inclusive language. As the dean noted, the changes aligned with our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the college.
I got the green light to talk with the director of communications for the college, who ran with the proposal and got his team on board. So suddenly, documents and publications coming out of the college consistently employ singular they and first-year. We haven’t imposed this on departments or on the faculty. But by making these changes in our written documents, the college can be a model for others who want to follow, be that departments within the college or other schools and colleges at the university.
As I describe this process, it all seems so obvious that I can’t believe it took me until my third year as associate dean to ask for these changes in language within my own college — changes that I have been arguing for as a linguist for years. And I think, “Why didn’t I ask my department to adopt this years ago? Why didn’t I enact this when I was director of the writing program?”
I write this post now to nudge others to consider what house style guidelines they might like to change within their own academic units, at whatever level, especially to create a more equitable and inclusive climate. Language matters as part of that effort, and it is within our control.