Gender Identity, Pronouns, and Lifelong Learning – Tommy Mayberry, Instructional Developer

A sign that says, "I am still learning."There might be two fundamental things to know about me to avoid conversational confusion. First, I’m a drag queen: I visually present on an almost day-to-day basis as masculine, but I identify under the transgender banner because my embodied identity oscillates across the gender binary and my proper pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. Second, my partner and I have the same name: each is Tommy (born “Thomas” with a birth certificate to confirm), and together we are the Tommies. I say these two things might be fundamental to know about me to avoid confusion in conversation because while I do not speak about myself in the third person (if you hear me say “Tommy,” you would do well to assume I mean my partner), people do speak about me, and they speak about me with a variety of pronouns that fit me and align with who I am. This has proven to be very puzzling to some folks at several times (my dear 85-year-old grandma has finally got the knack of “the Tommies,” but that plurality for her is my partner and me, not myself and I). I love this perplexity because in life as in teaching, this is an opportunity for learning.

In teaching language studies specifically, a grammar lesson in parts of speech and number agreements would seem to be an appropriate exercise for first-year Undergraduates; it may not, though, seem immediately fitting for first-year non-language courses or even upper-year language courses where the knowledge and understanding are assumed to be established and built upon. But it is. The refresher of a language exercise like the one below not only reaffirms language and communication skills for learners but opens the window to an opportunity for learning that is wider than a grammar primer.

It has always been a pet peeve of mine in marking students’ written work when my proverbial red pen comes across a “the reader notices the poem reflects their world” or a “the team are celebrating their victory,” so I started using a version of this Number Agreements lesson with my students from the second term of my MA onward:

A link to the Word document version of this document appears at the end of this blog post.

After teaching this lesson, which I aim to do in the first weeks of class, my students submit written work with fewer and fewer errors that trigger my grammarian nightmares, and I actually hear in class discussions as well the correction in my students’ oral communication. When I taught “Transgender Visual Culture” with the Fine Arts department here at Waterloo two years ago, I added a “note” on gender identity and pronouns to my language exercise handout that I have included in my subsequent teaching placements that are not instructionally driven by gender identity. (“Introduction to Rhetorical Studies,” for example, that I taught this past Winter term with our English Language and Literature department.) This “note on gender identity and pronouns” is:

Regarding gender identity and body politics in our post-millennial world, it has become necessary and acceptable at times to use the third-person plural pronouns they, their, and them as singular pronouns when the subject’s gender identity is either unknown, is non-binary (i.e. is decidedly neither male nor female), or is gender fluid/genderqueer (i.e. decidedly oscillates along a spectrum of male-to-female). In these cases, they, their, them can become gender neutral singular pronouns.

Our example sentence from above, then – “The reader notices that the poem reflects their world” – could only be grammatically correct in terms of number agreement when using their if (1) the gender identity of “the reader” is known to be non-binary, gender fluid, or genderqueer, or if (2) the gender identity of “the reader” is unknown but is singular, in which case the sentence should be written as: “The reader notices that the poem reflects his/her/their world.”

And yes, when singular, they/them/theirs needs a conjugated verb aligned in the singular form. A sentence such as “The reader notices that the poem reflects their world” is still correct grammatically if we replace “the reader” with the pronoun “they”: “They notices that the poem reflects their world.”[1]

One of my proudest moments as a teacher is when – usually late in a course when the rapport is built and the conversations both start and continue themselves freely – I hear my students say out loud in class, perhaps in regards to a music video I’ve just shown as a pop cultural example of a core course concept: “I think a critic would point out [this] because it challenges a viewer with his/her/their acceptance of [this].” And when I teach in drag, I watch as my students productively struggle with the visual embodiment of my proper pronouns that I declared in that first class. As I sashay around the room listening in on their small group conversations before we take it back to the class as a whole for a full discussion, I hear snippets in reference to my teaching of “But she said [this]…” and “They are going to ask us [that]…” Not very often do I get referred to by “he/him/his” when I’m drag, but those, of course, still fit with who I am.

Oh, and my sister Erin and her partner are about to have a baby. Erin is five-months pregnant and just this past weekend told both families that we soon will become grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. My two brothers will become uncles, but just as Erin and I have discussed for years since she was my big sister and protectress in high school as I came to really know myself, I will not be. Tommy will become Uncle Tommy, and I will be my new family member’s aunt.

Pronouns and Number Agreements Handout (TMayberry)

[1] If “the reader” in this example here identifies with they/them/theirs pronouns in the collective (like me, for example), the verb “to notice” would be conjugated plurally – i.e., if “Tommy Mayberry” were “the reader” in this sentence, the grammar needs to indicate that “They notice that the poem reflects their world” instead of, “They notices that the poem reflects their world.”

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As Instructional Developer, TA Training and Writing Support, Tommy Mayberry supports graduate-student teaching development with a focus on the Fundamentals of University Teaching and Certificate in University Teaching programs. He also supports writing and TA training initiatives and consults with instructors on aspects of their teaching including student writing, assignment design, feedback, and teaching dossiers and statements. Tommy is also a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature, and he holds a Joint Honours BA in English Literature and Fine Arts: Studio Specialization (with Dean’s Honours) from the University of Waterloo and an MA in English and Cultural Studies from McMaster University. He has been the recipient of two Ontario Graduate Scholarships (OGS) and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) Doctoral Fellowship, and he also was one of the recipients of the 2015 Amit & Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student. His research-creation dissertation, “Gods and Monsters: William Blake’s Drag/Trans- Bodies,” focuses on Romantic Period and contemporary transgender visual culture as she “drags up” his academic writing to embody their research.

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