Preferred name and pronoun use has been on higher education’s radar for a while now, but interest—particularly in technology support—has increased in the last several years.1 Many of today’s students use preferred names exclusively across public and private settings. Although their reasons vary, the practice is closely associated with transitions in gender identity. Gender-neutral pronoun use is also rising, especially among young Americans. Campus leaders report expectations among prospective, current, and past students that their higher education experience will reflect the same naming and pronoun flexibility that is increasingly available to them in American society.
A person’s name and gender identity are integral to their sense of self. Research indicates that honoring students’ preferred names in the classroom contributes positively to their sense of belongingness and academic success. When an instructor uses a student’s name (and pronounces it correctly), the student is more likely to seek help when needed and express satisfaction with the course. These findings appear to be particularly true in asynchronous online learning environments and underrepresented student groups.
Best practices for sharing pronouns in academic settings are still evolving. However, initial research indicates that honoring a student’s pronouns once shared is associated with higher levels of belongingness, satisfaction, and success—and lower levels of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender and nonbinary students.
Traditionally, faculty managed students’ preferred names and pronouns at the course level, sometimes with institutional guidance and training but often based on individual beliefs and resources. Many institutions still have policies that depend exclusively on faculty to implement pre-class surveys and encourage students to use functionality native to learning management systems. However, these approaches neither guarantee consistency nor address student needs outside the classroom.
Progressive institutions are seeking more comprehensive and agile technology to support preferred names and pronouns across campus systems and documents—beginning with the system of record and extending to every point of student engagement, including student services, IDs, email addresses, course rosters, and diplomas.2 Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the instances that students must request a name or pronoun change across campus and limit the number of individuals who know the presented name and gender identity are not consistent with the legal name. They also aim to honor and adapt to student and alumni name and pronoun decisions and transitions over time.
The goal of comprehensive preferred name and pronoun support requires institutions to negotiate complex policy, data governance, and technology questions. Tambellini has spoken to campus leaders, including registrars, faculty, student affairs representatives, and technology leaders about their experience of this process. While the details of these conversations will be published in a Tambellini practice guide later this spring, the following technology considerations represent some of the themes that emerged.
1 Preferred names are any chosen name that differ from the student’s legal name (or deadname in the context of gender identity), including nicknames, middle names, Anglicized names, and shortened names. Pronouns (or personal pronouns), commonly include she/her, he/his, they/them, and sometimes ze/hir and replace names in a sentence.
2 The debate on whether diplomas are legal documents requiring the use of legal names is ongoing. Many institutions that are expanding their support for preferred names identify the transcript rather than the diploma as part of the legal record. They allow preferred names and have removed gendered language from diplomas. However, these institutions acknowledge the existence of scenarios (particularly for international students) in which diplomas act as legal documents and counsel students as such.
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