As all rational teachers of English know, words matter. You’ll see shortly, gentle readers, why I qualified “teachers.” Their job is to encourage students to use not only correct grammar and syntax, but to employ new—to them—and more interesting words in their speech and writing. Part of this endeavor is teaching the importance of common, perfectly descriptive and useful words, words such as “mankind.” Campus Reform reports:
Cailin Jeffers, an English major at NAU [Northern Arizona University], told Campus Reform that she received an email from one of her professors, Dr. Anne Scott, informing her that she had been docked one point out of a possible 50 on a recent paper for ‘problems with diction (word choice)’ related to her use of the word ‘mankind’ as a synonym for ‘humanity.’
‘I would be negligent, as a professor who is running a class about the human condition and the assumptions we make about being ‘human,’ if I did not also raise this issue of gendered language and ask my students to respect the need for gender-neutral language,’ Scott explained. ‘The words we use matter very much, or else teachers would not be making an issue of this at all, and the MLA would not be making recommendations for gender-neutral language at the national level.
The MLA is the Modern Language Association. It bills itself thus:
In addition to hosting an annual convention and sustaining one of the finest publishing programs in the humanities, the MLA is a leading advocate for the study and teaching of languages and literatures and serves as a clearinghouse for professional resources for teachers and scholars.
Perhaps the MLA’s best-known publication is the MLA Handbook for writers of research papers, now in its eighth edition. It is significant that Scott would mention the MLA, because it is a stridently leftist organization, with all that political outlook entails.
Scott then offered to let Jeffers revise the paper to earn additional points in five categories, including diction, but noted that she is under no obligation to do so.
‘I will respect your choice to leave your diction choices ‘as is’ and to make whatever political and linguistic statement you want to make by doing so,’ the professor wrote. ‘By the same token, I will still need to subtract a point because your choice will not be made in the letter or spirit of this particular class, which is all about having you and other students looking beneath your assumptions and understanding that ‘mankind’ does not mean ‘all people’ to all people. It positively does not.
Let’s see if I understand this: Scott respects Jeffers’ choice of language, but she’s going to damage Jeffers’ grade anyway. That somehow doesn’t sound terribly respectful.
After our first essay we were given a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ based off of errors my professor found in our essays. Most of them make sense, just things like ‘make sure you’re numbering your pages’ and ‘cite in proper MLA format,’ but she said we had to be sure to use ‘gender-neutral language,’ Jeffers told Campus Reform. ‘Included with this rule were several examples of what was and wasn’t okay to use. In one of these examples she stated that we could not use the word ‘mankind.’ Instead, we should use ‘humankind.’ I thought this was absurd, and I wasn’t sure if she was serious.
This was Jeffers’ first mistake. One must always assume people making such pronouncements are not only serious, but will defend to the death their right to destroy the rights—and grades—of anyone opposing them.
Jeffers decided to test the policy on her next paper by including two instances of the word ‘mankind,’ and when the paper came back with the requisite points taken off, she requested a meeting with Scott.
‘I stated that I agree with everything she said about my paper except my use of ‘mankind.’ She proceeded to tell me that the NAU English department, as well as the Modern Language Association, are pushing for gender-neutral language, and all students must abide by this,’ Jeffers recalled. ‘She told me that ‘mankind’ does not refer to all people, only males. I refuted, stating that it DOES refer to all people, [but] she proceeded to tell me that I was wrong, ‘mankind’ is sexist, and I should make an effort to look beyond my preset positions and ideologies, as is the focus of the class.
Scott, is of course, wrong. ‘Mankind” does indeed to refer to all human beings, as Merriam Webster confirms:
Mankind: the human race: the totality of human beings.
“Man,” in the context used by Jeffers, also refers to all human beings. One need not refer to the dictionary to know the masculine pronoun often encompasses the feminine. Presumably college professors should know this? Scott is arguing the politically correct, exclusionary, narrowly connotative meaning of the word, not its denotation.
Following the meeting, Scott also sent an email to the entire class recounting ‘an important discussion that I had with one of our class members today about gender-neutral language,’ using the incident as an opportunity to explain why she imposes the requirement.
‘In a class such as this, wherein the course goals, discussions, readings, and assignments are all focused on what makes us ‘human’ and the assumptions we make about such a concept, it is crucial that we also understand what our word choices mean a great deal and have consequences in terms of what we reveal about our assumptions about ourselves and others, and the world generally,’ Scott asserted.
One might be forgiven for thinking Scott’s comments say more about her assumptions, herself, others, and the world generally.
Scott concluded by vehemently denying that gender-neutral language is merely a question of ‘political correctness,’ pointing out that both the Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association have put out guidelines promoting gender-neutral language.
And what better organizations than two prominent progressive collectives to determine the language and thoughts all must have?
The issue goes beyond ‘political correctness,’ for my colleagues and I recognize that words help to create our reality, power dynamics, and relationships among people,’ she told the class. You are welcome to make a statement about your politics, or conscience, or beliefs by using gender-specific language in your papers, and in many cases gender-specific language is called for, when you can discern with certainty the gender of the characters and author you’re discussing. However, I’ll still have to subtract a point or two for any kind of language that refers to all people as ‘mankind’ or readers as ‘him/he’, for the reasons I’ve outlined carefully above.
Obviously, one must be careful to determine and rigorously use the correct gender pronouns—whatever they might be from week to week—when around Dr. Scott. It will surprise no one, I’m sure, to discover Dr. Scott and the Dean in charge of the English Department, have not responded to Campus Reform’s request for comment. Ms. Jeffers would be well advised to avoid Dr. Scott like the plague in the future.
However, not all is grim in academia and the discipline of English. Well, most is, but not all, as Campus Reform also reports:
An English professor at Columbia University Teachers College recently argued that trigger warnings can pose “serious threats” to English education.
Adam Wolfsdorf, who teaches graduate classes on Shakespeare, just published his concerns on trigger warnings in an article entitled ‘Reflecting on Functioning in Trigger Happy America’ in the peer-reviewed journal Changing English.
‘Trigger warnings are posing serious threats to the ways that English educators can teach at the university level,’ argues Wolfsdorf, who taught English for 18 years at the high school level, and is now in his fifth year of teaching at the Columbia University Teachers College.
That may explain his atypical attitude toward the politically correct. Wolfsdorf actually worked in the real world for nearly two decades.
In an interview with Campus Reform, Wolfsdorf said that he was inspired to write on trigger warnings after realizing that academic debate on the issue was ‘void of significant academic research.
Instead of giving trigger warnings, he hopes that English teachers—and teachers at large—will create a classroom environment that encourages trust, respect, and courage. Although Wolfsdorf does worry about students who have faced trauma, the English classroom is ‘not therapy,’ he points out.
Now there’s an amazing idea. I’ve always thought of my classroom as a place for learning and character development.
At the end of the day, we are trying to arm our students for reality—to build their resilience,’ he concludes. ‘Being over-protective, even if well-intended, does more damage than good.
Somehow, I don’t think poor Wolfsdorf is long for the academy. This is academic blasphemy of the first order. Anyone doubting this pronouncement might wish to visit this recent article Not Left Enough, the story of card-carrying Leftist Professor Brett Weinstein, by all accounts an accomplished and respected teacher, forced out of the profession because he dared show up on campus on a day campus radicals demanded all white people stay away. I’ve little doubt Leftists would consider Wolfsdorf’s crimes even more heinous than Weinstein’s.