Inclusive Language

by Christine Scherer

Online education allows universities and faculty to open their doors to a wider audience of students than ever before. Students can earn a Northwestern degree without ever setting foot in Chicago, Illinois, or even the United States. This openness in education creates great opportunities, for students and faculty alike. The nature of online education, however, has also created a unique dynamic for students: they have near-total control over how much anyone knows about them. Students can choose whether or not to reveal their ethnicity, religion, disability status, location, and even appearance. Some students find this option to be freeing: they are judged first by their ideas and work, and not by how they look, speak, or move.

Because of this, faculty must be conscious of the fact that there’s a lot they don’t know about their students. As a result, it’s important that course content is created to be inclusive. This overall idea is referred to as inclusive language.

Inclusive language is about respect, first and foremost. It shows respect for the wide array of human experiences by treating them all equally. And the key way it does this is about avoiding treating any group or category of people as “other.” At the same time, inclusive language shouldn’t erase differences. The goal is to acknowledge and respect difference without treating any one way of being as somehow inferior or abnormal.

That all sounds great–everyone wants to be respectful, after all!–but how does any of it actually work? Here are a handful of tips to get started. You can read even more on the Writing Style page of the Distance Learning website.

  1. Call people what they want to be called. Nearly everyone has experienced the teacher or family member who refuses to use a nickname–or who use a nickname in place of a full name. It’s annoying, and when corrections are ignored, it’s hurtful. So when a student says what their name is–or what pronouns they prefer to be referred to with–respect that.
  2. On a related note: the singular they is an acceptable pronoun! Some style guides are still on the fence about it, but it has Merriam-Webster’s seal of approval. Feel free to use the singular they in order to avoid unnecessary gendering; consider how differently the last sentence of Point 1 would have read if I’d referred to the student as “he” instead. And of course, use they/them if a student asks for those pronouns.
  3. Avoid binaries when possible. For example, when talking about issues of race, don’t frame the conversation in terms of black people and white people. This leaves out huge swaths of the population. Similarly, referring to “gay and straight” leaves out the large numbers of people who don’t identify with either group. Binary thinking nearly always leaves some people out, or lumps them into categories where they don’t want to be.
  4. Similarly, avoid using “lazy” language that lumps huge groups of people into one broad category. Common examples of this include “minorities” to refer to any group that isn’t white, male, and/or straight; “Africa” as if it is one single country instead of a continent containing a number of individual nations; and “Native Americans” as if they were all one, singular culture. How do you avoid this? Be specific! Say African American women, Sudan, or Meskwaki.
  5. Avoid ableism by thinking through the idioms you use. A lot of common idioms around frustration, annoyance, or unexpected behavior invoke mental illness or disability. How often do you hear or say things like “she kept skipping around on the meeting agenda, it was so schizophrenic” or “wow, that assigned video was really lame.” The connotations are almost always negative, which furthers the perception of disability and mental illness and negative, harmful, and even dangerous. The easiest way to avoid this is to just say what you mean. “She kept skipping around on the meeting agenda, it was really frustrating!” Or “Wow, that assigned video was really tedious.”
  6. Use good judgment when selecting current events as examples in class. Because students can come to an online class from all over, you never know when an event that seems distant and impersonal to you may have been very near and very personal to a student. This doesn’t mean you should never use current events! Just be thoughtful about the ones you select and consider appropriate framing for subjects that could potentially be upsetting.

This may seem like a lot to keep track of, and at first, it can be challenging to read your own work for these issues. That’s why it’s helpful to have another reader look your work over. Here at SPS, nearly everything that faculty produce for an online course is seen by a learning designer, an instructional technologist, and the content specialist. Any one of them can review a piece of writing and provide feedback before the course is published. And if something in the writing distracts them from the content, then it will almost certainly distract your students, too.

Writing with inclusive language makes it much more likely that the core of your message–the content that you want to teach–will get through without causing students to be distracted. Students come to class to learn, not to find themselves facing feelings of exclusion or shame. By using inclusive language, you’ll create a classroom space where all students can learn and engage while feeling respected and welcome.

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