Tag Archives: writing

A tiny rant re: pronouns

I’m slogging through a book — review will follow soon — that’s using two different systems of gender-neutral pronouns: xe/xir and e/eir depending on the culture of the person in question.

So here’s my tiny rant, to all you sci-fi authors out there:

I applaud your actions that incite progress in accepting a wide variety of humans in our present reality via the way you imagine future or fictional worlds.

However, your readers live in this one, and we currently have no established, familiar, comfortable gender-neutral pronoun set, though they/them works ok in real life.  Generally, if I’m talking about someone I know to someone else who knows them, the pronouns aren’t a big deal. We both know Mickey, and we can talk about Mickey in a text message without breaking syntactic sense: “I’ve asked Mickey to bring their cooler too, in case we need it. They said they’ll be here around 3pm.”  

In a story, it’s different.  In a story, where everyone is made up and nothing can be assumed, the author has to create reality for the reading one word at a time. In that environment, the gender-neutral pronouns are disruptive. Actually, I think they make some books and stories unreadable.

Just to be clear, I’m NOT saying it’s ever ok to misgender individual people in real life.  If  I had a friend who wanted me to use xe/xer as xer pronouns, I would do so without complaint….because it’s a small thing for me to do but large in acknowledging who xe is.  However, the reality of xer’s full existence as a person looms large beyond the pronoun selection. Zer’s face comes to mind when I use zer’s name.

[See how annoying that paragraph is, because you don’t have this person firmly planted in your own mind?  Yeah. Try reading 300 pages of it.] 

Pronouns are the backbone of a language, along with other critical “function words” like prepositions. Central grammatical structures change slowly over time, if they change at all. English has been using I/you/she/they pronouns for what, a thousand years now? We can count on one hand the significant shifts to core grammar: the loss of thou/thee and ye from 2nd person pronouns; the Great Vowel Shift; the elimination of verb endings for individual person/number in the indicative. (We went from “I know, thou knowest, he knows” to “I know, you know, he knows.”)

By the 21st century we’ve lost a lot of clausal complexity, and YA writers are addicted to tagging every single line of dialogue with a “he/she said” marker. (Lazy writing!)  Latin endings are nearly dead…. I cringe when I hear “indexes” and especially “curriculums.” *shudder*  And the subjunctive mood is on its deathbed. Am I the only person who shouts correct grammar at the radio when the singer intones, “I wish she was you?” But those shifts are minor compared to the loss of verb endings or changes to pronoun structure in the early Modern era. Most of the time, our language keeps up with the times by shedding old words, inventing some new syntax (especially among youth), and adding new vocabulary every day.  Not by breaking its spine on purpose to insert a new one.

I sincerely hope that English speakers come up with an agreed set of neutral pronouns, since it seems like we indeed need them.  I don’t know anyone personally who is genderqueer, but I want them to have pronouns available, and I’m happy for all kinds of people to see themselves represented fairly in stories.

But right now, this thing that sci-fi writers are trying to do?  This is too much. 

You can’t shove whole new systems of pronouns at people in a 300 page novel and assume it’s just going to work. I read a story for the Hugo ballot this year that focused on a set of twins. One was clearly female and the other was genderqueer until [he] chose not to be. When they were children, the author referred to individual twins using “they/them”
….except they are TWINS.
For crying out loud.  How the hell am I ever supposed to know whether the author was referring to one twin or the other or both of them?  

If I hadn’t been reading for Hugo voting, I would have stopped immediately.  Linguistic confusion makes poor writing, no matter how noble your cause.

Also, the current slate of popular sci-fi novels are stocked with like 50% non-hetero people and 25% genderqueer people, but …. human reproduction doesn’t work like that! This isn’t how biological evolution tends to progress. Current demographic data is fuzzy, but recent data suggests the entire population of LGBTQ+ individuals is less than 5%.

Look, I get it. Oppression leads to revolt which leads to change — and that is GOOD. I want to see acceptance be the norm in society, so the 5% of non-hetero folks are happy being who they are without fear. And making sure people have stories that reflect who they are.  All of those things are good, and we’re getting a lot more of it in mainline media now, not just fringe.

But this pronoun thing has got to get sorted out, and it’s not going to happen by every frackin’ book published in 2018 using xim, ze, or eir to refer to characters constantly.

I think this current trend (especially in sci-fi/fantasy) reduces these characters to merely their gender identity, often giving us little else to round out the picture.  As a reader, I’m left with an odd mental picture of a person who’s nothing but zir genitalia and sexual preferences and fashion habits. I think that’s reductionist and demeaning to the real humans who exist as genderqueer.

I fully support the inclusion of all kinds of characters into all kinds of stories. It’s just that few fictional universes make sense with majorly disruptive notions of gender identity crammed into the cultural development and world-building because “that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. ”

Ursula LeGuin wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, Left Hand of Darkness (Amazon), about a planet whose people exist within a single gender identity except when they differentiate for mating. I wasn’t annoyed by her prose even once.  Authors can tell incredible, powerful stories without annoying the hell out of their readers by futzing with one of the backbone features of English syntax.

I’m firmly on the side of the SJW’s making life better for all people, but I’m longing for the pronoun fest to calm down so I can get back to reading stories for the reason I pick up books: to be challenged by big ideas and to learn something about humanity.  Not to wander each page in confusion wondering who said what, or stopping every fifth word to process a sentence like “E sent xim a note through eir datapad asking if xe could bring eir’s favorite wine for supper tonight.”

Ugh. *puts book down, walks away*



Why Don’t Women Write to the Editor? Because They’re Doing Absolutely Everything Else – The Atlantic

This short collection of women’s responses is a wonderful read.

It also helps explain why I blog so little these days. Why? Who’s reading? And I’ve got other stuff to do!

Letters: Why Don’t Women Write to the Editor? Because They’re Doing Absolutely Everything Else – The Atlantic
— Read on www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/559946/

What’s a man to do with his epiphanies? — Chris White HQ

“Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?”

Source: What’s a man to do with his epiphanies? — Chris White HQ

College writing: do we still need the essay?

With apologies to the writers of this essay, I think they’re on the wrong track.  Take a minute to read their full article.

We hate grading them; they hate writing them. But if we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for academe to put more energy and resources into the project of better writing instruction, argue Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman.

Source: Colleges should invest more in teaching students how to write (essay)

The problem is this:

You can’t fix weak, disorganized, thoughtless writing without addressing the thinking that underlies it.  It’s the discipline of understanding ideas, organizing ideas, entering into dialogue with a much bigger conversation around your essay that’s the hard part.

I’ve taught writing for a long time now, to students ranging in age from 11 to 22. It’s hard work, but it isn’t inscrutable: shoddy thinking underlies shoddy writing.

Yes, students can and do pile on grammatical mistakes, bad syntax, and weak writing style. But if your focus as a writing instructor (or professor in any course) is merely to fix the surface-level mechanics of the English language, you’re missing the point.

In fact, pushing students to continue producing examples of a relatively outdated and irrelevant academic format of writing probably hurts them more than it helps them. Sure, the students headed into grad school will not escape the academic essay for a few more years, but only the tiny percentage of career academics and nonfiction essay writers benefit from repeated drilling of the essay format.

Am I arguing that writing is unimportant? Absolutely not.

I’m arguing that good thinking is important, and alongside it, strong communication skills: a simple, clear, crisp writing style and a grasp of fundamental grammatical usage.

But the communication skills break down when the underlying ideas do.

Points to consider:

  • The bulk of college students will not spend their lives in academic careers. Higher ed tenure track positions are becoming a thing of the past. At some point, the adjunctification of higher ed will be complete, and the few slots remaining for paid scholarship will be full for a long time. We don’t do students a service by assuming that educating them in history or English or whatever means teaching them to write like an academic expert in that discipline. Students should learn to model disciplinary thinking and understand the jargon, but multiple options for communicating ideas would prepare students better for the world they will work in.
  • Cognitive habits and abilities must be taught and practiced like any other skill set. Unless teachers in K-12 and higher education are proactively, intentionally, and directly teaching students to ask better questions, organize thinking, draw models of processes, and labor until their understanding is clear, students will not become “better writers” because we spend X amount of time on “writing instruction.”
  • New forms of literacy – and “multiliteracies” – have moved to the forefront. Have you watched YouTube lately? Participated in a discussion over on Medium? Picked up a textbook printed in the past 5 years? The way we process text+image+layout has changed the way we understand ideas, and that’s not a bad thing. [For more on multiliteracies, I recommend this research article by Cope & Kalantzis]
  • Writing instruction as a discipline needs to move forward into new approaches. Process writing at least gave us a start, but even that pedagogical basic seems lacking from most undergraduate writing assignment guidelines. Below I will mention a new DT approach I find intriguing.
  • We act as if college assignments exist to teach students to become professional writers. That’s not their purpose – not unless the student is aiming to make a living through writing. And even then, professional writers and journalists work with editors and collaborators to help them write the best possible novel/essay/article.  Only in the classroom do we expect students to handle the whole process by themselves, achieving mastery of each individual component. No one works that way.  Few are that skilled – nor should we expect that.

So what could make college-level writing better? Perhaps….

  1. Reframe writing assignments as wicked problems to be solved using creative methods and Design Thinking approaches. I got this idea from Carrie Leverenz and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Here’s her article, “Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Teaching Writing” (link opens PDF)
  2. Place students more in the center of the college classroom, offering them genuine responsibility to shape assignment structure, questions, and content. This idea scares many professors; I do understand the fear (remember, I’ve taught middle schoolers!). But without agency, students are merely cogs in a machine over which they have no control and thus no investment. Everything about our assessment-drunk educational system right now produces compliant, thoughtless students – not rigorous, challenging thinkers. As long as students feel like they’re playing a high-stakes game of pleasing the professor in order to earn a decent grade, they aren’t going to learn to write. And that’s our fault more than theirs. (We’re in charge of the grades.)
  3. Acknowledge 21st century communication shifts by requiring a variety of products for assessment. Want to assign an essay? Fine. But use other forms of communication and tools along the way — a sticky note “tree” to work out logical arrangement of ideas; a process map; a Prezi organizer for research; an oral presentation to the whole class of the core argument with opportunity for critique and feedback. Make your assignment – as a whole – multimodal and multigenre.
  4. Explain to students what you’re asking them to do, why the skills are important, and how the assignment fits into the overall structure of the course. Dr. Mary-Ann Winkles at UNLV is doing some amazing things with her Transparency in Teaching and Learning initiative. A very simple rubric asking faculty to clarify assignment purpose, goals, and assessment standards for any course assignment has made a huge difference at UNLV.
  5. Focus your instructional and grading attention on the underlying ideas from a student, less on grammar and style. Before a student has ironed out her ideas, it doesn’t really matter how many comma splices you find. Because the broken ideas are a worse problem than the bad grammar.  Students can get help pretty easily with grammar – the college writing lab should be staffed with people who can help. But really, the only person who can help a student fix her broken ideas is YOU, the professor. It’s your class, your subject area. Help students realize what they need to learn, point them to good sources, and hold the expectation that you won’t accept papers constructed with shoddy ideas.  And that means loosening your class structure so that you’ve got enough time to both assess where students are in their ideas and adjust your large-group instruction (modeling, lectures, discussions) to address the problems you’re seeing in this particular class.

Honestly, if students never wrote another academic essay, I wouldn’t care. But I would be sad if collectively the college classroom experience continued to polish the brass knobs on student writing while ignoring the catastrophic inability of students to understand and organize ideas.