In the spirit of gender inclusivity, it appears that some courses at one school in the UK now require students to use gender neutral pronouns. According to a document obtained by the Sunday Times, in some classes at England’s Hull University — specifically a module related to religious activism — failure to use gender-sensitive language in essays and assignments could result in students being marked down.
In a statement provided to Bustle, a spokesperson for Hull University said, “The University encourages the thoughtful use of language, including gender-sensitive where appropriate. The requirement of gender-sensitive language in course work on the Religious Activism module and its link to marking is not a University-wide practice. We continue to work with students on how best to write course material in an academic tone and provide ongoing feedback to them on how best to achieve this.”
Although, as the spokesperson noted, the requirement isn't a school-wide policy, it's still an important symbolic step in creating a more inclusive culture through language.
The document in question, which The Guardian reports as having been obtained under freedom of information legislation, emphasizes to students, “language is important and highly symbolic.” (Truth.) Establishing a penalty for failure to use gender neutral language is an effort to make students more “aware of the powerful and symbolic nature of language,” and therefore hopefully more inclined to use gender-sensitive words.
Critics of the gender neutral requirement have called it “language policing.” As reported by The Independent, those who disagree with the rule say it may “waste valuable time in an exam if students have to write extra words or think about which pronoun to use.” One critic from Kent University, professor Frank Ferundi, told the Sunday Times, “This linguistic policing is used as a coercive tool to impose a conformist outlook.”
The irony of that perspective, of course, is that the same could be said for why current culture doesn't employ gender neutral language in the first place. Plus, sexism.
These classes join other institutions working toward language that includes everyone. Wycliffe Hall, a theological college that’s an offshoot of Oxford University, recently enforced a policy to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to God. As stated by the document putting the rule in place, “The patriarchal masculine has become a form of alienation for many women and indeed many men.” The University of North Carolina also established a guide to gender-inclusive language for its students in 2015, which encourages students to use the singular "they" and replace gendered words like "policeman" with gender-neutral words like "police officer."
As of March 2017, the Associated Press now allows the singular "they." The updated guidelines are a direct effort to be more mindful when using gendered language, stating the singular "they" may be used “in stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her.”
These steps may be small, but they’re moving in a direction toward broader inclusivity. Will being more mindful of these language shifts “waste valuable time” as people work to readjust their word choices? That depends on how you define “waste.” Since we’re talking linguistics, Merriam-Webster defines time "wasted" as time “unprofitably used, made, or expended.”
A culture that benefits everyone must first be a culture that includes everyone. Policies regarding gender-inclusive language are symbolic and significant and certainly not seen as a waste of time to those who gender-neutral language is inclusive of. (Again, it’s everyone. Gender-neutral language is, by definition, inclusive of everyone.) Words have consequences. Steps like that made by Hull University work to shine light on them.