Becoming a Better Teacher: Trans* Inclusive Pedagogy

 July 6, 2017

Many Duke graduate students work as teaching assistants or independent instructors. As teachers, we all aim to create inclusive classroom environments, and many of us would like more information on the best policies to achieve this goal, especially when it comes to trans* inclusivity. Given North Carolina’s recent passage of HB2 and its repeal, which failed to allay many harmful effects from the original bill, the need for greater knowledge and training is urgent.

Cole Rizki
Cole Rizki

During a recent RCR forum on Trans* Inclusive Pedagogy, Francisco J. Galarte, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona in the Department of Gender & Women's Studies, and Cole Rizki, a PhD student in the Duke Program in Literature, discussed ways that teachers can support trans* students and incorporate a trans* inclusive pedagogy in their classes. Rizki additionally shared his experience teaching "Introduction to Transgender Studies,” the first offering of this service-learning course at Duke.

According to both speakers, in order to introduce a trans* inclusive pedagogy, professors and instructors have to understand how students come through the door and into their classrooms. For example, when students feel threatened because their physical or psychological safety has been compromised, they are not worried about attending class or taking the test; they must prioritize self-care. Inclusivity thus doesn’t just occur in the classroom—it’s a campus-wide experience. Fortunately, there are many ways that we can create an anti-bias learning environment.

Francisco Galarte
Francisco Galarte

 On the first day:

  • On the syllabus, include the nearest unisex or gender neutral bathroom to your classroom from this list. Sometimes the little things can help.
  • Establish a name policy that is inclusive. One suggestion is to ask students to introduce themselves with their names and preferred pronouns. By using transgender students' chosen pronouns and names, we are reaffirming their gender identiiesy and setting an expectation for our classes.
  • Make sure that students feel comfortable by respecting their identities and privacy first and foremost; some students may not wish everyone to know about a name change, transition, etc. Make sure, too, that if you make your policy public, i.e., by having students share preferred gender pronouns, you have the time to discuss different pronouns and name usage meaningfully; otherwise, undergraduates might not take the policy seriously.
  • Create a student code of conduct. Teachers have a responsibility to their students; so do students to their peers. Including language that focuses on student responsibilities will set your expectations for respectful discussion. This is part of a longer conversation on establishing ground rules, which you can have on your first day of class.
  • Keep lines of communication open. One suggestion is to privately poll the students in your class, asking "what do you need to succeed in my classroom?" For some, this may be using their preferred names and pronouns. Others may have different needs. Either way, the best way to find out is to provide ways for students to communicate with you.

Every day:

  • Lead by example. Avoid discussing gender in binaries and try to use gender-neutral language. Instead of using pronouns when discussing a text, for instance, say "the author" or the name of the author, which helps students better consolidate the information as well.
  • Respond to conflict when it arises. Don’t be afraid to take charge, and deflate the situation by reframing the conversation. You don't have to pick a side, but disrespect is not okay and silence may make the situation worse by condoning prejudicial behavior.
  • Respect privacy and disclosure.
  • Be cognizant of how your field discusses gender. In psychology and neuroscience, sex and gender are often used interchangeably, and a binary invoked. As a TA, if I can't find examples without gender binaries, I should create a space to question such assumptions.
  • Assess the campus climate. Teaching undergraduates means thinking about how changes in local (e.g., HB2) and national (e.g., Title IX protections) laws affect students and their engagement in our classrooms.
  • Know the available resources, such as insurance and housing options as well as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (CSGD). As TAs, we are resources for students; they may ask us about campus health and trans* inclusive student insurance. One concrete step that instructors can take is to find out more information about the providers and services offered on campus.
  • Understand that trans* people are not your teachable moment. If you invite a trans* guest speaker to your class, don't objectify that person by having the speaker talk about trans* issues.

As a student who will be TAing for the first time next semester, I found this forum extremely helpful, and I hope that I can put these resources and tips to good use.

This post is short by necessity: please visit Glaad, Lamba Legal, ADL, and the Gender Spectrum for more information.

Note: this forum was co-sponsored by Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies; The Graduate School; The Office of Undergraduate Education; The Program in Education; and The Franklin Humanities Institute.


Christina Bejjani
Christina Bejjani

Ph.D. student, Psychology and Neuroscience

Christina Bejjani is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience. She studies how people learn to adapt their attention across various contexts.