Inching Toward Inclusivity, One Instructor at a Time

Credit: DES daughter on Flickr. Image cropped.

Like many instructors, I have spent the past year or so thinking more about enhancing inclusivity and a sense of “belonging” in my college classroom. One thought-provoking paper from CBE — Life Sciences Education that recently came my way has a real mouthful of a title: Signaling Inclusivity in Undergraduate Biology Courses through Deliberate Framing of Genetics Topics Relevant to Gender Identity, Disability, and Race. In a nutshell, the author, Karen G. Hales, describes many examples of the deliberate use of inclusive language in teaching genetics. If this is a topic that interests you, I urge you to have a look.

The article covers a lot of ground, but here are some examples of Hales’s language choices for genetics:

  • In pedigree charts, Hales proposes new symbols for transgender individuals, nonbinary individuals, etc.
  • Rather than using phrases such as “male organs” and “female organs,” Hales refers to “egg-conducting organs” and “sperm-producing organs.” Likewise, instead of “biologically male” and “biologically female,” Hales uses “assigned male” or “assigned female” or “person born with [body part].” And instead of “mother” and “father,” Hales uses “egg parent” and “sperm parent.”
  • Hales emphasizes that varying outcomes of human development are part of a normal population; disabilities do not necessarily need to be “fixed” or cured.
  • When referring to phenotypes, the adjectives “typical” and “atypical” are preferred to “normal” and “abnormal.” Similarly, neutral nouns such as “trait,” “variation,” or “condition” are preferable to “disease” or “disorder.”
  • When referring to genotypes and alleles, Hales suggests avoiding “mutant” in favor of “variant.”
  • Hales reminds students that race is a sociocultural concept with little to no genetic/biological foundation. In Hales’s words, “people are often fooled by loose association with a few features (skin color, sickle cell anemia) for which strong regional selection … has had disproportionate effect.”

I have selected just a few highlights for this blog post; the paper offers much more, along with research reinforcing Hales’s justification for each choice. I agree with much of what Hales suggests, especially when it comes to using neutral terms when referring to diseases and disabilities. And the next time I work with pedigree charts, I have already made a note to consider changing “Male” and “Female” to “Sperm parent” and “Egg parent” because each parent depicted in a pedigree does not necessarily conform to the male/female binary.

One thing I do wonder about, however, is the wisdom of layering the concept of gender identity onto the pedigree chart. Hales suggests using diamond symbols for nonbinary individuals and adding abbreviations for female-to-male, male-to-female, female-to-nonbinary, and male-to-nonbinary transgender individuals. While these notations may boost inclusivity, they may also entangle sex and gender in ways that may confuse students who are new to the distinctions between these terms. Note, however, that Hales’s intention is the opposite: “…my goal is to acknowledge gender identity as central yet separable from the binary of sperm–egg production.” I’m not sure if this goal is being met, based on the explanation in the article.

I also wonder whether some of Hales’s strategies may have unintended consequences, inadvertently making our word choices exclusive instead of inclusive. For example, suppose you decide to use “person born with a vulva” in place of “female” or “girl” or “woman.” If some students don’t know what a vulva is, you will have created a new barrier to understanding in your efforts to include everyone. Similarly, what if your use of inclusive language draws unwanted attention to students who would otherwise prefer to remain unnoticed? In that case, efforts to be inclusive can actually make some students uncomfortable.

Navigating the language of inclusivity sometimes feels like tiptoeing in a minefield, especially with the threat of an embarrassing “wrong” statement going viral on social media. What are instructors to do? I certainly don’t have all the answers. Next time I teach, however, I plan to let my students know that I care about their needs. I will acknowledge that I am not perfect, that I am still learning, and that I want to know if I have inadvertently made someone uncomfortable.

Your decisions as an instructor are highly personal, as is the makeup of each classroom. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. In deciding how to handle issues such as these, however, I urge you to consider the perspectives of your students, not just your own. A good first step might be to brainstorm ways to build mutual trust, to better meet the needs of all of your students, and to stay open to constructive, anonymous suggestions for improvement.


Thank you to Trai Spikes, Elizabeth Besozzi, and Matt Taylor for constructive and enlightening conversations about this article!

This entry was posted in Equity and inclusion, genetics, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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