Publishing Norms and the About Me Section: Pronoun Matters
Author: Shaun Glaze
Have you ever struggled with how to write the “About me” section for your work? Writing a biography section can be tough if you have what my community calls "the gender feels". "The gender feels" are any kind of awkwardness or self-consciousness about being gendered (typically by other people). If you've ever felt weird about pronouns, or the assumptions people make about who you are, you might have experienced something like this. I'm sure there will be a dissertation on this in a couple years time. If you're writing it, I'd love to read it!
For those of us with "the gender feels", we might ask ourselves several questions. Do you keep it all third person? Do you use pronouns or just type your name over (and over) again? Has anyone else ever dealt with this before? What are the consequences of outing yourself as being someone different than what people assume about you? Is it okay to just use something you don't like just because it's easier? Is there a right answer to any of these things? I remember when I was writing my own bio for a conference and how I struggled these decisions. So, today I share my experience for both those that grapple with these kinds of questions and the people who support us.
First, just like there is no single story (see: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), there is not a single answer. My solutions worked well for me, but that is because they worked for my context. For my first presentation, I decided to omit pronouns entirely. I changed the sentence structures around and used only my name when I couldn't avoid it altogether. It worked. I did this because I wanted to defy being gendered before people even had the chance to listen to me speak. I also omitted pronouns because none of them really resonated with the professional context I found myself in as a new doctoral student- my own identity aside. I didn't experience anything like gender dysphoria, which is currently framed as being dependent on outdated understandings of (binary) biology and (binary) gender identity. The discordance wasn't with my identity. My experience was a frustration with and refutation of the status quo that operates to force people to identify in such a gendered in the first place. Publishing norms compels us to write pronouns and reading norms compel us to listen for pronouns. Whether we chose to include or omit pronouns operates within the context of these norms. In the same way I get frustrated at published pieces that require photographs for authors, I wonder how we might rethink publishing norms to make it more accessible for marginalized folks who face professional and personal consequences to having our work connected to our identity in a way that we have little control over. Currently, most of the things we publish cannot be changed retroactively, meaning the stakes are higher if there are unintended or dangerous consequences (e.g., harassment, discrimination). As authors and readers, we all participate in publishing norms, and I think we must all be critical of the material effects of these norms is at the heart of how many emerging professionals think about gender, intersectionality, and voice.
Now, when I write my biography, I make a different choice. I use my they/them pronouns nearly exclusively in friendships and in academic contexts. I do this because there are so few academics who have encountered these pronouns in a professional context. I do this because even fewer have met a person of color who identifies with these pronouns. But I also do this because I can. I have considerable privilege in other aspects of my life (e.g., my wife's new job) that I can take this risk with minimal material impact. I no longer need to worry about returning to the poverty that was the backdrop of my childhood, so that mitigates some of the risk to my social and economic capital that discrimination may bring. I also have enough of a relationship with at least a couple colleagues who I know will have my back when I am not there to challenge other professionals on their assumptions about me. Without having great colleagues or access to capital, I don't think I would personally be where I am now with my pronouns and "the gender feels". I'm very comfortable with both myself and my professional context I have co-created. My sincerest wish is that other students and emerging professionals might also have this kind of comfort in their own contexts.