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Ask Dr. Editor

Break bad rules: how to change language norms in your academic field, individually and systemically

You don’t need to be in a position of power to shift a language norm in your discipline.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | JAN 25 2022

Question:

I’m a woman who works in a male-dominated field. There’s a commonly used phrase that I hate hearing — I’m being ambiguous for anonymity, but think of the terms “male,” “female,” and “hermaphroditic connector” and you’ll be close to what I’m talking about. I don’t want to have to use metaphors for genitals when I’m speaking to a conference room full of men. Alternate terms are available, but most of my colleagues don’t use them. What the hell can I do?

– Anonymous, STEM

Dr. Editor’s response:

It is ceaselessly frustrating to encounter — and feel you need to repeat — language that is exclusionary, misogynistic, racist, or oppressive. We all know that women, people of colour, and people with disabilities face multiple barriers simply trying to do their work within academia, and some of those barriers may be considered more important than simple words — and yet words that embarrass or exclude folks from these populations have power, and their repetition reinscribes that power.

I think, for example, of Earyn McGee, a graduate student in herpetology, doing fieldwork in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains: “Being the only Black person out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of white people talking about noosing things is unsettling” (Cahan, 2000). Who needs to carry that additional burden when trying to do fieldwork? When describing the process of catching lizards, Dr. McGee prefers using the word “lassoing,” which is both less evocative of lynching and a more accurate description of the technique than “noosing.” It costs nothing to listen to Dr. McGee and follow her lead.

If your discipline has a language norm or a writing rule that you don’t want to conform to, I say: don’t. I see three different ways you can break a bad rule to avoid repeating language you see as unnecessarily embarrassing, cruel, or harmful.

1. Write around the term

If you’re not in a position to actively subvert an established language norm, then you can find ways to write around it. To pick up your example of “male” and “female” connectors, you might use the terms “prong” and “socket” instead without losing clarity, while avoiding calling attention to your omission. If you’re concerned that your euphemisms may be misunderstood, consider using a labelled illustration for clarity.

Simply avoiding repeating a harmful term is a choice that many sports reporters, journalists, and editors took before, in 2020, the Washington Football Team dropped their racist name. Announcers and reporters found it straightforward to talk about a “touchdown for Washington,” rather than causally repeating a pejorative term. If a sports reporter can elide a problematic term, then you can do so too.

2. Listen to others and repeat their language

If Dr. McGee’s colleagues listen to and repeat her language, then “lassoing” may become a new norm for herpetologists, with “noosing” falling out of regular use.

To use another example: Roscoe Giles, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boston University, regularly used “boss/worker or main/subsidiary” instead of “master/slave” to describe a pair of circuits to his computer engineering classes. Yet the racially loaded phrase persisted as a norm, and it took the actions of a graduate student, Santiago Gomez, to get the textbook publisher Pearson and the institution to reconsider their word choices (see Seele 2020). If more of Dr. Giles’ students and peers had listened closely to his word choices and repeated his terms, it may not have taken a TA’s shock to begin to establish a new norm in the discipline.

You don’t need to have any official body sanction your use of another’s term in order to use it in your writing. In ornithology, Robert Driver cites examples of researchers using an Indigenous Hawaiian name, Kiwikiu, as the common name of the species Pseudonestor xanthophrys: “Publications in EcoHealth (Atkinson et al. 2013), Conservation Genetics (Mounce et al. 2015), Journal of Ornithology (Warren et al. 2015) and Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management (Mounce et al. 2018) have used the name Kiwikiu” (Driver 2021). These authors used the preferred Hawaiian name despite the national registrar for bird names, the North American Classification Committee, rejecting in 2011 the official proposal for the recognition of “Kiwikiu” as the common name of this species of bird. In 2013, 2015, and 2018, bird researchers repeatedly chose to listen to Indigenous Hawaiians and repeat their language, rather than accepting an official decision with which they, evidently, did not agree.

I did a superficial check to see if any of these folks had their careers harmed by their decision to align themselves with Indigenous Hawaiians’ preferred language — that is, to listen to and repeat the words that people from marginalized populations chose. The first author in the first of the four articles that Driver cites has an h-index of 49, and the article in question is his 33rd most-cited piece in his career (out of 157 listed on Google Scholar). If these metrics are anything to go by (not that such metrics need be trusted!), it seems that the decision of Dr. Atkinson and his co-authors, at least, has come at no cost to his professional life. If you’re in a privileged position, it may cost you nothing to listen to and amplify others’ words, and to work to establish a new norm.

3. Get the rule changed

Beyond making a personal decision to avoid terms you don’t agree with, and to favour the language choices used by colleagues from equity-deserving groups, you may also choose to organize and advocate for change in your profession.

We see this advocacy for change in medicine, with researchers and practitioners alike arguing that eponyms memorializing Nazis should be dropped (e.g. Aronson 2021; Cohen 2010; Woywodt & Matteson 2007; Yurkiewicz 2012).

In ornithology, the “bird name for birds” campaign is advocating that eponyms be dropped from common bird names entirely, arguing that eponyms are “verbal statues” that “represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts” (BNFB). Why commemorate a Confederate General with an eponym when you can name a bird after its distinguishing characteristic, its thick bill? Through organized efforts, including repeated proposals for formal name changes, advocates within ornithology are working to change the rules for bird names.

These rule changes aren’t merely symbolic, either. As Driver writes, the endangered long-tailed duck currently has an official common name that is derogatory, misogynistic, and racist. This name is impeding efforts to save the species: “important breeding grounds for North American Long-tailed Duck populations in areas of Alaska would be aided by the cooperation of local Indigenous groups, and […] the offensive term [is] hindering the ability to work with Indigenous Peoples” (2020). To break the current rule — officially and permanently — would make it easier for Indigenous and non-Indigenous conservationists to do their jobs.

So, dear letter-writer, when figuring out what the hell to do, I see three options for you to avoid adhering to a bad rule: elide it, break it after listening to others, or advocate for change.

Importantly, all three of these options are available to anyone with the capacity and resources to enact them. Three of the prominent rule-changers and breakers mentioned in this article — McGee, Gomez, and Driver — were graduate students at the time they began advocating for language change. You don’t need to be in a position of power to shift a language norm in your discipline. So take the choice that feels safe and appropriate for your position — but don’t feel you need to follow a language norm just because it is normal.

For more on your power to choose as an academic writer, please see my August 2019 article, “The Politics of Pronouns.”

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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