Guess what monumentally callous mistake a Northern Arizona University student made on an English paper, causing her professor to dock her a point?
Would you believe using the word “mankind” instead of using a gender-neutral alternative?
It’s true. Cailin Jeffers, an English major at NAU, told Campus Reform that her professor, Dr. Anne Scott, penalized her for “problems with diction (word choice)” because she used “mankind” as a synonym for “humanity.”
Scott’s explanation? Try this:
I would be negligent, as a professor who is running a class about the human condition and the assumptions we make about being “human,” if I did not also raise this issue of gendered language and ask my students to respect the need for gender-neutral language. The words we use matter very much, or else teachers would not be making an issue of this at all, and the MLA would not be making recommendations for gender-neutral language at the national level.
Scott said she would allow Jeffers to revise the paper to earn additional points, adding:
I will respect your choice to leave your diction choices “as is” and to make whatever political and linguistic statement you want to make by doing so. By the same token, I will still need to subtract a point because your choice will not be made in the letter or spirit of this particular class, which is all about having you and other students looking beneath your assumptions and understanding that “mankind” does not mean “all people” to all people. It positively does not.
Jeffers told Campus Reform:
After our first essay we were given a list of “do’s and don’ts” based off of errors my professor found in our essays. Most of them make sense, just things like “make sure you’re numbering your pages” and “cite in proper MLA format,” but she said we had to be sure to use “gender-neutral language.” Included with this rule were several examples of what was and wasn’t okay to use. In one of these examples she stated that we could not use the word “mankind.” Instead, we should use “humankind.” I thought this was absurd, and I wasn’t sure if she was serious.”
Jeffers wanted to see what would happen, so on her next paper she used “mankind” twice, prompting the professor to deduct points again, at which point Jeffers asked for a meeting.
I stated that I agree with everything she said about my paper except my use of “mankind.” She proceeded to tell me that the NAU English department as well as the Modern Language Association are pushing for gender-neutral language, and all students must abide by this. She told me that “mankind” does not refer to all people, only males. I refuted, stating that it DOES refer to all people, [but] she proceeded to tell me that I was wrong, “mankind” is sexist, and I should make an effort to look beyond my preset positions and ideologies, as is the focus of the class.
Jeffers said Scott informed her that she could appeal the grade to the department chair, but otherwise “refused to correct her original markdown.”
Scott also sent an email to the entire class adumbrating her encounter with Jeffers, noting “an important discussion that I had with one of our class members today about gender-neutral language,” adding, “In a class such as this, wherein the course goals, discussions, readings, and assignments are all focused on what makes us ‘human’ and the assumptions we make about such a concept, it is crucial that we also understand what our word choices mean a great deal and have consequences in terms of what we reveal about our assumptions about ourselves and others, and the world generally.”
The issue goes beyond “political correctness,” for my colleagues and I recognize that words help to create our reality, power dynamics, and relationships among people. You are welcome to make a statement about your politics, or conscience, or beliefs by using gender-specific language in your papers, and in many cases gender-specific language is called for, when you can discern with certainty the gender of the characters and author you’re discussing. However, I’ll still have to subtract a point or two for any kind of language that refers to all people as “mankind” or readers as “him/he” for the reasons I’ve outlined carefully above.