Transgender Students in a Socratic Classroom

Some colleagues recently gave an interesting presentation about transgender students in the law school environment.  A baseline they advanced seemed sound: address people using the name and pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity. That means if someone identifies as a man though the school records that person as a woman, you ought to address that (trans)man as a male.  Failing to do so is hurtful – and adds unnecessarily to the stress of law school.  And, really, why not?

But here’s a problem, and I wondered if you folks had experience with it and have come up with good solutions.  Some students – I learned – prefer to be referred to by gender neutral pronouns, like zhe and hir.  But there doesn’t seem to be an analogue for the honorifics Mr. and Ms., meaning the formal socratic teacher is quickly forced to make a choice.  So let’s say you didn’t want to insult transgender students on the first day of class, and you walk in prepared to call on folks more-or-less-randomly.   I have considered circulating a class list before beginning to teach. I’ve also thought about just using last names — “Dave Hoffman, are you here?  Good.  Hoffman, please state the facts of Jacobs and Young.”  That approach, though, seems a bit aggressive & impolite.  What would/do you do?

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16 Responses

  1. It seems to me that the best thing to do is to say at the beginning of the class “I’m going to call names from the syllabus, tell me if there’s something else you’d like me to call you.” Then go with the honorific that seems to most correspond to the first name that they give you. At that point, it seems to me that the teacher has fulfilled his responsibility. If the student (particularly a law student) is uncomfortable with the way they’re being addressed, they should be able to approach the professor in office hours and tell them.

    Politeness and inclusiveness is wonderful. But law school is training students for a profession where they’re probably going to be referred to as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” by figures of authority for many years. It may be doing them a disservice to not at least expect them to clearly communicate their preferred method of address.

  2. Anon Law Grad says:

    Just using last names is what my 1L Con law professor (who was also the dean of the law school) did. He dropped the honorific altogether and referred to everyone, even himself in the third person, strictly by their last names.

    I think students worried less about it being aggressive and impolite and worried more about correctly answering his incredibly rigorous questions.

  3. Logan says:

    I’ve had professors go both ways (just using last names and asking at the start of the semester to inform him/her what you like to be called if it’s not what’s on the role). I’d go with Andrew’s suggestion though. If they’ve made it to law school, they’ve made it through an undergraduate program (maybe even a graduate program) and have already come accustomed to having to inform a professor how they prefer to be called.

    Also, when did gender neutral pronouns come about?

  4. Anon says:

    Why not just call on students by their first names? That simultaneously solves the problem and — to derail the discussion a bit — lets you avoid the silly practice of using honorifics in the classroom. I’ve never understood this practice, and I don’t entirely buy the explanation that it has something to do with professional training. I’ve never seen it happen in MBA or PhD classes, even though those programs, too, prepare students for professions where they may be addressed by various kinds of honorifics, whether “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Prof.,” or “Dr.”

    Even referring to these titles as honorifics feels odd in this context. It’s such an unnatural and dated form of address in most situations these days that to my mind, it draws unnecessary attention to the differences in power and status between the professor and the students. It’s one of those things that feels like tradition for tradition’s sake, a holdover from the bad old days of The Paper Chase, when legal education was meant to be terrifying and infantilizing. If my own experience in law school was any indication, though, it seems to be on its way out.

  5. Dave Hoffman says:

    Anon@ 2:10. I appreciate the argument, but that’s not something I’m going to change. In a large classroom, having students refer to me by my first name is odd & in my view doesn’t help remind students that they are engaging in a professional discipline. And if they are going to call me professor, I’m not comfortable calling them by their first names — as I felt, when I was a student, that dynamic was a bit hard to take. In any event, keep the other comments coming (and let’s try to keep the thread on topic.)

  6. Anon3 says:

    Time to grow up. zhe and hir are not words. Your clients, opposing counsel, and the judge will not call you Zhe Smith, they will call you Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith. Accepting someone’s gender identification is a courteous thing to do, but going beyond that does them a diservice.

  7. Dave Hoffman says:

    Anon3: I understand your position. But it strikes me that what is, and is not, a “word” changes over time as social practice changes. So the fact that I was unfamiliar with these pronouns until last week seems moderately nondispositive. Ms. was an innovation — in 1901 — consciously so.

  8. Orin Kerr says:

    Dave, it seems to me that there’s a disconnect in your post. First, you say that you learned that some students may have a preference. Then, you say that you want to avoid insulting students. But the two are actually quite different. Not satisfying a preference is not generally interpreted as an insult.

  9. I don’t think it’s a problem to use the gender neutral pronouns, if a student informs you that that’s what they want. Assuming that they want that just because they’re transgender, of course, is probably no better than assuming they want to be called by the normal pronoun associated with their gender identification.

    Making a big deal out of a student being transgender and finding out how to address them is likely to be more ostracizing and offputting to that student than just acting normally, and adhering to any requests that they decide to make.

    And as Logan said, if they’re in law school, they’ve already been doing this for years in school. (Unless the gender switch is recent.)

  10. dave hoffman says:


    Well, that’s true. I suppose that it turns on the intensity of the preference. I should have said that I learned from this presentation that transgender students feel very strongly about this issue. Maybe that’s in fact not the case. And maybe their strongly held preferences are trumped for some other reason. But my view is that if I can avoid making someone feel bad for reasons that are essentially bureaucratic (i.e., the school has assigned them a name or identity that they don’t believe is accurate) then I ought to accommodate. This happens often with students who are recently married or divorced — the school has the wrong last name on file. They’d prefer me to use the correct last name. I do.

  11. Nick says:

    Prof. Hoffman,

    I agree with anon@2:10. The Socratic method taught me to think on my feet – undoubtedly a vital skill for lawyers – but the name used to identify me was of no moment. It’s the visceral feeling of being made to argue your position in front of a large group that demonstrates the character of the professional discipline in which we are engaged. Of my seven 1L professors (at Temple!), two used last names. One did happen to teach the class that best introduced me to the professional discipline of law, but that was because of the professor’s approach, not how he referred to us.

    For transgender students in particular it seems first names are the best way to respect preferences and avoid distraction. Any transgender law school student knows that “zhe” or “hir” will turn heads in a law school classroom, meaning less aggregate focus on the substantive material at hand. Zhe, hir, and the like exist because they must in order for transgender individuals to be committed to their self-identities, but what best describes each of us is our first name – that is why transgender individuals often change their first names.

  12. Ken Rhodes says:

    I attended a high school with a strong tradition of using last name only. It offended no one. It solved no problem 50 years ago; that was just the way we did it. Seems to me it would still work today, and if it solves a perceived problem, all the better.

  13. Glenn Cohen says:

    I believe Liz Glazer has a paper on this very subject that might of interest/help….

  14. ZS says:

    As a genderqueer law student, I much prefer when professors use first names. Professors who are unwilling to do that have used Mr. (last name) and Ms. (last name) for others and (my first name) (my last name) for me, which, while not ideal, is far better than making me choose one or the other.
    It’s not that I haven’t dealt with this in other school or employment situations, nor about what I do in clinic with my clients. Instead, it is that the pronouns and honorific I use in a given situation are not the ones with which I am most comfortable in another situation. In court or with a client, the client’s issue is more important to me than whatever pronoun or honorific anyone uses, and I refuse to correct anyone, whatever people use, in that situation. Yet in class I am supposed to be learning, and to be distracted by whether I am appropriately masculine or feminine enough for Mr. or Ms. detracts from my learning environment. For me, using first names allows gender to not have to be a topic of conversation the way it is when an honorific is used. If a professor uses my first name) (my last name) for me and Mr. (last name) and Ms. (last name) for others, there is an exaggeration of difference not present if all students were to use first names. I understand professors dislike using first names for us and us using honorifics for them, but at least there is a status difference between professors and students to justify the difference, versus only the difference of gender identity between my classmates and me.

  15. Dave, I appreciate your being interested in this issue. As an aside, I call my students by their first name. I have never had a problem, and very few have ever responded by calling me by my first name, even when I was much younger. A few decades ago, we came up with the marital status neutral “Ms.” so that women didn’t have to choose between “Miss” and “Mrs.” Why can’t we just come up with a gender status neutral honorific? I bet at some point in medical school students are just called “Dr.” Maybe you could call on students as “Counselor Smith”?

  16. Tim R. says:

    From a student perspective, I don’t see the problem with using given (first) names for students and Professor surname (last name) for professors. It not only avoids the transgender problem, but also the Mrs./Miss problem that I’ve seen trip up several professors. Throughtout undergrad, that was the expected manner of address – and if it worked there, why not in law school as well?

    Simply using a surname without a salutation such as Mr., etc. is only appropriate in the case of close friends, in my opinion, and would be less appropriate for a semiformal situation such as a classroom than the use of a first name.