A student at Northern Arizona University (NAU) was actually docked marks on an English assignment because she used the word “mankind” in her essay instead of a “gender-neutral” option.
Caitlin Jeffers is an English major at NAU. She related to Campus Reform how she received an email from her professors Dr. Anne Scott, who informed Jeffers that she had lost one point out of a possible 50 for “problems with diction (word choice)” related to her use of the word “mankind” when she should have used “humanity.”
“The words we use matter very much, or else teachers would not be making an issue of this at all,” she wrote.
“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,” Scott explained. “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.”
The student was given the option of amending her essay according to her professor’s direction but Scott indicated that she could leave things as they were.
“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,” the professor wrote. “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 says that prior to writing the essay, her professor indicated that it was to contain “gender-neutral language” and one of the words that was never to be used was “mankind” instead of “humankind.”
“I thought this was absurd, and I wasn’t sure if she was serious,” says Jeffers.
Jeffers tested the policy on her next paper and used mankind in it twice. The paper was returned with two points taken off and Jeffers requested to see Scott.
The meeting ended with the student disagreeing over whether the word “mankind” should be considered intrinsically “sexist.”
Following that session, Scott fired off an email to the whole class in which she told them all about “an important discussion that I had with one of our class members today about gender-neutral language” and why she is so rigid about her language rules.
“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…”
Scott adamantly denies that the gender-neutral debate is just a political correctness fad, insisting that its great significance is confirmed by guidelines promulgated by the Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association that encourage gender-neutral language.
“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,” she told the class.
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