15

I have noticed* that an undergrad student in a course I teach has "female" written in the "gender" field in the university intranet database (used for course enrollment, grading, etc.), although they present themselves as male in terms of appearance and pronouns.

I would have chalked it up to a simple clerical error, but then I realized that the student's name also is of a somewhat unisex character (it's common for men but not entirely rare for women as well, think "Andy"), so there is a small but nonzero probability the student is actually trans.

Of course I could just ignore the issue completely, but that would mean the wrong gender would keep being shown to dozens of other teachers for years to come, and that might put the student into all kinds of uncomfortable situations.

I'm thus trying to balance the invasion of the student's privacy by bringing this up in some way vs the invasion of their privacy caused by the problematic gender field in the database.

I was thinking about sending them a short e-mail along the lines of:

Dear Student, I have noticed the university records show your gender as female. Should you want to have that corrected, contact the Department of Student Affairs. Feel free to ignore this message if it is not relevant, I don't expect a reply.

Is there a better (read: more respectful, safer, less likely to come across as super creepy) course of action?

*: Noticing this didn't require any investigation whatsoever. When I open the teacher dashboard for my course,I am presented with a list of students. One entry in that list looks like

Andy Smith (F) (photo of a bearded dude)

That's not really easy to miss in a list with less than 30 rows.

1

10 Answers 10

63

If you must do something (an assumption I would encourage you to question), then probably the best way to help the student avoid uncomfortable situations, without actually putting them in exactly the kind of uncomfortable situation you are trying to spare them, is to alert your university’s registrar to the potential error. The registrar would be in a better position to check whether this is in fact a clerical error or something that is in accordance with the student’s wishes. And the student would probably perceive an email from an anonymous registrar staff member discussing the option of correcting an incorrect entry in their university records as a lot less creepy than a similar email coming from their professor.

Edit: see also the comment by @niemiro, who said that “The registrar could send an email containing every field in the database for that student and ask for confirmation that it’s all still correct”. If/when you email the registrar, you can suggest to them this approach to minimize any creepiness factor and avoid a risk of accidentally outing the student.

Other than this idea, doing nothing is a viable, and, in my opinion, completely satisfactory approach to handling a “problem” that you neither know with certainty is actually a problem, nor falls anywhere near your actual professional duties with respect to the student in question.

13
  • 12
    I don't think I must do something,just that doing something might be the decent thing to do. If I were a trans student, I think I wouldn't want something very private about me to be shown to every single teacher. I would want to know this was happening so that I could put an end to it.
    – TooTea
    Mar 4 at 19:26
  • 11
    The student not knowing is by far the least likely scenario. Much more likely that he’s not out to his parents or that your school, state, or country has trans-unfriendly policies. Mar 4 at 21:57
  • 6
    If this is indeed a clerical error, contacting the registrar directly would also alert them that they need to double-check the rest of the information for this student as well. Some student profile data (grant/funding information, emergency contacts, etc) could be disastrous if incorrect. Stuff like that doesn't always get audited unless someone lets them know there might be a problem.
    – bta
    Mar 5 at 0:14
  • 4
    This. The registrar could send an email containing every field in the database for that student and ask for confirmation that it's all still correct and up to date.
    – niemiro
    Mar 5 at 10:55
  • 4
    For example, their parents might read their official email. Or maybe some letters are mailed to the students permanent address with a gendered title. Or the parents just open any letters sent to the student at their permanent address. Or maybe gender is mentioned somewhere on financial aid information. Lots of ways this can go horribly wrong. Mar 7 at 14:16
41

an undergrad student in a course I teach

Your job is teaching this student. The gender in the university records has no relevance to that job that I can think of. Don't do anything unless the student asks you for help with the record.

wrong gender would keep being shown to dozens of other teachers for years to come

That's true, but I do not see what is has to do with your responsibilities to the student. Sensible faculty know that student records are full of errors, and quite frequently lack student's preferred names, such as Andy instead of Andrew.

Is there a better course of action?

If you want to address students by their correct pronoun, invite all of them to identify their pronoun at the start of the course.

13
  • 12
    The student uses male pronouns,so at least in that regard I'm safe. And FWIW this is the first case of an error in student records I have seen. They really have to be correct as the data is used directly to issue diplomas,grant scholarships and so on.
    – TooTea
    Mar 4 at 19:19
  • 9
    @WoJ In my experience student records displayed to the instructor have loads of irrelevant information. Mar 5 at 17:51
  • 5
    @user3067860: I have no idea, I am not American. This does not make any sense in Europe and this kind of information never appears on any report. The US being the US it may make sense there and since it is explicitly mentioned I assume it is there for something.
    – WoJ
    Mar 5 at 20:28
  • 10
    @WoJ Sorry,when did the US enter the picture? My original question is about the EU (and tagged as such).
    – TooTea
    Mar 6 at 8:53
  • 11
    As an American, I find the "it does not make sense, therefore it must be American" syllogism rather amusing.
    – Kevin
    Mar 6 at 8:56
15

By the use of the word "corrected" you are making an assumption. If they haven't made any declaration then don't act on such assumptions.

You could just leave it alone, and if the student wants it changed they will probably act on it. But at most, tell them that they should (might want to) review their student records with the appropriate office to decide on any desired changes.

I'd guess there are students of university age struggling with who they are. To some extend we all experienced that, perhaps.

2
  • Right, "corrected" is probably a mistake (although it would be okay if it is a clerical error, which I think is the much more likely explanation). Perhaps "changed" or something would be better? The whole reason I'm even considering doing something about this is that the web form with these basic personal data is quite well hidden from the perspective of a student (it's filled in once by the administration when enroll in the university and then probably never touched again), but the data from there is shown to every teacher as a part of the list of students enrolled into a course.
    – TooTea
    Mar 4 at 15:44
  • 6
    I'm with @buffy here. You make the assumption that something needs to be changed or corrected. That may be true, but it may also not. The student may very well like to keep an ambiguity about their gender, and it's not your job to point out that the record does not reflect how they present today. I've known a person who showed up as a woman one day at a conference, and as a man the next. Mar 5 at 1:32
9

Sometime every year, the central admin at my university asks me (faculty) to check the correctness of the various bits of "information" they have for me. Sure, address, phone, next-of-kin (in case of accident?), and mostly mundane-though-personal things. This also includes expressions of preference about whether bits of info will be publicly accessible, or not. In the past, the default seemed to have been that lots of stuff was public, but not so much now.

Assuming that students have the same option to adjust/update their "personal information", you should just give a blanket encouragement to students... for gender-related but many more... reasons, to be sure to look at the univ's "personal info + preferences" file for them, and update as needed.

I think this approach would avoid a lot of the invasiveness and potential insensitivity/presumption about dealing directly with the specific possible issue-at-hand.

1
  • This approach feels like a good start, but I feel are 2 things missing: 1) tell the students where to find the information that is held on them, we have had lots of questions here that amount to students not being good at finding information in university computer systems. 2) Explicitly say that gender is self determined and need not match their passport/id card/whatever. Lots of organisations are pedantic about that, so students may not realise they have a choice.
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 5 at 9:04
5

I suspect that what has happened here is that your student doesn't realise that their registered gender need not match their passport/ID card/birth certificate. So when they filled out the form, they put down the gender they thought they were obliged to use, even though actually they could have picked the right option.

There is also a non-zero chance that some years ago, when they filled out the form, they weren't sure, but now they are more settled. Statistically, an undergraduate is right in the age band where that can happen, and testosterone acts very fast. It might only take a year to acquire a good beard.

Either way, I agree with the answers that suggest a blanket email rather than targeting this student. Is there an LGBT organisation at the university? Maybe you could ask them to send an email around explaining that;

  • The university welcomes folks of all gender, and respects the gender that students self-id as.
  • Any student is welcome to change their gender marker in the university database. It need not match any other documents.
  • That can be done by going to https://..... and clicking on blah

If your student is actually trans it's reasonably likely they open an email with something like "encouraging gender self-id" in the header. Of course, it may be that they don't read their email much at all, but we must live in hope.

5

The intent is good.

I would find a way to do it that’s less likely to be professionally dubious and to the student, alarming/creepy/distressing, though. Which is the likely outcome, handled that way.

I have noticed that an undergrad student in a course I teach...

This is the key, and it’s all that is needed.

If you teach in person, then good, ask them to hold back a moment after a class or supervision session. If not, consider if it’s better to email or ask if you can have a word (adding also "it’s nothing bad, a course admin thing I need to check").

Then simply say something like this:

Hi! It’s nothing big. I wanted to double check what pronouns you want me to use when we talk [or work/during supervisions/whatever, pick one as appropriate]. It matters to get them right and I’d like to be sure rather than make a mistake.

That way you’re using a legitimate reason, that they are your student and you will at some time have to communicate to them, or with them, or about them, to someone or other, be it written course correspondence, exams, informal, educational Q&A, discussions with other staff, whatever. So you want to double check what's right, to not make a hurtful thoughtless mistake.

That’s legitimate. It comes over well. And it doesn’t sound like you trawled records. They’ll probably like and appreciate the care involved, which indeed you show.

If you feel this could be an issue affecting others, it’s also not a bad thing to ask all your students at some convenient time, and let them know its okay to advise of pronouns if they wish. Treat it like any admin thing, as routine as letting them know next class time or handing out coursework.

Hi! Before we start, I have a small administrative thing. I'm updating my records, and I like to check along with names, if anyone has pronouns that they want to let me know. For reference, mine are [whatever]. If anyone wants to make sure my records are correct, please catch me some time or drop me an email. And now, back to (subject).

The people, to whom it matters, will very much notice the invitation.

6
  • "What pronouns do you want me to use?" and "what should I have in my own records?" are not the same question as "do you want the university's official records changed?" Mar 5 at 22:48
  • The difference is, they are legitimate and valid questions that don't cause issues, and tell you whether the official records have a problem in the first place. Which is what the OP actually wants to know, a non creepy "better course of action". ......
    – Stilez
    Mar 5 at 23:56
  • 1
    ...The answer obtained either confirms the official records are right, or allow the OP to legitimately follow up internally by correcting them without distressing or involving the student further: "Hi, I noticed that X appears to be incorrectly listed as female on our official records but he's just confirmed he's male. It came to light as I was checking my own records. Can we correct this? Thanks!" Additional benefit, its fixed without emotional labour on the part of the student, rather than demanding they jump extra hoops
    – Stilez
    Mar 5 at 23:57
  • 1
    "Follow up internally without involving the student further" is a very bad idea, when the student hasn't actually indicated that they want OP to do this. As discussed in my answer, it's not safe to assume that changing the record is the student's desired course of action. It's also very unlikely that university admin would be willing to change a student's recorded details just on the say-so of a teacher, without documentation or a direct request from that student. Mar 6 at 13:40
  • 1
    Yes, check. For sureBut it solve the OPs actual problem which is identifying if there's actually an issue related to recorded gender vs desired use-gender, without creeping out the student.
    – Stilez
    Mar 6 at 19:17
3

I was thinking about sending them a short e-mail along the lines of:

Dear Student, I have noticed the university records show your gender as female. Should you want to have that corrected, contact the Department of Student Affairs. Feel free to ignore this message if it is not relevant, I don't expect a reply.

This is a good approach, but I might tweak the wording a little, e.g.:

...You may already be aware of this, but if not, Student Affairs would be the department to talk to about updating that information.

You're right to take this to the student first and only. Never ever out somebody as trans or maybe-trans without their consent. Let Andy decide whether to take this further.

For a variety of reasons, it's possible that Andy is aware of the record and either doesn't want to change it, or isn't able to change it. Sometimes it's hard, expensive, or even impossible for trans people to get gender markers changed on official docs (e.g. the university requires amended birth certificate, but issuing state refuses to amend).

There can be safety considerations here — Andy might not feel comfortable having such a request on record, or might not want his parents seeing letters addressed to "Mr. Andy Smith".

There can also be administrative reasons, e.g. I know of trans men who've had insurance claims for health services denied because the insurer had a hardcoded rule saying that men couldn't have pap tests.

So, by all means let the student know what's on the record, but don't assume they haven't considered changing it.

2
  • I know a person whose father was completely drunk when he arrived at the registry office to record her birth. She didn't get the name that her mum and dad agreed on as a result. She's lucky she was registered as female, that was probably a 50/50 chance.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 7 at 14:06
  • @gnasher729 I recall at least one case where an immigration official misspelled the family's name and it was easier for the entire family just to change to the misspelling than to get it fixed. Mar 7 at 23:36
2

99% of students see themselves as either male or female. Among bearded blokes named Andy the percentage may be higher.

A simple question to the person: “Hi, according to the student database you are female. Is that correct?” will give the student an opportunity to either tell you it’s correct, or to fix a mistake. And there’s the possibility that the wrong picture ended up on the database.

And please nothing like “should you want that corrected” - here you are making assumptions. A simple question makes no assumptions. If I was Andy and you said I was a “potentially trans student”, I’d be very annoyed about you making assumptions. PS. I know a lady whose complete name is the same as mine except for one letter. Had we been at the same university, any mixups wouldn’t have been too surprising.

3
  • No way this is a wrong picture. We meet in person every week and the student looks very much like the one in the photo. But isn't directly asking about their gender (which is absolutely none of my business) way worse than just pointing out what I see and letting them decide whether to do anything?
    – TooTea
    Mar 7 at 8:34
  • You wouldn't ask about the gender. You would ask "is there an error in the student records"? And excuse me, but for most people you get their gender correctly, and for a large portion of the rest you got the gender that they want you to assume.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 7 at 14:03
  • I very much agree with @gnasher729 here. Don't assume anything, that's non of your bussiness. Nothing here is strictly your responsibility, the only thing you can claim is a general interest in the admin being correct as a member of the institution. So they most you can do is ask 'Is this correct?' and accept whatever answer you get. It's also the best thing to do because it allows the student to just say 'Yes' and walk away (as is their right).
    – AVee
    Mar 8 at 10:36
-2

Very hidden in the comments to the question, the OP states

"the student uses male pronouns."

There you go. You absolutely do not need any other information, and if you feel the urge of taking actions, simply write to the maintainer of the database or to the relevant office and point out there is a typo in that database field, but as other already pointed out, it is best to leave that to the student themselves.

6
  • No investigations, no typical male physical attributes, no creepy direct question to the student, really noting else is needed.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 5 at 8:46
  • 9
    Sorry, but this isn't going to work. The standard procedure is for students themselves to request any changes to their personal data, and it would be extremely awkward for me to request changes to somebody else's record. It will have to involve the student and the whole point of my question is how to do that.
    – TooTea
    Mar 5 at 13:40
  • Actually, whatever pronouns you use, and what gender you identify as, do not need to be linked. So you can't just draw conclusions just like that.
    – Ivo
    Mar 7 at 14:07
  • @IvoBeckers very good point. How offensive would you find a direct question "what gender do you identify with?", from a peer and from a person superior to me in the power-scale? I, and I speak for myself, respectively "a bit offensive" and "very offensive".
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 7 at 14:11
  • @EarlGrey for me personally I wouldn't care, but I can imagine a large percentage would find it offensive yeah. I also do not claim to know the best course of action here, I merely wanted to make that remark
    – Ivo
    Mar 7 at 14:13
-3

You are seeing the tip of a tree, but there is a forest that you need to burn down as fast as possible: why are students' genders recorded?

The student can take care of themselves. Maybe it has already been done, and maybe they will be a female in three months, who knows. Maybe they already are, and this is none of your business.

You can start a movement to ban the recording of gender in students' registers.

12
  • 11
    Quite frankly, this is not a hill I'm willing to die on. As you might have noticed I know very little about the issues of gender and the like. I'd love to be able to help one particular student out, but I'm certainly not going to start a big movement to have half of the university systems and processes overhauled.
    – TooTea
    Mar 4 at 15:47
  • 4
    @EarlGrey Since you asked for feedback, I downvoted because your answer, while correct, does not address the question. The asker, as an instructor, cannot change the fact that gender is recorded. Mar 4 at 15:52
  • 2
    @TooTea "I'm certainly not going to start a big movement to have half of the university systems and processes overhauled." I am sure you have good intentions, but instead of fixing a potentially dangerous system, you give the burden to the potential victims of "saving" themselves from the dangerous system, while you absolutely have the power to move and change something, since you are in the system.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 4 at 15:52
  • 3
    Re "the tip of a tree": Do you mean "the tip of the iceberg"? Mar 5 at 22:45
  • 2
    They burn down the forests on other planets, but here? Is it the idiom see the forest for the trees that is referred to? Mar 5 at 22:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .