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For students who identify as nonhuman animals, should the requests for nonhuman pronouns, animal names, and animal vocalizations be taken seriously in college classroom settings?

My question is not about specific school's policy (after reading all the official documents, I have a pretty good understanding of the university's policy: The decision is mainly the instructor's). My question is more about the general culture in higher education. I want to make sure my handling, if leaked to social media, will not cause me trouble finding a faculty position years from now (if I decide to move).

Admittedly, this is a very strange question that I never thought I had to deal with. I have been teaching for almost 20 years, and I have never even heard of such things. Until now.

This Summer, I'm teaching an online class in a different university through a visiting position. At the beginning of the semester, I used a Google form to collect some information from the students, including their academic background, career directions, and how they like to be addressed. The last item is important, because class meetings are held over Zoom, and knowing how to get someone's attention is useful. This is where I get a rather unusual response.

One student stated that...

  • "She" identifies as a nonhuman animal. The correct pronouns should be it/it/its.
  • "She" also prefer to be called by "her" animal name (e.g. Dumpling) rather than "her" first name on the roster.
  • "She" also warned me that "she" would occasionally start sentences with animal vocalization (e.g. "meow meow") when talking, and "she" hope I'll be okay with that.

(there are few more unusual requests) It is hard to tell if this is a prank. And I can see some danger from both sides of this decision. I don't have many friends in the department with whom I feel comfortable having honest discussions. Even if I do, I doubt they can offer any meaningful advises since this situation is new to all of us. I'm hoping there's someone here who have dealt with such rare (but definitely not unique) situation.


In case relevant, the course in question is a senior level topic course in applied mathematics. The class is large, and the atmosphere is generally serious and professional. The university I'm teaching in (as a visiting professor) and my home university are both in the United States.

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    I think the crux of the question is what do you mean by "taken seriously"? Are you asking if you, internally, should respect the student? As usual for purely internal thoughts and feelings, that's up to you. Externally, though, I suggest you ask HR to debrief you on their policy, in writing, before you go out on a limb to express the displeasure I infer from this question. May 30 at 22:27
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    Mod's Notice: this question is about how the instructor should deal with this in a way that will not "cause trouble" to the instructor's career. Opinions about the reasonableness of the student's request, the instructor's concern, or academic culture generally are not responsive and will be removed. If you want to discuss these topics, please do so in Academia Chat.
    – cag51
    May 30 at 23:27
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    @RegressForward, "taken seriously" means taken seriously as a special accommodation and other request. I'm sure most instructors receive at least a few accommodation requests each semester. Most will be considered seriously. Some will not. And there is a spectrum. The question is where does this one falls. It has nothing to do with anyone's internal feelings. I can change the question to emphasize that, if it wasn't clear. It is also not about HR's policy, as stated in the second sentence.
    – Bilbo
    May 31 at 0:16
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    @Bilbo, I think you're fine in the way you expressed it... People are nervous about such things, so will react unpredictably. May 31 at 2:20
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    I think this question would be improved by replacing "she" with the student. Same with "her" but to the student's. That will decrease any appearance of displeasure in the question.
    – Ian
    May 31 at 3:29

6 Answers 6

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You're really asking two very different questions in the first two paragraphs, namely: what is the ethical way to handle this, and how to minimize any risk of career damage.

These questions are clearly in conflict. Your first duty as an educator is towards your students, therefore basing your actions on what is best for your career rather than what is best for this student and for the rest of your class would be unethical (in more or less the same way it would be unethical for you to treat a student who is known for making complaints about instructors more leniently just because you would prefer to avoid having to deal with their complaints). Now, one could have some sympathy for your career concerns, but taking them into account is unethical. I will therefore focus on the ethical part of the question.

Looking at the student's requests, let's be real – there is, for all practical intents and purposes, no psychological condition which makes people involuntarily produce meowing sounds. (If there is and the student suffers from it, the student needs to ask the appropriate office at your university for an accommodation, rather than asking you directly.) This behavior is a consciously cultivated personal affectation which no-one has any obligation to indulge. Indeed, to the extent that it is distracting to other students, you have the obligation not to indulge it. One can contrast this with Tourette's, which might also lead to distracting vocalizations but which is an actual existing condition beyond the person's immediate control.

What is in the student's best interest? It's in their best interest to be treated as an adult capable of participating in a university course for adults rather than a child who would undergo some grievous psychological harm if others don't go along with their fantasy identity. Let them know that you know that they are capable of behaving like an adult human, and that university courses are a place for adult humans and not cats (whether fantasy cats or real cats). To not treat them as a competent adult is to disrespect them, contrary to what the student might claim or believe.

If you can teach them the lesson that respecting a person does not oblige anyone to go along with their made up identity, and indeed in some cases obliges other people not to go along with their made up identity, this will probably be the most valuable thing they will learn in your course. This would be an especially valuable lesson given that probably the message they are getting in other places is that a reasonable person will at least try to accommodate their pronoun request (or tie themselves into knots trying to decide what to do). In my view, not respecting their "cat pronouns" is part and parcel of not respecting the rest of their made up cat identity.

It is not exactly the same thing, but it is somewhat similar to handling a narcissist – a narcissist does undergo narcissistic injury when they are not seen the way they wish to be seen (as extremely competent, compassionate, smart, etc.) and this is unpleasant for them, but one does them no favors by trying to avoid any narcisstic injury. It is in their best interest for other people not to go along with their narcissistic fantasies. Sometimes the easiest way to effect actual psychological harm is to put undue efforts into avoiding any kind of perceived psychological harm or discomfort or conflict.

It's perfectly reasonable to say to the student: "you are not a cat and I will not treat you as a cat".

What is in their classmates' best interest? Not to be distracted by a person cosplaying as a cat while they are trying to get an education.

What is in society's best interest? For instructors not to have to ponder such questions under fear of adverse career consequences. If you want to live in a society where people have the obligation to bend over backwards to accommodate someone's made up cat identity, then by all means contribute to that society by your actions. If you want to live in a society where such requests are not given serious consideration, again, by all means contribute to that society by your actions.

What is in your career interest? There is no serious push for animal identities to be respected, so you're going to be fine. Avoid a comparison with trans issues. Of course, while this is a wise move career-wise, it is only ethical to do in case you actually believe this.

As a final remark, since you say that you "can see some danger from both sides of this decision", perhaps it is best to be judged on actions that are in line with your own ethical beliefs rather than on actions that do not align with your own ethical beliefs?

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  • "What is in their classmates' best interest? Not to be distracted by a person cosplaying as a cat while they are trying to get an education." This is the same nonsense as claiming short skirts/shorts should be banned because they are distracting. If the class is boring, students will be distracted. If it is interesting, they will not be distracted. Distraction is too easy to do to be increased by a cosplayer. Distraction is literally the default behavior for humans. Jun 25 at 16:46
  • "there is, for all practical intents and purposes, no psychological condition which makes people involuntarily produce meowing sounds" Tourette's syndrome can cause people with it to produce a wide variety of tics. Meowing noises are certainly possible.
    – nick012000
    Jun 26 at 1:42
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"She" identifies as a nonhuman animal. The correct pronouns should be it/it/its.

Fine. Address people by their name or preferred pronoun. No problems there.

"She" also prefer to be called by "her" animal name (e.g. Dumpling) rather than "her" first name on the roster.

If a student named "Richard" asked to be addressed as "Dick," that would be fine. "Dumpling" is no different.

"She" also warned me that "she" would occasionally start sentences with animal vocalization (e.g. "meow meow") when talking, and "she" hope I'll be okay with that.

If a student wanted to speak Japanese in class, I would just mention that Academic English is the language of instruction for the course and all students are expected to use English to participate. I would treat this the same way. I would overlook an occasional sound that is not English.

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For what it's worth, satirical hoaxes have been floating around lately about these topics in education outside the university level, for example:

https://apnews.com/article/Fact-Check-Fake-Indiana-School-Email-109748870442

https://www.wsaw.com/2022/04/06/wisconsin-school-district-does-not-have-furry-protocol/

At times, these have been initially incorrectly reported as true. While I am not certain if any intent has been definitively ascribed to these hoaxes, many commenters have responded as if this was a real, predictable next step after policies supporting transgender and nonbinary students, and used this as an opportunity to ridicule trans kids.

While there certainly are communities (primarily online) of people who take on a non-human identity within that community (whether animals like cats or humanoid fantasy creatures like elves), I am not aware that membership in these communities has been taken as serious expression of identity distinct from other fetishes or cosplay anywhere in the psychiatric/psychology/medical literature.

In contrast, there is a lot of supporting research around gender dysphoria and gender identities that differ from the identity assigned at birth: these are real phenomenon with real consequences, and affirming gender identity in the classroom is the best known response for educators.

I agree, it's hard to know whether this is a prank or intended as serious. I would recommend getting advice from a superior (for example, your department chair) and/or a university office that ordinarily handles complaints and policy regarding similar issues; this may be an office that handles disability accommodations, diversity, and/or mental health, a title IX office in the US, etc.

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To the aspects your student mentions which are not disruptive, I think this is not your problem: Pronoun requests, atypical but not disruptive vocalizations, it's hard for me to think of any reason not to respect these. Unless you have a specific reason to expect those behaviors to be disruptive, preemptively guessing that they will seems unfair.

To the name request: It's hard to know without taking a poll, but the name "Dumpling" is obviously colloquially a pet name. I'd personally have to think somewhat more carefully about handling that, as using it without context really could be very distracting to your other students e.g. that it could appear like you and your student have an inappropriate relationship. I don't think there's a ghost of a chance that navigating a lack of comfort with that in a professional way will impact your job prospects.

I don't have any insight into good strategies for predicting what kinds of things could go viral on social media and would be enthusiastic if another answerer can do better.

Regarding whether these requests are a prank: Always possible, in which case it's just a minor waste of your time to handle things professionally.

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    Also, if the way you run the Zoom class shows students' identifiers/names, "Dumpling" should be visible to everyone... May 31 at 2:22
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    Do you generally call your students different names than what they are enrolled with? I'm bad with names and allowing any nicknames would amplify that issue for me.
    – Roland
    May 31 at 5:49
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    Great answer! A student who starts an intervention with meow, meow will raise eyebrows and risks being made the object of ridicule. As an instructor, it is best to avoid this dynamic. Maybe OP just should refer to people by their last name to avoid the Dumpling problem. Calling someone Dumpling could reflect on the instructor. You really hit all the points in your answer.
    – tschwarz
    May 31 at 6:19
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    I think I'd add two points: (1) discuss with the department chair to see if this has come up before (it is a senior level course so it quite well could have), and (2) discuss with whatever office is relevant at the university just to be clear on their policy and implementation.
    – Jon Custer
    May 31 at 14:09
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    @Roland Perhaps it is different in Germany, but one doesn't get to "disallow" nicknames. If a student asks you to call them by a (reasonable) name it is fairly rude not to. "Dumpling" is a different matter, but you said "any nickname." May 31 at 14:51
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My only contribution is to reach out to the student’s academic advisor to see if it’s come up before. You might tell the student that you would rather they not meow, because you don’t consider such vocalisations appropriate in the university classroom. If the student puts Dumpling on their Zoom moniker I would use it.

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I think your assumption

The last item is important, because class meetings are held over Zoom, and knowing how to get someone's attention is useful.

is wrong. Why should you address personally someone in a Zoom setting?

I would suggest avoiding addressing students directly. You can always refer to any of them with a neutral "Dear student" (lucky you, english language is devoid of genders for articles).

"Dear student that wants to ask a question" "Dear student that is sleeping" "Dear student that just had the cat passing in front of the webcam"

At the oral exam: "Dear student, please demonstrate that [...]" Discussing laboratory team-work: "Dear students, please [...]"

I actually do not see why you should refer to them personally. If you will build up a personal relation with some student, you will then find a moment to ask them directly how to address them, or you will read the signature they use in their mail/sms/whatever written mean of comunication you will use if you have a personal relation with someone.

But I think that in a classroom setting it would be better to keep some distance.

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