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December 20, 2017 Previous day Next day


The principle is: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to.

Admittedly, special situations come up that test the principle—as when Prince changed his stage name to a symbol that none of us have on our keyboards and that is said to be unpronounceable. But Prince’s fans went along with it, mostly calling him “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Seven years or so later when he changed his name back to Prince, they went along with that too.

Then again, some special situations lurch over the line between showing respect and acquiescing in puffery. Maybe a senior employee likes to be introduced by his title, Chief Knowledge Officer So-and-So, or a group wants its name written in all capitals and never mind that the name isn’t an acronym. Marketers and publicists and so on may not fully understand the implications of terminology they ask for. We have to think for ourselves.

And yet the general principle holds: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to. It applies when writing or speaking to or about individuals in academic, workplace, and social settings. It applies to pronouns (“a transgender man … he”). It applies to groups (“people with autism,” “Rohingya”). In many cases, we can’t truly know what most members of groups, or what particular atypical individuals, prefer. But since the principle we’re discussing is fairly commonly understood, we can rely on sources such as reputable media online to have done that part of our homework for us, and we just need to see how they refer to the people we’re writing about.

The principle also applies to you—even if you’re not particular about how your students refer to you. It may be useful to remember that students are negotiating the transition from treating adults with deference, as they were probably brought up to do, to treating them mainly as peers. In my opinion, you’ll be doing students a favor if you make some preference or other about how to refer to you clear as early as possible in your interactions with them. Various choices can be valid in a student-instructor relationship (Dr. Baker, Professor Baker, Ms. Baker, Victoria, Vickie), so why make them guess which you’d like? More important, this situation is about respect, and it offers you a nonconfrontational opportunity to indicate what you find respectful to the right degree.

In addition to the question of how to address someone is how to refer to someone in writing. When students cite sources in papers, the style they’re following (MLA, APA, Chicago, CSE) tells them the forms to use. Most styles call for citing last names only, and never mind the advanced and honorary degrees, the lofty titles that many of the sources they’re citing worked so hard to earn. For instance, in academic text and bibliographies alike, the cosmologist, when he’s a source, is simply “Hawking.”

But what if the assignment is to write a brief biography of Stephen Hawking? On first reference he’s probably “Stephen Hawking.” After that, though, is he “Hawking” or “Dr. Hawking” or “Stephen”? Is his first wife “Jane” or “Mrs. Hawking”? Is his second wife “Elaine” or “Ms. Mason”? These options are either more or less appropriate in different contexts, for different audiences; they set different tones. Similarly, calling Hillary Clinton “Mrs. Clinton” sets a different tone from calling her “Secretary Clinton.”

To be sure, these are trivial choices. But they also signal to readers, possibly several times per page, such things as how familiar the writer is with the genre in which she is writing. If students can keep half an eye on how their sources refer to people, even as they keep their other eye and a half on what the sources are saying about them, it can only work to their advantage.


Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at


Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.


Credit: Pixaby Image 2849602 by surdumihail, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Global Partnerships, Local Acts

During the past year, my students have worked with students and activists in the Middle East/North African region. For many of them, the act of corresponding and writing with students from this region has enabled them to hear from communities at the center of today’s public debate, such as Syrian refugees. As a result, the student writing for my classes has demonstrated a larger global framework through which they now understand public rhetoric about this region and, often, has produced personal connections with individuals from that region that humanize the harshness of our current public rhetoric.


Yet global partnerships are more than just student interactions. Such partnerships are also structures designed to provide a platform for teachers, students, institutions, and communities to build a transnational space for dialogue.  In the final post for the year, I want to offer three tactics to insure any such partnership can reach its potential, as well as survive challenges emerging from the current political context.


Participant Safety

In a global partnership, the political context of public speech will necessarily be fraught. This is particularly true when there is actual violence occurring amongst the nations in which the project is situated. In such an environment, there needs to be increased awareness of how participation in a project is not an “innocent act.” Indeed, participating in a project located within Trump’s United States will necessarily impact how any dialogue is understood, no matter how seemingly innocuous.


Given this situation, there has to be a clear understanding among the partners on how student privacy/anonymity can be ensured. This might mean that students are provided with pseudonyms when they interact online; it might mean that certain types of private/personal information are placed “off-limit” in “student-to-student” conversations. There will also need to be regular dialogue with the global partner to understand how the public framing of student participation in the project might differ within each national context. While we might frame a discussion around “human rights” in the United States, that same discussion might be framed differently within the partner’s national context. Which is to say, the partnership must be consistently aware of how differing national rhetorical contexts must be navigated to ensure the safety of participants and the continued possibility of dialogue.


Institutional Awareness

Given the current political context, global partnerships need to be fully discussed across a set of university sites, including departmental, collegial, and, possibly, university-wide offices. There are several reasons for this discussion. First, in my experience, global partnerships necessarily are perceived as “university projects.” It could well be that the administrative figures above your specific global partners reach out to your university about a certain issue, believing it to be the appropriate response. For this reason, it is best that your university understands both your partnerships and the structures you have put in place for its success. This will enable productive dialogues with your university. Second, given the current political context where publicly engaged programs are facing political attack, you want your university to have overtly or tacitly approved your partnership so you have a backstop to any seemingly random criticism. Essentially, then, the more a partnership is understood and supported by your university/college, the better.


Circulation Protocols

All partnerships produce materials that speak to the work done. Often these partnerships also have the goal of circulating these materials publicly. In a global partnership, it is important to have in place protocols which have layers of approval – from the author, to the partners, to perhaps partnering organizations. (It might also be important to have policies on how authors will “mask” elements of their story for anonymity.) In addition, any discussion with the authors will need to be overt about where their writing will intentionally circulate (based on the partnership plan) as well as how it might circulate unintentionally (through social media). Such discussion also have to occur with partnering organizations, who will need to decide how/if to publicize their participation across printed/digital products which emerge from the project. And unlike other projects where students might be given a strong editorial role in any publications (for experience, etc.), here such decisions should be made by those partners responsible for the project. This is a case where faculty expertise needs to outweigh student learning.


I recognize that, to some extent, the tone of this post seems ominous. Given such a tone, who would ever want to initiate such global partnerships? One response would be that such a short post is unable to capture the excitement and interest students feel about such opportunities. (See earlier blog posts.) Yet perhaps a more important response speaks to the current political moment. At a time when public rhetoric is so divisive, so bigoted toward different Middle Eastern and North African cultures, I believe it is morally and ethically necessary to create partnerships which can provide opportunities for transnational dialogues, premised on trust and pointed towards greater understanding. If we truly believe in the public power of writing and rhetoric, then we have no other choice.