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Professor docks student's English paper grade for 'absurd' reason

A professor at Northern Arizona University docked a student's grade over use of non-gender-neutral language. (Image source: Northern Arizona University)

An Arizona college professor docked a student's grade on a paper for using the term "mankind" as another word for "humanity."

Cailin Jeffers, an English major at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, told Campus Reform that she received an email from professor Anne Scott explaining the decision to take away one point on a paper over student's use of the politically incorrect term.

According to NAU's website, Scott teaches undergraduate courses related to various types of literature, including American minority literature.

Jeffers said that Scott sent an email to the class after grading students' first essay. The email instructed students to always number their pages, use proper Modern Language Association format and other reasonable requests. However, Jeffers said she was struck by one particular rule.

The professor told students to use only "gender-neutral" language. As one example, Jeffers said "humankind" should be used instead of "mankind."

"I thought this was absurd, and I wasn’t sure if she was serious," Jeffers told Campus Reform.

So Jeffers decided to test it out, and in her next essay, Jeffers used the term "mankind" instead of "humankind."

Scott later sent Jeffers an email with her grade for the second essay. Jeffers scored 39 out 50 but would have received a 40 out of 50 had she been politically correct in her language. A "specific breakdown" of points for the essay showed Jeffers deducted one point for "problems with diction (word choice)." Scott explained her reasoning for the decision in an email to Jeffers.

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. 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.

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. 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.

Scott gave Jeffers the option of revising the paper to earn additional points. The professor further informed the student that she could appeal her grade to the department chair. It's not clear, however, if Jeffers chose to do either.

Scott later sent an email to the entire class recalling “an important discussion that I had with one of our class members today about gender-neutral language." The email to the entire class explained that "word choices have consequences" and that it "goes beyond 'political correctness.'"

The email, quoted below, did not mention Jeffers by name.

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 a great deal and have consequences in terms of what we reveal about our assumptions about ourselves and others, and the world generally.

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. You are welcome to make a statement about your politics, or conscience, or beliefs by using gender-specific language in your papers, and in many cases gender-specific language is called for, when you can discern with certainty the gender of the characters and author you’re discussing. However, I’ll still have to subtract a point or two for any kind of language that refers to all people as "mankind" or readers as "him/he", for the reasons I’ve outlined carefully above.

Scott did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TheBlaze. A representative for Northern Arizona University did not return a call.

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