Thrive on Campus//

Our Language Teaches Just As Much — If Not More — Than Our Curricula Can

Faculty, staff, and administrators need to be intentional about what and how they communicate in order to cultivate safe, healthy, and inclusive campuses.

Ion Barbu / EyeEm / Getty Images
Ion Barbu / EyeEm / Getty Images

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

“My letter of accommodation gives me extended time on assignments. I was one day late. I told her I have a disability. I have chronic pain and anxiety. She told me to ‘find a better excuse than that.’ I left and failed the assignment.”

“Find a better excuse than that.”

What does this language communicate? What does it convey to the student about the legitimacy of her legally-afforded disability accommodations?

To me, “excuse” is ridden with negative stigma-informed judgment toward students with disabilities, rooted in the perception that disability accommodations [i] are a fraudulent manipulation or an academic crutch that deem students with disabilities as undeserving of the same grades as students without them. When this professor labeled my student’s disabilities as an “excuse,” she communicated that only some needs deserve support, and disability needs are not among them.

As faculty, we are teaching our students more than just academic content. How we show up, the way we interact, and the language we use communicates worlds about what is acceptable, appropriate, and ideal. We are in a position to serve as models for our students, and we are prime examples of what it means to be both professional and human. Language is the architect of our environment, building the norms for respect, inclusivity, and safety. Students don’t only learn from the content of our curricula, but from the words we use to teach it.

“What we know from neuroscience research is that, quite simply, words matter. The language we choose to use, the actual words themselves, sends powerful messages to ourselves and to others. Individual words can have the neurological effect of actually influencing the expression of our genes in both positive and negative ways. Positive words, for instance, can decrease the amount of physical and emotional stress we experience, whereas negative or hostile words can interrupt our brain’s functioning by releasing stress-producing hormones (Newberg & Waldman 2013),” explains Dr. Michelle Manno, Director of Diversity Initiatives at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

This necessitates a heightened awareness to the nuances of language and to our communication styles. Our pedagogical practices should support a sense of belonging and collaboration, not exclusion and judgment.

While some behavior is truly aggressive, our exclusionary actions are often microaggressions. When we unintentionally slight, offend, or isolate our students, we limit their receptivity to our teaching, but more importantly, seek to further marginalize them from the campus community.

Mandi Ginsburg, pre-doctoral intern at the University of Southern California Counseling Center, studies the impact of racial microaggressions on psychology graduate students. “Research shows that the subtle, innocuous nature of racial microagressions often results in a number of different outcomes, including depression and anxiety symptoms, the individuals questioning themselves and their perceptions, and a sense of distrust in the academic setting. Students can then carry around these experiences with them into new or different environments, which overall can impact their participation and performance in academic settings.”

When we understand that our words are not benign, we put more effort into their selection. To support well-being, mental health, and academic success, we must cultivate inclusion and truly celebrate the intersectionality of all of our students.

“Using inclusive language communicates a basic level of care and concern for another person, and demonstrates a genuine effort to provide a sense of belonging in a world that can feel isolating and dangerous, especially for those with marginalized identities. It’s imperative for all of us to be mindful of the impact our language has on others, particularly when the words we choose amplify our differences and reinforce inequities. Words have power, and I believe we have a responsibility to make choices that will have positive impacts for ourselves as well as for those around us,” says Manno.

We can cultivate more inclusive classroom and campus environments by improving our communication:

  • Misgendering a student communicates that we don’t honor their identity. Sharing gender pronouns at the start of class and referring to students by their names can support inclusivity and cultivate an identity-safe space. Likewise, using gender-neutral directives such as “you all,” “everyone,” “folks,” and “students,” is more inclusive than the gendered “you guys,” “ladies and gentlemen,” or even “guys and girls.”
  • Asking a student who is representative of a marginalized identity to speak to the experience of all people with that identity puts unnecessary pressure on the student and can serve to further isolate them (e.g. asking the only student of color in the class to comment on the viewpoint of all people of color). Try encouraging class dialogue among all students instead of singling some out.
  • Making off-hand ableist comments such as “the computer is being bipolar” or “that game was insane” perpetuates negative perceptions of mental illness. Replace ableist language with words that more accurately capture the true intention (e.g. “inconsistent,” “unpredictable,” or “unreal”).
  • Representing only white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual experiences in course examples and case studies is exclusionary. You can promote cultural relevance through the integration of intersectionality in all course materials.
  • Identifying a student as having accommodations in front of other students is forced self-disclosure and a breach of confidentiality. Discuss all accommodation needs in private, and do not request disclosure of the specific disability if a student does not offer it willingly. Students are not legally required to disclose the type of disability, only that they have afforded accommodations.
  • Making heteronormative assumptions about students is invalidating and a form of “othering” (e.g. asking men about their experiences dating women or assuming a pregnant woman has a husband). You can replace gendered relationship terms with “partner” or relate to students without commenting on dating preferences at all.

Some additional strategies to promote supportive learning environments are:

  • Make explicit statements about disability accommodations in course syllabi and provide students who have letters of accommodation with the opportunity to discuss their individual needs.
  • List campus resources such as mental health services, cultural centers, and student supports in course syllabi and reference them in class.
  • Acknowledge current social, environmental, and campus events and refer students to appropriate supports when necessary.
  • Use content warnings when course subjects may be particularly challenging for students.
  • Build course content that allows students to see reflections of themselves (i.e. expanding representation in course topics, examples, and discussions).
  • Educate students on the importance of inclusive language and supportive communication to promote a positive learning environment.
  • Establish guidelines, ground rules, or norms in the classroom surrounding communication.
  • Seek out cultural relevance and diversity trainings to enhance inclusivity in your own pedagogy.

Being intentional with our language and behavior does not mean that our communication is being policed. It doesn’t infringe on our freedom to express ideas in a manner that we choose, and it also does not suggest that we are coddling students or selectively designing the experiences that they have.  

Being intentional with our language and behavior does mean acknowledging the impact our communication can have on the well-being of our students, and being more mindful about what values we are modeling and environments we are cultivating. Being intentional with our language and behavior means educating ourselves. It dictates that we notice our own patterns of word choice and reflect on what they might be communicating about our ideals, biases, and judgments toward students and their many intersecting identities. It doesn’t mean we are perfect, or that we always say the right thing, but it certainly means we are mindfully trying.

Professors and staff have justified exclusionary language and behaviors, explaining that they “didn’t mean anything by it,” or that in the current political climate it is impossible to make every student happy without offending someone. Find a better excuse than that. 

[i] A brief note about accommodations: The higher education system was not universally designed, and accommodations are intended to provide equal access to curricula without interfering with core learning objectives. Therefore, accommodations may change the means in which students obtain knowledge, or the manner in which they demonstrate this knowledge, but they do not change the standard of learning criteria. Accommodations ensure access and equity, they are not an “excuse.”

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