At Northern Arizona University--one of my alma maters, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say--an English professor deducted a point from an essay when the student used the word ''mankind" instead of a preferred gender-neutral noun, such as humanity, human-kind, or people. The professor claims that "mankind" only represents men and presents linguistic assumptions about the power dynamics of the world that are not accurate or adequately representative of those being discussed. I'm sure Neil Armstrong would be surprised to hear that he should've never uttered those famous words, "...one giant leap for mankind," because he was only referring to men and, therefore, must have been one of America's most famous misogynists. I wonder if the many female astronauts that followed Armstrong's passion for space travel would concur with the NAU professor.
While the professor is correct that our language should always strive to be specific and useful for our audience's understanding, she (the professor is female, by the way) also seems very interested in protecting her own level of authority over language.
In a letter to her class, she begins by saying, "Dear Students," which clearly sets up a power structure by segregating herself as "professor" from everyone else as "students." If she truly believed in equality among people groups and breaking down barriers that signify imbalanced and hegemonic influence, she should have used something like "Dear Fellow Course Inhabitors." At the end of that letter, she furthers her desire to demonstrate authority by adding the ridiculously pompous "President's Distinguish Teaching Fellow" to her signature, a title she proudly uses to further separate herself from not only her students, but all other teachers. The professor then uses the word "we" in many of her points of defense for her class policy on gender-neutral language, but is unclear as to whom "we" refers. In some cases she means those in her class, in others she seems to mean those who are NAU faculty, and in still others she means those affiliated with the Modern Language Association. However, the word "we" is quite complex. After all, I have an affiliation with NAU, am a fellow English professor, and am also a current member of the MLA, and I don't agree with her criticism of the term "mankind." So who exactly is the "we" she is talking about? In psychologist and language expert James Pennebaker's excellent book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, there are five distinct uses for "we." Therefore, one could deduce that the student's use of "mankind," which has only two potential meanings--all men and all people--is actually a more linguistically clear word than the teacher's preference for "we."
What is also intriguing in this scenario is that the student she penalizes happens to be female. Therefore, the young lady who wrote the essay was obviously not offended by "mankind"--she chose it. This creates another power dynamic for the professor to exploit because she places her own female desire for gender neutrality above another female's, implying that the student's female perspective of the world must be incorrect, and the professor's must be correct. Thus, females must not only fight against the institutionalized sexism propagated by men; they must also adhere to a specific female perspective from which no deviation is allowed without reprimand.
Lastly, the professor is clear in telling her students that they must look beyond "preset positions and ideologies" in her course. This assumes, of course, that the professor does not have any preset positions or ideologies herself. Quite a convenient position this professor has created for herself, I must say. She can never be challenged because she has placed herself in a position of power for which no criticism is possible.
But the professor isn't the only one at fault here; let's also hold this student responsible for her actions. The professor, wisely, told the students that she expected gender-neutral language on all writing assignments, even specifically citing "mankind" as a word to be avoided. The consequences of inappropriate language would be a deduction of points on the paper. Therefore, the teacher made her requirements clear, and the student chose to challenge them. The student has every right to do so, and I commend her for doing so. However, she must also take her medicine and accept that she disobeyed a class directive. As foolish as the teacher's rule is, she is in charge of the class, and it is up to students to adhere to those stated guidelines or risk penalty.
So there's something here to learn for everyone involved. Students need to follow the rules of the course. And teachers should avoid making stupid rules for students to follow.