Boxed In


by Michele DiPietro
Executive Director for Faculty Development, Recognition and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of Mathematics
Kennesaw State University

To clear the mental space for our students' deep learning, we can start opening up the boxes that literally and figuratively constrict their experiences in our classrooms.

Taylor [not the real name] was waiting for class to start, excited. Business statistics was a favorite subject, and the professor was engaging and always made it fun. On this particular day he passed out index cards and asked students to fill them in.

"We will use our own class data to illustrate the topic for the day, the t-test for the difference of the means of two groups."

The card made its way to Taylor's desk. It asked for students' names and height, with two long blank spaces to write them in, and for their gender, with two boxes marked M and F.

Taylor struggled to contain a visceral indignation.

"Again?!? I have to deal with this gender nonsense even in stats? I thought I was safe here, hiding among numbers and abstractions! Why don't people get it? I am not a man, and I am not a woman. Where is the Other box? Maybe he didn't mean anything by it, but still! What am I going to do now? Should I just check female, the gender I was assigned at birth? Oh gosh, I can't. It's so foreign to me, I can't do that. Should I check male just to be subversive? Should I draw a third box, label it Other, and check that one? What if I get in trouble for that? What if he's transphobic? What if I am discriminated against because of it and my grade suffers? What if he shames me in front of everybody? OMG he's coming back around to collect the cards, what do I do?"

The professor collected the cards, input the data into his spreadsheet, created two boxplots, one for Male and one for Female, reproduced them on the board and launched into his explanation of the t-test.

Meanwhile, Taylor's inner monologue went something like this.

"Why are you such a chicken, Taylor?!? You should have done something! You should have protested! You are such a loser! All this self-awareness, all these big pronouncements about living the truth of your life, about not caring what people say, and then you come unglued by two checkboxes! So much for self-empowerment! You stayed into the box they put you in like the sheep you are! But what if he had…? Who cares? What could he do? Take away your birthday? Get a grip! You could still do it, you know. You could raise your hand and point out that there are more than two genders. Yeah, and than that guy from the back row would look at me with his eyes full of contempt and say why do you always have to make things about gender, uh? This isn't your women's studies class, Taylor, this is statistics, stay in your lane! That's what he would say. I can't take it, not today. When then, Taylor, when? Grow up!"

I know the details of this story because Taylor came to see me right after this class, shaken, and recounted the incident. We had interacted before, and I knew about and honored their genderqueer identity, their preferred name, especially selected to be gender ambiguous, and their preferred pronoun, they/them/theirs. Like Taylor and like modern gender theorists, many students do not see gender as a rigid male/female binary (Bornstein 1995). Some students actively define their own gender and identify as such. Some claim both genders at once. And some reject gender altogether and identify as agender. During our conversation, I made sure to inquire about the t-test. Taylor could not recall anything about the content covered that day. This learning disruption is consistent with research from the learning sciences, metacognition, and stereotype threat. Renn (1998) points out that many LGBTQ students can spend significant time monitoring their speech, diverting mental energies away from the content. Steele & Aronson (1995) describe emotional arousal as the mediating mechanism that reduces the amount of instructional cues students are able to attend to and causes inability to process information.

This was the first time I had to grapple with the possibility that the very epistemology of my profession—grouping people in boxes, classifying and counting them, measuring them, quantifying the differences, making predictions—can be oppressive to many. To clear the mental space for our students' deep learning, we can start opening up the boxes that literally and figuratively constrict their experiences in our classrooms. For example,

  • Ask students about their preferred names. Many institutions already ask for that information in their main student data base, but it is not always fed to other data bases, such the learning management system. This frustrates students who feel the inquiry was only perfunctory. Asking them again benefits all students, including students who go by their middle name, or by their initials.
  • Ask students what their preferred pronouns are. Using pronouns different from he and she might be uncomfortable initially, but eventually they become familiar. A pronoun that is gaining popularity is the singular they. For the purists who feel that is an improper use of the English language, it might be worth noting that it has been used since Chaucer and Shakespeare, and that the American Dialect Society declared it the 2015 Word of the Year (ADS 2016). The KSU Office of LGBTIQ Student Retention Services has a helpful guide to using gender neutral pronouns at
  • Let your students know that you are open to learning more about gender identity. Consider telling your students a story about a time you realized that you were (or were not) gender inclusive in your classroom. This kind of vulnerability creates space and good will.


American Dialect Society (2016). 2015 Word of the Year is singular "they". Accessible online at

Bornstein, K. (1995) Gender outlaw: On men, women, and the rest of us. Vintage.

Renn, K. (1998). "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in the college classroom." In R. Sanlo (Ed.), Working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender college students: A handbook for faculty and administrators (231-238). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Steele, C.M. & Aronson, J. (1995).  Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.


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