What’s in a Name?

Upperclassmen. It’s a term people use on a regular basis to describe juniors, seniors, and sometimes sophomores. But have you ever thought that it might sound a little elitist? “Upperclassmen” is a term that suggests members of a higher class and those who identify as men. It’s akin to using the term “man” to refer to all of humankind, such as “when man first walked on the earth.”

Should we change this language? Or is it so ingrained in our culture that its elitist connotation has been lost, and students don’t actively think about it when they use the term, so it’s not a problem? For a project at the Women’s and Gender Resource Center, I researched Dickinson’s peer institutions to see if any of them had instituted class- and gender-neutral terms to use instead of “upperclassmen.” Yale University has changed their language in official documents and policies from “freshmen” to “first-year” and “upperclassmen” to “upper-level students.” (Dickinson already uses first-year, rather than freshman.) I found it interesting that, besides “upper-level students,” I found no other alternative mentioned besides continuing to use “juniors” and “seniors.” Yale, and other universities that followed suit, received some backlash from those who felt the college was trying to be the language police, but Yale clearly wrote in their statement that they are not intending to police anybody’s language; the switch in terms is meant for official university documents to make the atmosphere more inclusive for everyone.

What does it mean to switch to a gender- and class-neutral replacement for “upperclassmen”? It would mean erasing the elitist label and would create a more inclusive environment on our campus. But, is it necessary? Would it only be changed on official college documents? Perhaps it’s just a phrase everyone uses and they don’t mean for it to be exclusive; does that matter? Please take our survey and share your thoughts.

Written by Angelica Mishra ’19, WGRC student worker and Secretary of the Dickinson College AAUW chapter