In so doing, I am employing a “default rule” — a concept whose importance I have studied during my career as a law professor. A default rule fills in the gaps in a legal relationship, setting a condition that holds generally until a specific value is agreed on. In contract law, for example, if an agreement leaves out the price, courts will fill the gap with a reasonable price. With organ transplants, some countries presume by default that people want to donate their organs; others, including the United States, presume that they don’t.
I have already adopted a number of default rules in my classes. For example, I sometimes flip what it means for a student to raise their hand when I ask a question: I tell the class, “Raising your hand means you don’t want to answer.” I find that more shy people participate when I presume by default that everyone wants to speak.
In the case of personal identity, I am drawn to default pronouns that don’t assume others’ gender. Instead of assuming someone’s gender identity based on how they look or dress or act, it is more appropriate to refer to them as “they” until I know better. And whenever possible, it is important to create early opportunities to learn their chosen pronouns, which has become standard practice in academic and other settings.