Alums or Alumni? Fullstack’s Commitment to Using Inclusive Language in the Classroom and Beyond
By Emily Gregor
You don’t need us to tell you that language evolves over time—it’s clear by recent events that language and usage are far from static.
Whether it’s about opting to use “hey, everyone” or “hey, y’all” instead of “hey, guys” in a greeting, capitalizing racial identities, or avoiding using ableist words like “crazy”, we think it’s important that the words we use are inclusive of everyone, which we believe equally benefits our students and staff.
The most recent example of language evolution we’ve seen in tech has been Intel Principal Engineer Dan Williams’ proposal to introduce inclusive terminology in Linux kernel’s official coding-style document.
“The scope and pace of Linux to reach new developers exceeds the ability of historical terminology defenders to describe ‘no, not that connotation,’” Dan says. “The revelation of 2020 was that black voices were heard on a global scale and the Linux kernel project has done its small part to answer that call as it wants black voices, among all voices, in its developer community.”
In his proposal, he recommends avoiding new usage of the terms “blacklist” and “slave”, replacing “blacklist” with “blocklist” or “denylist” and replacing “slave” with “secondary”, “subordinate”, “replica”, “responder”, “follower”, “proxy”, or “performer”.
We’re excited to see tech moving toward being more inclusive, which brings us to the usage of “alumni” and “alums” at Fullstack.
Origins and Usage of Alumni and Alums
We want to create a learning environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and supported, which is why we are always thinking critically about the words we use when we’re communicating in-person and virtually (learn more about the online learning experience).
Using “alums” or “alumni” to refer to a plural group of graduates may seem like an arbitrary decision, but it’s one that we at Fullstack do not take lightly.
“Alumni” is a term used predominantly across higher education. A word with Latin roots, it has traditionally represented a group of male-identifying graduates, but over time, many have seen the term take on a more neutral meaning.
(It’s worth mentioning that “alumna” refers to a singular female-identifying grad, “alumnae” refers to a group of female-identifying grads, and “alumnus” refers to a single male-identifying grad.)
Its shorter counterpart, “alums,” according to Merriam-Webster, has been in use since the 19th century and has traditionally been seen as a colloquial or informal term. Despite its informal connotations, “alums” has increasingly been seen as a gender-neutral term too.
Creating Neutral Terms
As mentioned in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “Though a few languages across the globe have no inherently gender-specific pronouns (the Native American Quechuan, for instance), English is like most other languages in its masculine bias.”
In many historically gendered languages, a neutral term is created by one of the following methods:
- Creating a brand-new term
- Using the base of the gendered terms to create a neutral term
- Using one of the gendered terms (typically the one attributed to males) as a catch-all “neutral” pleural
The third method is what we see happening with the term “alumni,” while the second is what we see happening with “alums.”
Polling Our Graduates
Based on its advice in its ongoing Style Q&A columns, the Chicago Manual of Style considers “alumni” to be a neutral plural (we use the Chicago Manual of Style to inform our editorial decisions), but we wanted to get a better sense of how our grads perceived both “alumni” and “alums”, so we ran an informal poll within our private community of Fullstack graduates.
Grads weighed in on whether or not they felt “alumni” still held a gendered meaning (and they’d be more comfortable with “alums”) or if they felt the meaning had shifted.
Of the 57 people who responded, 52 (91%) believe the meaning has shifted and that they felt comfortable with the term “alumni.” Five (9%) felt the inverse.
Internally, our results were similar.
So what does this mean? Going forward, we’re planning to continue to use “alumni” in all our formal communications, whether that’s on-site, in email messaging, in our graduate and alumni programs, or on program brochures. However, we see this conversation as ongoing.
Every year, we’ll revisit this question (just like we refine and revise our curriculum to keep it up-to-date and relevant) and continue to have conversations about new ways to make our lectures and communications more inclusive for our students and staff.
We have more polls planned and more feedback to collect. It’s an exciting time for our language and, like good students and educators, we will listen and embrace the change.