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Biology students to now get teaching on social gender at the University of Copenhagen

Culture changes — Biology is complex, says associate professor.

What happens when an outrage about ‘offence culture’ calms down? When the shitstorm subsides, and the comment threads go silent? Do students and lecturers go back to the time before journalists stood lurking at the main entrances?

Not at the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), where course organisers have addressed the heated debate that arose at the department at the beginning of 2019.

Associate professor and freshwater biologist Dean Jacobsen said to several media at the time, that a student at an evaluation meeting had raised the issue that he, in his teaching, used a statistics case with the categories of men and women.

The student was Karoline Brix Andersson, and she had to look on from the sidelines while the issue went the rounds in the Danish media. It was considered the latest battle in the ongoing University of Copenhagen culture war over giving and taking offence.

Read also: »The concept of gender at the Department of Biology is old-fashioned«

During the same period, associate professor at Department of Science Education Claus Emmeche was preparing teaching material for a course in the philosophy of science for biology students. He saw a clearcut opportunity to use gender as a case in the course.

»You can take the biological view of gender, but this is far from exhaustive when it comes to human relations,« says Claus Emmeche. »Gender can in reality be illuminated from different scientific viewpoints or perspectives.«

The blind spot of biology

The course on gender came about coincidentally, because the Department of Science Education and the Department of Biology were working together on a course in the philosophy of science. Associate professor and staff representative Jes Søe Pedersen from the Department of Biology had been active in the discussion about gender at the Department of Biology, and Claus Emmeche drew him in, as lecturer, to the science theory subject.

Gender can be used to describe an important thing in science, according to Claus Emmeche, namely the relationship between cause and effect. Gender is not just about something biological, but also about something social and psychological, and it therefore becomes more difficult to prove what is what, he says.

»Do our genes determine who we are as people, which gender we identify as, and how we orientate ourselves sexually? Genes do not just do this. And it is an important point that this is much more complex.«

The course was such a success that it will be repeated in 2020. In fact, Associate Professor Jes Søe Pedersen even proposed at a LGBT+ debate meeting at the University in August 2019 that UCPH should introduce compulsory teaching on gender to all students. In this way, management can make sure that a planned LGBT+ policy at the university also reaches students, Søe Pedersen said.

»As a teacher in the field of biology, I think it is very important for the students to understand that gender can have many different angles from an academic viewpoint. And that the biological one is only one of them,« Jes Søe Pedersen said to the University Post.

Read also: The University of Copenhagen is now to get an LGBT+ policy The question is which

Gender for dummies

Biology student Karoline Brix Andersson, who in February criticised her professor’s use of gender in the statistics class, has not done the philosophy of science-course yet herself. She calls the course »a starting point« and says that she hopes for more initiatives from management:

»I’m just happy that they have taken this initiative. But I hope that other initiatives will be forthcoming that involve researchers and lecturers.«

Management could be inspired by another department, according to Karoline Brix Andersson:

The binary system of categories does not even contain the biological diversity we see in the real world.

Siff Sabinsky Brandon


»At the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, management has sent out three recommendations to teaching staff. I would really like to see this at the Department of Biology and the rest of the University of Copenhagen.«

Read also: Teaching staff at the Faculty of Humanities are now being urged to use gender-neutral terms

What about a gender course for teachers, as Karoline Brix Andersson proposes? This is an idea that Associate Professor Claus Emmeche thinks is worth considering.

»We would be happy to provide teaching to the teaching staff,« says Claus Emmeche and laughs: »I reckon that she (Karoline Brix Andersson, ed.) is right about there being a tendency for biologists to have a slightly simplistic understanding of what gender is. I think it is always good to have a multi-disciplinary perspective on concepts like gender.«

Fruit flies and chromosome tests

Siff Sabinsky Brandon is one of the biology students who took part in the gender class in the spring of 2019. She writes in a message to the University Post that she thinks that there is a need for teaching in social and biological gender on the biology programme, because many people use biological arguments in the gender debate:

»You often hear the argument that there are only XX and XY chromosomes: You are either a man or a woman. But what about those who have a defect on their Y chromosome and thereby have a female physical appearance? The binary system of categories does not even contain the biological diversity we see in the real world.«

The students welcomed the teaching, Siff writes, even though it was a bit difficult for everyone to keep their concentration on texts that are far away from the usual biology syllabus:

»In my class, people were quite cool about it. I felt that some of them were a bit bored with it, because it is difficult. They probably find it irrelevant to the field that they want to study. Other mammals, and other organisms in general, are indifferent to how you address them and to their genders.«

This is a challenge, according to Claus Emmeche, and he is therefore also working on adjusting the syllabus for the coming semester. How do you get biology students to understand the difference between social and biological gender?

You can do that by using examples that they know already. Like fruit flies, whose eyes consist of a number of smaller rods that are both determined by inheritance and by the environment. It shows that even a simple animal is more complex. »Biology students can relate to that,« says Claus Emmeche.

Another example that they have discussed in the teaching is when female athletes are categorised as men based on a chromosome or testosterone test.

»These cases show both that biology is complex, and that you genetically speaking are not always either a man or a woman, because you can have some combinations of genes that make you something different. You can also discuss whether it is fair that everyone in a sport should be put in one or the other gender category, and what categories of femininity and masculinity are at stake,« says Claus Emmeche. »This is an example of the fact that biology is not the whole story.«

Offenders ready to take offence

The teaching on social and biological gender is specifically adapted to the biology programme, and it will therefore not fit all study programmes, according to Claus Emmeche. But it is always relevant to discuss gender when you teach objectivity and the idea of equal access to knowledge in science. This idea is challenged, according to him, by a skewed balance of genders in the number of professors at the university.

But for Claus Emmeche, gender is a general human conversation that we must learn to have in a civil manner:

»What does identity mean to us, and how do we handle a sensible, respectful, and inclusive interaction with each other as individuals? People get very sensitive, and I think this applies to both sides of the debate. It can be some specific groups that feel offended, but it can also be people who have previously not been aware that they could give offence, who now suddenly feel offended by the fact that they should be more considerate.«

Even though Claus Emmeche presents Judith Butler and other feminist theorists to his students, he does not expect the students to become experts on gender theory. He would just like to provide them with enough knowledge to be able to go into depth with the field if they would like to do so.

»It may well be that biology students do not need to know the latest in queer theory or be able to account for all the variants of feminist theory. But it is important to know that in this tradition – which is both a social movement and a theoretical tradition – there have been discussions on a very high academic level on how we should conceive of the interplay between gender and society,« says Emmeche.