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Inclusive speech: Teaching staff at Humanities now being urged to use gender neutral terms

Forms of address — In an email to teaching staff, the management of the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen has sent out three pieces of advice to ensure that non-binary and trans people feel included in the classrooms. One of them is to use their name rather than a pronoun when the staff member has to talk about a student in the third person.

Phrases like ‘culture of taking offence’ and ‘Offence debate’ – ‘krænkelsesdebat’ have gone mainstream on Danish media and are often associated with cases at the University of Copenhagen. There was the story of tutor-organised parties at the Faculty of Law, where theme-based costumes were perceived as insensitive or as cultural appropriation. And there was the story of the biology student who felt misunderstood because she had encouraged her teacher consider his words when it came to speaking gender in statistics class. You can get a full overview of how the University of Copenhagen ended up in the ‘offence debate’ here.

It is not just a head of department or a 50+ year-old head of studies who has cooked this up. We want to listen to the young people

Mette Sandbye, head of department at IKK

And now we may be starting it all over: At the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies (IKK), head of department Mette Sandbye and head of studies Inger Damsholt recently sent an email to all the department’s teaching staff with three pieces of advice on how to best ensure the inclusion of minority people in the classroom. The email states:

Dear teaching staff at IKK

The semester and classes are now beginning. Fortunately, we have a great variety of students, including binary and non-binary trans-students. And this is new for many of us. In order to make sure they are included, we would like to communicate a bit of good advice to the teaching staff:

  1. Please send an email out to the students before starting a new course, asking them to make you aware of it if they use a name other than what they are officially enrolled as. This helps you avoid using a name that the student may feel uncomfortable with at, say, a roll call.
  2. Avoid making call outs/summons to groups of students with gendered terms like: ladies/girls or lads/boys. By using neutral terms about your students, you contribute to a more inclusive teaching environment.
  3. Use preferably their name rather than pronoun when you have to talk about a student in the third person if you are in doubt about what they use themselves. This is particularly considerate if you mention them in a teaching context.


As mentioned above, these issues are new and strange to many of us. The most important thing is that we all think about it a bit, and that we are ready to listen, and to signal inclusion.

best regards Inger and Mette

According to Mette Sandbye, she and Inger Damsholt – after having been in dialogue with a student counsellor – made a quick decision to send the email out to teaching staff before the start of the semester, as the department does not have guidelines on how to avoid situations where non-binary and trans persons do not feel included.

Read also: Ten little Indians and then there were none: how do you do intro camp without causing offence in 2019? 

»Through the years there have been some trans people on our courses, and there are now more of them. This is new to us, and there are no general guidelines on how we should deal with it, so we think it’s OK to address our employees,« says Mette Sandbye.

Even though it is Mette Sandbye’s and Inger Damsholt’s names that are listed as senders on the email, it is not them that brought up the subject or found out themselves that the problem should be articulated and prevented:

»We have some students who think that we could be better at handling this – It is not just a head of department or a 50+ year-old head of studies who has cooked this up. We want to listen to the young people,« says the head of department.

Girls and boys voices in the choir

In the email staff are advised to avoid making »call outs/summons to groups of students with gendered terms like: ladies/girls or lads/boys«. Mette Sandbye and Inger Damsholt recommend the use of gender-neutral terms instead.

Not all of the teaching staff reckon it will be easy however. In the subjects ‘choir direction’ and ‘intro choir’ that are offered at musicology, it is, according to teaching associate professor Niels Græsholm, difficult to avoid gendered terms.

When you are working with choir direction, you use gendered terms. So how do we find a solution to this?

Niels Græsholm, teaching associate professor in musicology

»I think it’s a good idea that we make sure that we do not exclude anybody, but there are some dilemmas in this, that make it a bit amusing. When you are working with choir direction, you use gendered terms. So how do we find a solution to this?«

The gendered terms he refers to include groups of voices which are divided up according to biological gender. It is thereby easier to call the voice groups that the biological women sing (‘alto’ and ‘soprano’) for a combined term like girls or ladies, and the same with ‘male voices’ (‘bass’ and ‘tenor’).

Can’t you just call the voice groups what they are called, instead of calling, say, the alto and soprano for ladies/girls?

»Oh yes, but then I have to say two things every time. I think that the dialogue should be open enough to be able to ask the person who feels offended what they think. This is darned difficult,« says Niels Græsholm, who for fun has encouraged his Facebook friends to share their ideas on how the voice groups can be described using gender-neutral terms. He says that a recurring suggestion is to call the types of voices ‘men’s and women’s voices’, but this, however, does not seem to be able to accommodate non-binary.

Despite the practical challenges with some of the terms on the musicology courses, the email authors say that they have received positive feedback from teachers who find it »sensible« and »about time«.