University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Teacher of the Year draws inspiration from acting: »I often improvise«

This year's teaching award at the University of Copenhagen goes to Associate Professor of Anthropology Cecilie Rubow. She likes to teach in a knit cap pulled down over her ears, and the students love her academic activism. But she does not see herself as a woman with a cause.

Cecilie Rubow is the authority in the room, standing in front of the 75 anthropology students and dishing out a a few quick instructions. But beyond that, it’s actually a bit difficult to see what it is that is differentiating her from the students. Especially if you close your eyes for a moment and listen to the energetic flow of speech from the blackboard:


* PhD and associate professor at Department of Anthropology

*Does research on environmental anthropology and human responses to climate change. She has done fieldwork in Denmark and on Cooks Island.

*Author of several books. Most recently, ‘Indendørsmenneskets natur’ [The Nature of Indoor Man, ed.] , an introduction to new anthropological thinking about ecological crises.

*She has taught classes since 1996

*Has five children in her blended family and lives in the North Copenhagen suburb of Brede.

»I find that he has some formulations here that are not quite clear,« Cecilie Rubow says with reference to the anthropological theorist Tim Ingold.

»So, what is the man actually talking about? He does things with language that transcend the boundaries between science and art,« she continues.

»I have some days when I have no inkling of what it is that he’s saying. But there is a meaning to it. Ingold places anthropology between art and science.«

She takes off her knit cap and flings out her arms. Almost in anticipation. The students breathe a sigh of relief. Some even laugh. They see eye-to-eye.

Her ability to see things just like the students do, is one of the reasons why 47 anthropology students nominated Cecilie Rubow for this year’s Harald, the University of Copenhagen’s teaching award.

The students need to wonder what kind of a person I am

Cecilie Rubow


The nomination was by a large group of students who started on the anthropology programme in 2022. Cecilie Rubow has taught the year cohort on three out of five subjects and has therefore become a central figure for them.

»She is an attentive teacher who manages to set up a safe and open space. We think that Cecilie Rubow sees eye-to-eye with us as students. This is something that we experienced in particular when we had her as instructor for the seminar classes,« it states in the recommendation.

»She uses herself in her teaching in a way that — without becoming private — through her own humanity softens our encounter with ‘the new world’ at university,« it also states.

Impurity is disorder

The day after the lecture on ‘Anthropological Perspectives 1’, the University Post turns up at Cecilie Rubow’s office at the old municipal hospital buildings on CSS campus. Her office is the prototype of a classic research office; books from floor to ceiling and the generic sit-stand desk. But one thing stands out: The knitted hat.

What is the thing with the knit cap?

»Well, I just love wearing a hat. I sit here working with my knit cap on. I often sit and write with it on. It sets up a kind of concentration,« she says.

»Sometimes I forget to take it off when I go to the classroom. And then I discover that I’m still wearing a hat. It’s a bit strange. In fact, over time I’ve started to use it actively as a way to make students wonder what kind of person I am.«

In this way Cecilie Rubow mimics the method used by anthropologists when examining a culture or phenomenon in fieldwork. It is a kind of teaching mantra, which she has practiced for 27 years.

Cecilie Rubow is not interested in getting 70 students educated who, somehow, all have exactly the same skills or orientation to the world, she says. She is interested in educating for diversity. Anthropology is diverse. The world is diverse. And we have a labour market that requires this diversity.

Cecilie has an understated sense of humour

Lova Holm, student

She has no qualms about experimenting with her teaching and crossing traditional teaching boundaries. Or setting off a kind of inner activation.

»I remember one specific incident when Cecilie came in for classes, took off her shoes and slammed them up on the lectern,« says Gertrud Anker-Møller Damgaard, a third-semester anthropology student.

The action was to illustrate a theory about cleanliness, disorder, and things out of place, and that’s exactly how students were activated. First the wonder, and the questioning. Then the clarification.

»It was a really good gimmick that made for a more vibrant teaching process. She is just good at putting theory into practice so our readings fit into our daily life,« adds Gertrud Anker-Møller Damgaard.

Cake is the way forward

Cecilie Rubow has always worn the same type of clothes. She looks like someone who has just got back from fieldwork with practical trousers and hiking shoes. It is a kind of natural uniform. And there are no pretences here.

Can’t your teaching become just a bit TOO jovial?

»Yes, of course I think about that. And I’m always wondering whether we’re working together or not. Do I have their attention? Are they well prepared? All this is crucial,« Cecilie Rubow says, and continues:

»And I do consider how far I can go. But I have also discovered that I can go quite far. After all, it is the students that build up your authority. As long as I can feel that they are building up my authority, then I can meet them halfway. But this requires both openness and generosity.«

The corona lockdown years took something from the joy of Cecilie Rubow’s teaching, she says. She could feel that a couple of year cohorts had been negatively affected by lectures being reduced to screens and virtual slides. The study environment suffered. This had to be rectified, so when the associate professor took on more subjects, something new had to happen.

A bring-cake rotation scheme for the classroom teaching was just one of the initiatives she threw herself into. And it bore fruit.

»It has been so nice to have Cecilie as a teacher in the small classes. She built up a very particular contact with us. She started a cake rotation, so you were actually looking forward to going to university on a cold afternoon,« says third-semester student Clara Heilmann.

Mission improvisation

Even though Cecilie Rubow has many years of experience as a teacher, she can still remember the time she first took on her calling.

Can you remember your first classes?

»It was right after I graduated from Aarhus University. I had a course on rituals. I myself was interested in ritual theory, and I have done fieldwork on rituals in Denmark.«

Cecilie is just one of a kind

Victor Rappenborg Kjærsgaard, student

»I remember there was a moment when I was energized. A kind of power, not something esoteric, but which was like: Now I’m the one who has it. Now I’m the one that sets the framework. Now I have the obligation to make this work.«

Cecilie Rubow does not have a fixed set of pedagogical principles. She strives for ideals of participation and commitment. But apart from that it’s mostly learning by doing. When she sees others teaching, she may copy their techniques or forms of collaboration.

»Teaching is not an announcement. Teaching is a conversation. I get my inspiration from many places, including from actors, where the material is memorized. I am well prepared. I can incorporate the material in this way. And if the conversation works, and I can feel or hear that the students are involved, then I can also get new ideas along the way and think out loud. And I often improvise.«

»I haven’t always thought everything through completely. When I put the shoes on the table, it was because I happened to have an extra pair of shoes with me, and it therefore occurred to me that I could use them as an illustration. Sometimes I may go off on a tangent, and I myself may have doubts about whether my example holds water,« says Cecilie Rubow.

The students don’t doubt her for a moment: Her method does hold water. And if you ask one of the students, Lova Holm, other instructors could learn from Cecilie Rubow:

»Cecilie has an understated sense of humour For this to be good learning, we as students must feel safe. It’s as if many other lecturers don’t take enough of this part into account. An auditorium is also a social space.« xxx

When research meets activism


The University of Copenhagen’s annual Harald Prize is named after Harald Bohr, and is awarded at the university’s commemoration ceremony in November to honour good and inspiring teaching. The award is a big porcelain horned owl, donated by porcelain manufacturer Royal Copenhagen, and decorated each year by a new Danish artist. The recipient also gets DKK 25,000 from the University of Copenhagen’s General Foundation.


The University Post reporter points to an award hanging on the associate professor’s notice board. Last year, Cecilie Rubow was honoured by the Danish Ethnographic Society for her ability to bring anthropological knowledge into play in the public debate. She got the communication prize in the wake of the publication of the textbook ‘Indendørsmenneskets natur’ [’The Nature of Indoor Man’, ed.] The book explores how people’s indoor existence has an impact on our overall understanding of nature and how we deal with the world’s ecological crises.

If you do a Google search on Cecilie Rubow, you get the impression that she is a prominent voice in the public debate. She is, she says. But she does not want to be labelled an ‘activist’.

»The research topic that I have been working on since 2009 is an extremely important one, that so many sectors and people are interested in. In this way, I find myself in a field that is politicized. But this doesn’t make me an activist.«

She understands that there is increased attention on her. Her previous research on death and on the theology of everyday life was not politicized to the same extent. So every time she gets an invitation from the media, she assesses it thoroughly and then decides whether it is compatible with her practice.

Sometimes she accepts participation in activist contexts. This is if it is in places and ways where she can contribute with her professionalism – preferably in completely new ways that can challenge both the academic and the activist space.

The students highlight Cecilie Rubow’s activist side. She made a name for herself by giving a speech at the People’s Climate March, for example. Or when she, during the municipal elections campaign, appeared in a video where she stressed the importance of the green agenda.

»Cecilie is just one of a kind. She is incredibly inspiring when she uses her own examples from her research. She can be both comical and serious. You can tell that she is passionate about the subject, and there is something activist about her,« says Victor Rappenborg Kjærsgaard, who is studying anthropology on his first semester.