Teaching Spotlight – Adding a Sex & Gender Acknowledgement in BIOL 371

Irene Ballagh recently added a new element to her BIOL 371 course this past summer: a Sex & Gender Acknowledgement. When students logged onto the course Canvas site, they found the following statement:

“As a neuroscientist with a background in studying the complex links between brain and hormones, I acknowledge that a person’s gender, or what their brain tells them about their identity, is as biologically real and meaningful as any aspect of their sex (such as chromosomes or genitalia), whether these traits align or do not. I am committed to providing a welcoming environment to people of all genders, so please do take the opportunity to share your preferred pronouns if that is something you feel comfortable with (mine are she/her). If you ever have questions related to these topics, please feel free to contact me by whatever means you feel most comfortable.

In addition, please note that in this course, I will always use pronouns (such as he, she, or they) and the terms ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘non-binary person’ to refer to a person’s gender, whether or not this aligns with their sex assigned at birth, but there will be content in some modules that uses the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ in reference to aspects related to sex or sex differences in human and non-human animals.”

Below, Irene describes why she included this sex and gender acknowledgement in the course, how she did it, and what she learned along the way. She also offers some advice for anyone who might want to try it in their own course.

What was the motivation behind using this sex and gender acknowledgement statement in your course?

The motivation for this really crystallized in the summer of 2021, after participating in a workshop session about sex and gender inclusivity in biology at the annual Biology Teaching Retreat. For me, this coincided with preparation for taking over as the sole instructor for BIOL 155, which is a full year class on human biology (anatomy and physiology), and realizing just how important it was to try to get things right with this particular topic, as gender (and sex) are integral pieces to our experiences of being humans and having human bodies.

I wanted to communicate the complexity of sex and gender in humans to my students and do it in a way that was respectful and inclusive to people of all genders. I was also looking for a way to introduce this knowledge to people who might not have thought about it previously. But figuring out how to work this into the class from the start, when the actual topics of the reproductive system, sex differences and gender aren’t actually explicitly covered in class content until a couple of months into the course, was a puzzle I couldn’t find a satisfactory way to solve.

The idea for having a sex and gender acknowledgement statement came out of work I was doing over the past year as part of the Sex and Gender Inclusivity in Biology working group. An undergraduate student member of the group – Nicole Bruce – talked about their wish to see a sex and gender acknowledgement – akin to a land acknowledgement – featured in biology courses, and I had a light bulb moment: “This would be how I would bring this in to my course right from the start, making it clear that it is important, and in a way that could work for all classes, not just classes specifically about humans.”

The next course I was set to teach was BIOL 371 (Principles of Neurobiology I) in ST1 2022, and I decided to test out my first attempt at a sex and gender acknowledgement there.

How did you include this acknowledgement in your course?

I included the sex and gender acknowledgement in the BIOL 317 course in two places: in a “Welcome to the Course” page in my administration module on Canvas (this module is basically a Canvas equivalent of a Course Syllabus), and as a slide in my “Lecture 0”, a pre-recorded ~30-min talk about course logistics. I made the “Lecture 0” available to students before the first lecture in class (the kind of thing that you might put in the very first lecture of term, but I just prefer to have it pre-recorded so that the limited lecture time we get in a summer term can stay dedicated to actual content).

In both locations, the sex and gender acknowledgement came directly after my land acknowledgement. In the slides, the text is shown with a Pride Flag and an Intersex pride flag (see below).

Sex and Gender Acknowledgement slide from “Lecture 0”

What was the result?

The only specific piece of student feedback I had about this acknowledgement was really positive. A student approached me during the first week of class who was really enthusiastic that I had made the statement, and who responded really positively to the specific details that I had included about how my previous research interests in sex differences and the effects of sex steroids on brain circuits informs how I think about gender identity (as an inborn, neurobiological set of traits). This student will hopefully be doing a directed studies with me this coming semester to try to learn more about what is and isn’t known about the (neuro)biological basis of gender.

What did you learn or find surprising?

I think one of the things that maybe was surprising, or might be surprising to other people who are contemplating this, is that there really is no need to be worried about student pushback. Between a full year of BIOL 155 (which didn’t have a sex and gender acknowledgement, but did have a lot of content and examples geared toward making people more acquainted with inclusive terminology), and my most recent experience in BIOL 371, where I actually included the acknowledgement, I have never received any pushback from students about the steps I have taken to include sex and gender diversity in my courses.

What advice would you give someone who might want to do something similar in their course?

Do it! It’s easy to do. If you don’t feel comfortable with creating your own statement, Nicole has put together an amazing, really comprehensive model statement that can be used (you can find it here).

But I would also really, really encourage anyone thinking about doing this to take the time to sculpt your own specific statement, even just a lead-in to the statement based on where you are at and/or where you’re coming from (e.g. why it matters to you to take the time to acknowledge this). I think students really do appreciate the authenticity of something that clearly says that you, specifically, care enough to try, rather than having every word be perfect.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

If anyone is interested and wants to ask or discuss more about how to talk about sex and gender, or especially the biological basis of gender, please send me an email! You can reach me at iballagh@zoology.ubc.ca.

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