5. Teaching Queering Physics

An Agenda for Research and Practice

In: STEM of Desire

Being a professor of gender in engineering and information technology at a university of applied sciences, I am always pondering the meanings of gender and diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For instance, I challenge the predominant binary social attributions of technological competence and gender, and I integrate the findings into my teaching of basic physics. In addition, I study processes of naturalization and normalization in physics education. To me it is obvious to scrutinize engineering from the perspectives of gender studies and queer theory.1 For example, even today, in mechanical and electrical engineering, women and young people with nonbinary gender identities are still not accepted as “proper” members of the scientific culture. Homosexuality, too, seems to threaten the masculinity presumably inherent in legitimate technical actors. Normative ideas about users are inscribed in the artefacts of engineering science. Study materials use masculine language and orient their examples almost exclusively towards “normal” white male biographies, and thus address only one segment of the engineering student population.

At the same time, at our university and, as far as I know, at other universities in Germany, hardly any of the current discussions and considerations about the relevance of gender exceed equity initiatives for women in STEM, which mostly reinscribe conventional norms of knowing and being. However, in my research project, teaching queering physics, I am studying methods and techniques for teaching both physical knowledge and competencies of questioning representations and norms of physical talent, technological competence, heroes of the history of physics, presumptions of heterosexual normativity, hegemonic masculinity, and much more. This project brings to the fore norms and normative processes, as well as the resulting multiple exclusions of some people from STEM subjects, where these insights can be integrated into recommendations on teaching. In this chapter I wish to outline an agenda for research and practice of teaching queering physics, and to inspire other scholars and teachers to fruitfully bridge the gap between queer and deconstructive theories on one side and traditional positivist sciences on the other side.

Teaching queering physics while teaching physics

As a former professor for gender and interdisciplinary studies in pedagogy, I used to teach theories and research results from gender studies and queer theory in courses for students of science and science education at Darmstadt Technical University. Now, as a physics professor at Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts, I teach students of electrical, mechanical, and industrial engineering. My students are mostly male with diverse ages, education and/or work experiences, first languages, nationalities, and ethnic and social backgrounds. They might differ in their sexual orientation and gender identity, too, but they keep these secret, because LGBT+2 issues remain a great taboo in engineering in Germany.

Teaching queering physics in (under)graduate science and science education is not limited to adding knowledge about queer theory to the curriculum of future engineers and science teachers. Teaching queering physics is an act of explicitly or implicitly translating complex theories and deconstructive methods to students of science education and science. This will enable students to reflect on their understandings of physics and physical knowledge and on their participation in the (re)production of “(hetero)normative facts,” and by doing so to enact and engage in critical science literacy. The first and foremost aim of my physics course is to offer an inviting, open, and encouraging lecture format. Therefore, I ask myself the challenging question: How can I teach my first-semester engineering students queering physics while I teach them experimental physics in a four-hour lecture? How can they be enabled to critically question and transcend norms around gender, sexuality, desire, narratives, cultures, facts, and other powerful social categories that shape hegemonic presentations of physics and physicists? I treat these critical abilities as competencies of queering that are needed by all science and engineering students, and certainly those in my own discipline of physics.

In this chapter I offer some examples from my current teaching practice and exploratory research in a field I term “applied gender research in physics” or, more specifically, “teaching queering physics.” The queering strategies I have been using so far could be described as scrutinizing what is supposed to be normal and what is invisible or silenced, making the familiar strange, reflecting on the discursive production of physical knowledge, and revealing narratives of physics as hegemonic presentations. At best these strategies will turn my physics course now and then into a space welcoming queer perspectives and identities, as well as into a training environment for queering thinking. Bridging the gap between traditional positivist sciences and queer and deconstructive theories poses several questions. First, can deconstructive approaches that perceive gender and sexuality as performative and material-discursive entities be applied to physics? Second, can we translate these reflections into empirical research? Third, can the resulting findings inspire a constructive treatment of gender and sexual heterogeneity in the training of science and engineering students, as well as of future science teachers? And finally, can these considerations be translated into teaching practice? My answer to all four questions is “yes,” on the following grounds.

Welcoming queer perspectives and identities

German discussions of best practices of “gender and diversity in academic teaching” in STEM fields are unconvincing (e.g., Leicht-Scholten & Schroeder, 2014). The discussions do not relate to a gender-informed pedagogy: They do not understand gender in a deconstructive way, nor are they up-to-date with queer theory and other intersecting theoretical discourses. They take knowledge of physical science rather half-heartedly into consideration and do not challenge the two-gender hegemony. Discussions on queering science and science education hardly exist (Balzter, Klenk, & Zitzelsberger, 2017). One rarely finds detailed suggestions for physics that exceed a deficit-model perspective that advocates for progressive, student-centered teaching and the addition of historical and contemporary female role models. Therefore, my first steps to examine the intersections of physics education and queer theory were in a 2013 workshop designed for future science teachers, entitled Queer Physics, which I taught as a visiting professor at the Darmstadt Technical University, in Germany.3

The Queer Physics workshop is a case study for curriculum development in teaching queer physics, where I for the first time included lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, questioning, and intersex identities and perspectives in a course on gender and physics (Götschel, 2015). Showing that deconstructive and queer analytical perspectives can indeed be applied to physics and physics teaching methods was the concern of the workshop. My introductory presentation explicated the theoretical foundations of deconstructive gender studies, queer theory, and new materialism theory. I familiarized the participants with a new systematization of gender research on physics consisting of people, cultures, and the knowledge of physics. The students in science teacher training then learned about emerging research results and international activities from LGBT+ points of view. Afterwards, the participants worked in small groups with selected materials such as journal articles and an American Physical Society (APS) report on changing the workplace and education climate in physics for LGBT+ people (Simmons & Barthelemy, 2013). Having concerned themselves particularly with the APS report, students discussed the political implications of workplace culture in physics.

Spontaneous feedback offered by the participants and a formal seminar evaluation underlined the importance of integrating queer perspectives into physics. The students even requested a follow-up seminar to study Barad’s (2012) queer performativity of nature in more detail. This clearly demonstrates how looking into queer knowledge can motivate students to learn (more) about physics, in this case quantum physics, and current theories of gender studies. To apply deconstructive gender studies, queer theory, and new materialism theory to the philosophy of quantum mechanics requires quite a bit of background knowledge that cannot possibly be dealt with entirely in such a short workshop. Yet, these considerations are interrelated with two issues that need more systematic coverage in teacher training: presenting challenging views on (a) physics as a field of human endeavor which produces sedimented knowledge, and (b) the general idea of heteronormativity.

Teaching queering physics, however, is “more fundamental and foundational than the laudable, but limited, goal of including [LGBT+] … students/identities/subjectivities/perspectives” (Fifield & Letts, 2014, p. 399). It is to move beyond the inclusion of diversity and toward the analysis of how physics contributes to the production of hierarchical differences. Teaching queering physics is about the question of how future teachers and scientists can confront themselves with deconstructive approaches and empirical research that perceive gender, sexuality, desire, and identity as performative and discursive entities. Moreover, it is the act of teaching the critical strategy of scrutinizing the normative; the cultural narratives of physics, such as its power over nature or its fundamental usefulness; and stories of the outstanding physicist and the proper engineer.

Teaching queering: A Theoretical framework

Before we can go into the arguments put forward for queering physics, we need to systemize the areas of physics that can be scrutinized from queering perspectives and to develop a theoretical background in deconstructive gender studies, queer theory, and new materialism. At a glance, physics and queer theory do not strike one as having much of anything in common. In the hegemonic understanding of physics, no gender identity, sexual orientation, or desire is associated with either the objects of investigation in physical science or with their descriptions via mathematical formulas and principles (Götschel, 2010). It is obvious that this opinion is not true. For 40 years, interdisciplinary studies have been looking at the interplay between gender and physics. And yet, this point has to be scrutinized more systematically. So far, hardly any studies include queer theory and only a few studies include deconstructive theories (e.g., Hasse, 2000; Pettersson, 2013). Since physicists have gender and sexual identities, it does make sense to inquire about the democratic principles underlying equal opportunities for people in physics from a queering point of view. Furthermore, in (Western) society, physical scientists encounter a bias towards a two-gender hegemony (Kessler & McKenna, 1978), heteronormativity (Warner, 1991) and mononormativity4 (Pieper & Bauer, 2005).

In addition to the people in physics, we can examine its nonhuman actors, cultures, narratives, analogies, terms, and facts from queering perspectives. Physics is a community of practitioners with a hegemonic masculinist and heteronormative image dominated by heroes rather than heroines. Therefore, more and more empirical studies analyze the culture of physics and investigate scientific institutions such as laboratories, research groups, subsections of physics, and academic societies and organizations (e.g., Hasse & Trentemöller, 2008; Traweek, 1992); and the way physics is perceived by the public, presented in the media, and narrated at conferences and in textbooks (e.g., Erlemann, 2015; van der Veen & Cook-Gumperz, 2010). In (under)graduate teaching too, as this chapter will show, questions about binary thinking and heteronormativity in the culture of physics are relevant. Moreover, since the knowledge of physics is developed by human actors examining the material world, social standards, relations, and conceptions of normality enter into physical knowledge production (Götschel, 2011). In this context, we can ask how binary conceptions of diverse sexes, sexualities, genders, and desires influence the way we construct, experience, and understand the world. Additionally, quantum physicists discovered the indefiniteness and (as Barad, 2007, would call it) queerness5 of matter, showing that nature, and with it the object of physical observation itself, refuses separateness and, therefore, reacts fundamentally queerly.

Within the context of physics, deconstructive gender studies examine the role gender plays in terms of people, culture, and knowledge production (Götschel, 2011). Gender is no longer seen as a binary, stable biological or cultural entity. Rather, it is a culturally constructed event created via repeated, citational, performative actions (Butler, 1990). This view (a) questions the tradition in gender studies assuming a differentiation between the biological sex and social gender, and (b) makes material-physical gender also available for a discourse-theoretical analysis. Taking a “linguistic turn”—in other words, taking the efficacy of language and discourse seriously—deconstructive gender researchers examine, on the one hand, the production of the binary gender identities “male”/“female” in the process of performativity and, on the other hand, how the materiality of sex is sedimented by performative, citational repetitions and solidified in its meaning.

Reflecting on queering physics also means considering the social significance of what Butler (1990) termed the heterosexual matrix. Western society maintains a two-gender system with unambiguous and unchangeable identities: One is either male or female. Socially and culturally speaking, (anatomical) sex, (social) gender, and sexual desire are each seen as binary entities and mutually related to each other (Butler, 1993). Within this ordered system, sexual identity places people in socially unequal positions, and sexuality, as well as mononormative, heteronormative erotic desire, decides whether an individual is socially accepted or stigmatized. Sex, gender, sexuality, and desire are critically investigated in queer theory (Krass, 2003). Here deconstructive critiques of the traditional understanding of “gender as a part of the essential self” are combined with LGBT+ studies, which conceive of sexual behavior and sexual identities as social constructs. Sexuality and desire are no longer viewed as a matter of one’s personal interest but as powerful political/social categories regulating and channeling people, giving or denying them rights and privileges (Hark, 2010). Queer theory questions normality, normativity, and deviation in relation to sex, gender, sexuality, and desire and includes the queer reading of “texts” and discourses, as well as a theoretical reflection on queerness itself.

Both gender researchers and physicists look at bodies: The former study human bodies, the later are predominantly concerned with physical, nonliving, material bodies. Consequently, the restrictive binary system of human identity in a broader sense must be taken into account. Following Czollek, Perko, and Weinbach (2009) and Degele (2008), I view queer theory as a cognitive movement that challenges the normative concepts of identity, takes a closer look at heterosexuality and heteronormativity, includes further regulative social constructs, and advances an open view on identity. From this pluralistic-queer standpoint, the identity of physical bodies can be seen as undetermined and inconclusive, a view which questions normative processes and standards.

Furthermore, we need to understand that nonhuman, material bodies develop in processes of materialization. New materialism theory (Alaimo & Hekman, 2008) stimulates these considerations by challenging the separation between nature and culture in Western societies. To my mind, new materialism links up to the deconstructive concepts of sedimentation and naturalization of sex and extends this performative-theoretical notion of matter with considerations about the event-like character and materialization of physical matter in quantum mechanics (Barad, 2007).6 Materialization therefore is a particularly adaptable aspect of gender studies in physics. In recent years, this approach also brought about a “material turn” in the social and cultural sciences, that is, researchers attending to agencies of material objects in their studies.7

New materialism theory conceives of phenomena or matter as active entities capable of action and change, not preceding their interactions but emerging through them. In this context Barad (2007) speaks of agential realism. Her theory covers the “epistem-onto-logical” interrelationship between knowing and being, as well as political and ethical issues.8She follows Niels Bohr (1931) in his physical-philosophical version of quantum mechanics.9 In Bohr’s so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, the observable, unusual behavior of elementary particles in comparison to macrophysics only comes into being while being observed. Barad takes the matter one step further, describing the intra-active process which creates the materiality of both the scientist and the physical object during a physical experiment. Similar to discursive practices in an intersubjective process, material practices, too, bring about materiality in intra-active processes. According to Barad, such material intra-actions need to be included in a queer physical theory along with the creation of materiality through discursive performativity (Barad, 2007). In addition, her deliberations exemplify the effect that insights gained via gender studies in physics have on transdisciplinary gender studies.

Queering physics narratives

In order to relate physics, gender, desire, and social norms to each other it makes sense to examine the lack of diversity among the scientists who are portrayed in stories of the advancement of physics. Only a few studies have addressed this issue, and those have focused primarily on the role of women and ethnic minorities in physics. Apart from a few Asian physicists, it is predominantly white, straight, middle-class male researchers whose contributions have been recognized in the annals of history, despite the image of physics as objective and universal. For example, material bodies, their physical characteristics, and associated natural laws have been named almost exclusively after white male actors. One of the few exceptions are bosons. These elementary particles were named after the (British) Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose to honor his contributions to quantum physics (James, 2004). Another example is the so-called Randall-Sundrum models (also known as the five-dimensional warped geometry theory on the fundamental forces of the universe) developed by the U.S. physicists Lisa Randall and Raman Sundrum. Donna Strickland is only the third female to receive the renowned Nobel Prize (2018) for her achievements in physics, after Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). Michael Faraday is another rare exception. His working-class background played an important role in his innovative contribution to electromagnetism (Whitten, 2001).

These historical accounts tell much about the concept of the successful predominantly white, straight, middle-class male physicist. On one hand it reflects that women, working-class minorities, and people of color hardly had access to physics education for centuries—a tradition that left its mark until today (Seymour & Hewitt, 1994). On the other hand, these accounts ignore the work of women and minorities in the field who have made important contributions to physics (Byers & Williams, 2006; Yount, 1998). I know of no records on gender and sexual minorities, namely lesbian, gay, trans*, or intersex researchers, who have earned a place in the history of physics. Similarly, I have found no sources that document any out LGBT+ researchers in university physics departments in Germany. In the United States, the case is different: APS, the largest worldwide organization of physicists, takes the issue of gender and sexual minorities increasingly seriously. In addition to programs for women and minorities, the society recently started a program for LGBT physicists to work toward “a more inclusive physics community” (APS, 2017, para. 2).

Having excluded these lives for a long time, the heteronormative historical perspective on physics is coming under fire. Only after her death did it become known that Sally Ride, a popular astrophysicist and astronaut, had spent 27 years of her private and working life with educator Tam Elizabeth O’Shaughnessy. Astronomer and science journalist Lisa Grossmann (2012) contemplates the significance of Sally Ride’s sexual orientation:

Ride was one of my childhood heroes. I dressed as her for Halloween when I was aged eight and my lifelong passion for space was first budding. Ride’s legacy is mostly one of inclusion: bringing more women into science, encouraging girls to think they can do anything. … And I felt that same sense of recognition when my girlfriend read me this line from Ride’s obituary, that she was “survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.” … She was neither out nor deeply in the closet, it seems. Ride doesn’t appear to have kept her partnership with O’Shaughnessy particularly secret. They worked together and wrote books together. Would they have legally married if they could? We may never know. But Ride’s sex was visible in a way that her sexuality wasn’t. (paras. 3, 5, 9)

Other physical scientists are working to change the conditions that constrain possibilities to a posthumous coming-out like Sally Ride’s. Instead, they actively campaign for LGBT+ rights and visibility in the sciences. For example, Professor Nergis Mavalvala is a Pakistani-born American astrophysicist at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She lives in Boston with her female partner and her young son (Sohrabji, 2010). She views herself as an “out, queer person of color” (Venkatraman, 2012). In 2012, she delivered a keynote address at Out to Innovate: STEM with Pride, the conference of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), where she argued strongly for more diversity in physical science (NOGLSTP, 2017).

I teach physics in a way that challenges these normative narratives about the kinds of people who can advance science and engineering. I try to sensitize my students to the narratives told in schools, public media, textbooks, and lecture rooms about the kinds of people who will successfully master physics examinations and become proper engineers (i.e., people who look, think, and behave as engineers should; see Slaton, Cech, & Riley, this volume, Chapter 17). I want my students to be aware of the supposed limited diversity of people in physics today and in the past, and to reflect on the discouraging messages this limited diversity gives to them. Whenever possible I include information about the contexts in which particular physical science concepts were developed. I mention briefly that people from different professional fields, such as medical doctors, beer brewers, clerics, and researchers and inventors without academic degrees, have successfully concerned themselves with classical mechanics. I discuss who had access to formal education and financial research support in 18th-century Europe. I explain how observed physical phenomena could only become established knowledge after long-lasting negotiation processes. For instance, Robert Mayer, a German ship’s physician, was the first to state the principle of energy conservation. However, it took contemporary physicists a long time to acknowledge Mayer’s discovery.

Until the 19th century, only a few women could access physics. Whenever I can, I mention female physicists and female academics working in physics, such as Èmilie du Châtelet, who translated Newton’s works and made them known in France (Zinsser, 2007). In contrast to all the sportsmen and racing cars that fill physics textbooks, I complement these traditionally gendered objects with personal, female, nonwhite, or nonbinary historical and contemporary examples. From time to time I include short instructional films in my lecture in which, for example, professors of color show their expertise by demonstrating and explaining physical experiments. In general terms, I make visible a greater diversity of past and present physicists with different gender identities and expressions; sexualities and desires; class affiliations; and ethnic, cultural, national, or religious backgrounds to broaden the picture of the proper physicist and to show role models to all my students. I want my students to understand that they should not accept without question the normative message that they would need to be as brilliant as Newton or Einstein to understand physics. The famous physicists of the 18th century were not geniuses from the very beginning (Fara, 2004; Terrall, 2011); neither do my students need to be exceptional to understand basic physics.

Telling these biographies and narratives of those underrepresented or silenced in the history of physics is a conventional technique to include some outsiders in the picture. Using these stories to reflect on the processes and mechanisms of othering in the history of physics supports my students to question their understanding of physics in a subversive way. Therefore, I understand my approach as teaching queering physics narratives. Yet, a lot more research in both the history of physics and physics education needs to be done to provide material for teaching physics as a cultural activity of a huge variety of people connected via various networks. In the case of classical mechanics, I wish I could refer to more biographies, read “against the grain,” of people who financially, academically, technically, or practically supported the development of this subfield. In addition, I need more case studies of people who were excluded from participating in the development of physics in the 18th century or who are overlooked in narratives of 21st-century physics. Most of all, to better reveal the discursive production and canonization of classical mechanics, I need comprehensible representations of research that scrutinize the idea of physics as being developed by genial individuals in a cumulative progress of scientific knowledge.

Queering physics culture

The culture of physics is as masculine, white, and heteronormative as the culture of engineering (Gonsalves, Danielsson, & Pettersson, 2016; Lord et al., 2009). Teaching physics in electrical, mechanical, and industrial engineering therefore reinforces the exclusiveness of STEM fields. Deconstructive gender studies, queer theory, and new materialism theory provide a framework to analyze the narratives, images, and cultures of physics and to examine their impact on inclusions and exclusions in STEM. For a long time, German-speaking gender researchers10 focused exclusively on the situation of white middle- and upper-class women in physics, and mainly on the professional careers of women from historical or social science perspectives. Women’s experiences as outsiders within tell much about the silenced, the other, and the normal of physics culture (Hasse & Trentemöller, 2008). In contrast, Anglo-American studies expanded their analysis towards ethnic minorities as well as first-generation academics. Recently, researchers have developed an interest in the situation of sexual and gender minorities.

Professional organizations reflect efforts to counter the exclusion and isolation of gender and sexual minorities in STEM. For example, NOGLSTP was established in 1983 to fight homophobia in the academic workplace.11 This spawned a growing number of LGBT+ networks in academic fields, such as mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and information technology. In 2012, the APS hosted the first session at a major physics conference on sexual and gender diversity issues (Cofield, 2017). One of the presenters, Elena Long, had recently founded LGBT+Physicists, a resource network on sexual and gender diversity in physics.12 The experience of the physicists organized in these groups can tell us about the inclusions and exclusions of the physics community and how these have changed over time.

U.S. trans* activist Professor Savannah Garmon was one of the contributors to 2012 APS session. Having conducted research in Paris, Copenhagen, Toronto, and Tokyo, she now lectures at Osaka Prefecture University in Japan and studies quantum optics and quantum solid-state physics. On her website, Leftytgirl, Garmon (2012) blogs about a variety of feminist, trans*, and social justice issues, including her experiences with her male-to-female transition and how she first feared for her career in physical science. She is one of seven scientists who talk in an interview with Physics Today about their coming out in physics, how their sexual or gender identity overlaps with their careers, and their suggestions to make STEM fields more welcoming (Feder, 2015). Asked about her experiences of bias from other physicists because of being trans*, Garmon says:

I have been in situations [as a postdoc] where people thought they were saying things amongst themselves, and they thought that had no impact, but actually it did, it definitely did. It went deeper than feeling shut out. It felt like I didn’t belong, like I shouldn’t be there. I felt I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the work environment. And maybe that also played into me being hesitant to engage in physics conversations with some of the students. Sadly, that could mean a missed opportunity for collaborations, and maybe that’s an opportunity for good science that gets passed up. It also hurt on an emotional level. There were days when I wanted to engage more strongly with my colleagues, but the environment as a whole just felt so deteriorated that more so I just wanted to leave. Those are missed opportunities too. It’s unpleasant to think back on. (paras. 24–26)

An APS study of the climate for LGBT+ people in physics sheds light on the community and culture of physics and its dominant norms (Atherton et al., 2016). Survey and interview respondents (n = 324) said that in many physics environments social norms established expectations of closeted behavior. They reported exclusion, marginalization, and trouble identifying allies to help mitigate isolation. Moreover, transgender and gender-nonconforming physicists encountered the most hostile environments, which put many of them at risk for leaving their workplace or school. The report recommends developing a training program on inclusive workplaces and mentorship practices that incorporates the needs of LGBT+ physicists and their allies. It also recommends establishing an APS Forum on Diversity and Inclusion “that works toward a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable society for all physicists, including those who identify as LGBT, women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and others” (p. 9).

Compared to the working conditions in Germany, where there is no LGBT+ network in physics or engineering, these activities by APS are really marvelous. The world’s largest professional organization for physicists promotes an active, engaged, and diverse membership that includes women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT+ persons. Yet, APS narrates LGBT+ physicists as vulnerable victims rather than as an enriching source of diversity for scientific development. The “LGBT Physicists” webpage describes harassment as a serious issue in academic science “that negatively impacts climate, retention, and productivity” (APS, 2017, para. 1). The main argument put forward seems to be the (neoliberal) idea that people who could openly show their authentic selves in professional environments may work much more efficiently than those using up their energies to conceal their real identity.

We should examine whether the APS LGBT+ network has an enduring impact. Will LGBT+ people gain better access to physics and will more of them enter the field? Will the inclusion of physicists “who identify as LGBT, women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and others” (Atherton et al., 2016, p. 9) have an impact on research and knowledge production in physics? Will their visible presence influence the society’s majority members—white, male, healthy, heterosexual physicists—and change the culture of the American physics community in academia, national labs, and industry? What about negative side effects, such as a backlash in the APS community against equal opportunities? These and further questions need to be studied.

I am convinced that it is important to bring the competencies of queering physics culture into the physics lecture theater. Whenever possible I mention LGBT+ physicists, and I try to challenge the image of physics as “hard and difficult” as much as its masculinity, heteronormativity, and naturalization. I use innovative methods such as discussions, poster presentations, and student participation in experiments, and I teach from time to time with a cuddly toy. Some of these activities—as the evaluation results of my course show—do not fit the picture some of my students have of physics and leaves them unsettled and confused. Others, mostly female and/or minority students, appreciate my provocative teaching. They experience physics as more welcoming and less difficult than they expected.

Masculinity is a salient feature in German physics textbooks because of the predominant use of masculine nouns and illustrations of male people. Role models for female and genderqueer students, by contrast, are absent in these textbooks. Additionally, most physics textbooks use stereotypical examples and exercises. The lecture notes used in my department (see Haussmann, 2010) show many examples of male physical scientists, sportsmen, and other hegemonic males, in addition to racing cars, weapons, and machines, all of which symbolize manliness and reiterate the masculinization of physics. Therefore, critically examining physics textbooks is another way to understand and scrutinize the unspoken norms and values of the culture of physics. Some of the more progressive books add sportswomen and animals to the pictures. But this does not always succeed in undermining cultural stereotypes, as I will show in two examples.

To open a space for reflection on normativity, I challenge masculinity without further comment by choosing “atypical” sports or genders for learning tasks. Physics in textbooks is quite often explained with the help of sportsmen’s activities that can be characterized as rough, tough, and competitive. However, when it comes to aesthetics, sportswomen are represented in the textbooks. In one of my tasks on calculating the conservation of angular momentum, I replaced the usual female ice skater with Evgeni Plushenko, the Russian three-time world champion in men’s figure skating. I let my students watch his quadruple and triple jumps and excellent pirouettes for five minutes. Many of the male mechanical engineering students were visibly uneasy studying Plushenko’s “feminine” body movements, and started giggling. I read this as a disturbance of the robust associative ties between physics, the appropriate presence and body language of engineers, and a certain kind of masculinity. By choosing the unexpected and atypical, I teach physics in a queering way.

In a task on kinematics, taken from my university’s set of exercises, a lion is chasing an antelope for a short time, and the students are asked to calculate if the antelope will escape or be caught by its hunter. I use this exercise in a queering way to explain to my students the thinking patterns of physics. I present the task “lion hunts antelope” and then show a short film about lionesses teaming up to hunt a zebra. The idea here is to enable the participants to see that natural movement patterns such as acceleration and braking, change of direction, and the necessary teamwork of a pride hunting together are left out of conventional analyses and end up as rectilinear and regular movements in the task. Moreover, the students see that female lions hunt as a team while male lions do not. In this way, the students can question the still prevailing cultural scripts of the lone hero and of active masculinity and passive femininity as they play out in physics (Terrall, 2011).

Exploring these topics with my students in the physics course can be understood as teaching queering physics culture by making the familiar strange. We need more research on masculinity in physics culture(s) to explore, for example, cultural variation among engineering, physics, and other disciplinary and departmental settings. Reviews of research on international, national, and local cultures in physics would be helpful to develop further strategies for queering physics culture.

Queering physics knowledge

By investigating the production of academic knowledge, science and technology studies (a transdisciplinary field combining philosophy, history, and sociology) has changed the image of physics from a field of indestructible truth and substantial knowledge into a field of human endeavor and processes that gradually stabilize physical knowledge. We may safely assume that binary heteronormative gender systems are part of the social construction of natural science knowledge, and therefore cultural beliefs about gender, sexuality, identity, and desire, too, are in the equation when it comes to concepts, research questions, models, and natural laws in physics.

This does not necessarily mean, though, that gender, sexuality, and desire can be easily assigned to physical objects and their mathematical descriptions. Rather, it is about how cultural notions associated with gender, sexuality, and desire (Lucht, 1997) shape and inspire physicists’ experiences and materialize, as it were, in physical models and theories. As an example, binary gender symbolism is inscribed in the metaphors of thermodynamics. The dichotomy of male activity and usefulness versus female passivity and uselessness produces normalized and naturalized binary scientific categories such as work and heat, energy and entropy, control and disorder, culture and nature (Kovács, 2013).

Binary heteronormative gender systems also show up in particle physics. According to the standard model, all matter consists of quarks and leptons. Here we could ask why hundreds of particles are classified in a model with several generations or families which, in turn, are arranged in dyadic pairs. A queering point of view highlights the fact that heteronormative and mononormative conceptions of pair, family, and generation are conceptual schemes we use and rely on in physics long before we have adequate evidence for doing so. Moreover, those schemes shape the very efforts to justify them and, because they are presumed, they become part of our understanding and storying of the world (Pickering, 1984). Choosing exactly this heteronormative and mononormative model to describe the “nature” of particles, physicists make subtle statements about the nature and normality of a two-gender system, heterosexual desire, and monogamy (Götschel, 2006). As far as I know, a systematic analysis of heteronormative conceptions in physics knowledge has not yet been carried out, except for studies of the (hetero)sexually loaded language of high-energy physics (Traweek, 1988, 1992).

In “Nature’s Queer Performativity,” Barad (2012) takes the matter one step further. She holds that such diverse entities in the sciences as colonial amoeba, neural receptors in stingrays, lightning, and dinoflagellate microorganisms are queer creatures. In her extensive philosophical reflections on quantum mechanics, she plausibly argues that atoms are “ultraqueer … [entities because of] their radically deconstructive ways of being” (Barad, 2012, p. 25). She uses quantum leaps and quantum erasers to illustrate her point. According to the atomic model, electrons revolve around the nucleus of an atom on stable paths, or orbits. Between these orbits, they make discontinuous movements, so-called quantum leaps. Being at no time between the paths, the electrons nevertheless change from one orbit to another. A far more complex case is that of quantum erasers. Experiments in quantum mechanics on the wave-particle duality revealed that starting an experiment by asking, Are you a particle? generates a particle, while the experimentally realized question, Are you a wave? actually creates a wave. For many years, this phenomenon had been read as the interplay between measuring tools and matter. Conversely, more recent experiments showed that the “disruption” created on the very moment of measuring can be deleted or “erased” afterwards and with it the manifestation of matter as a particle or a wave. From this Barad infers that quantum leaps and quantum erasers confirm that an atom is a queer entity, since its original “identity” is ambiguous and thus exists in a radically deconstructive way (Barad, 2012).

However, as I am not teaching quantum mechanics, but classical mechanics, my students do not get to know the particle-wave duality. Therefore, I do not see a possibility to explicitly discuss the entanglement of matter and meaning (Barad, 2007) in my basic physics course. I am interested to see if and how scholars apply Barad’s understanding of materialization to other areas of physics beyond quantum mechanics. Anyhow, I implicitly use Barad’s concept in my teaching when I keep in mind that processes of selection, experiment, observation, and labeling create at the same time physical matter on a macroscopic scale and future engineers with physical knowledge. Besides the example I discuss next, I do not know of any queer or queering research on classical mechanics concepts, their conditions of development, or the historical actors who did the work.

An exception could be Scheich’s (1985) feminist analysis of the theory of impetus, a medieval precursor of the theory of conservation of momentum. Scheich followed up historical findings that the theory of impetus was a physical as well as an economic theory, combining concepts of motion, work, and property. This understanding of force in which the producer transfers a force to the product, Scheich argues, only takes into account the experience of skilled (male) workers in craft, trade, and commerce in early capitalism. Women at that time were increasingly restricted to their negligible “natural place” of biological reproduction work, in which they were seen as unable to produce added value. Production by women was, therefore, neglected in the economic theory applied to the new mechanical philosophy of nature. Moreover, biological reproduction work remained invisible when Newton’s laws of motion laid the foundation of classical mechanics. In the same way as women’s reproductive work was necessary for the continued existence of society but not visible in its economic concepts, physical objects will continue moving (uniformly forward in a straight line) forever without any application of a force that puts and keeps the object in motion. Therefore, I critically introduce this new theory of motion in my course. I also deconstruct the vague concept of “force” as a trick to shift the description of movements from a qualitative understanding of motion to its quantitative calculation. With these sparse but complex examples, I try to show my students that the physics knowledge they learn is not just “out there,” objective and universal, but negotiated and fabricated.

A vivid example of the naturalization of physics knowledge is the standardization of the measure of length during the French Revolution. The French Committee for Weights and Measures dedicated its efforts during the French Revolution towards replacing the anatomically motivated measures of the cubit (stretching from the middle finger to the elbow), foot, and yard with a naturally derived linear measure. Aiming to find a new standard close to the Parisian cubit, the scientists looked for a partial meridian that connects the North Pole and the equator, stretches over 45°N latitude, leads through a well measured region, and starts as well as ends at sea level. “By chance” just one meridian fit this description: the distance between Duenkirchen via Paris to Barcelona (Jedrzejewski, 2002). Thus, based on the said conditions, the Paris authorities described a “natural measure of length” which came close to the Parisian cubit and could only be defined by a longitude that crossed through the French capital. This example illustrates the discursive production of science, because supposedly objective, naturally derived units and concepts are frequently based on political and social requirements as well as selection processes which are naturalized in physics.

Objectivity, mathematization, and popularization of knowledge (Daston & Galison, 2007) are other issues I discuss in my physics course. But teaching queering physics knowledge is very time consuming. Teaching queering physics will remain challenging as long as understanding physics as a human endeavor is not one of the objectives of an applied physics course, while becoming a “proper” engineer is. Moving this project forward calls for more educational research on teaching queering physics knowledge and, most of all, the production of user-friendly, university-level course materials that support the queering of physical science knowledge, rather than perpetuating and glorifying its objectivity and universality.

Queering physics representations

I do not (yet) see a possibility to teach new materialism in my mechanics course. Nevertheless, new materialism supports me to reflect on the agency of physical matter and the processes of its materialization which normally are taken for granted. Physics is not just a 300-year-old collection of knowledge that is sedimented in textbooks. Physics is coming into being every moment my students and I teach, learn, talk, think, demonstrate, proof, or calculate in the lecture theatre. Therefore, there is a need to unfold physics in a queering way, or at least to reflect the performance of physics from a queering perspective.

As an example, I try to include the students in the actual experiments as much as possible. To physically experience Newton’s third law of motion, also called the law of interaction, two participants face each other standing on skateboards, each of them holding one end of a rope. It does not matter if one student or the other or both students pull at the rope, the skateboards move towards one another as formulated by the law of interaction. Whenever I perform this experiment with my first-semester students in electrical, mechanical, and industrial engineering, patterns of gender inequality, heteronormativity, and desire are (re)produced. When the experiment was repeated in mechanical engineering, by chance a slim female participant had replaced a stout male student. As before, the two skateboards moved towards each other, no matter who pulled at the rope. However, since the slim woman was lighter than her corpulent predecessor, her skateboard accelerated faster than in the previous experiment. Observing this, a male student shouted, “They are in love with each other!” and all the spectators in the lecture theatre burst out laughing. Two skateboards, a rope, two students, the audience and cultural narratives of physics, gender, and desire played out a choreography that eroticized and sexually charged the space in a specific way, produced a binary understanding of gender, defined heterosexuality as the normal sexual orientation for physicists, put the female student in place “as the other of physics,” and materialized physical teaching aids—by following physical laws—as powerful objects for demonstrating the straightness of physics (Götschel, 2017).

My (male) teaching assistant and I were very upset about the multiple hierarchies that were created during this experimentation in the lecture theatre. I had been working hard to unobtrusively create a climate of confidence, and it was the first time in this course that a female student participated actively in an experiment in front of the male-dominated auditorium. We understood that her participation was not experienced as comfortable but provocative, creating uneasiness, laughter, and unprofessional behavior expressed via a joking atmosphere. Assuming that this incident would make it harder for the few female students in class to participate in future experiments, I addressed the issue in the following lecture on angular acceleration. I started the lesson with a short film entitled Angular Acceleration, which had been produced in 2014 for a German short-film festival and had, contrary to its title, little to do with physics—it told a lesbian love story. Afterwards, I briefly mentioned the events of the previous lesson. I pointed out that every student should enjoy participating in the experiments and that no one should mar the experience with gendering or racializing remarks and jokes. Moreover, since we do not know anything about the participants’ sexual orientation, I clearly condemned any form of comments imputing heterosexuality to other participants. By condemning the heterosexual presumption, I was calling attention to and criticizing the underlying heteronormativity that was so dominantly represented in the lecture theatre. I call this strategy queering physics representation.

The study of materiality and material practice is an up-and-coming field of research in science education (Milne & Scantlebury, forthcoming). There are also interesting studies of material practices in the physics lab (Gonsalves et al., 2016; Danielsson, 2007). Now we need research to understand these normative processes in the lecture theatre. For instance, a research participant-observer in my lecture could critically analyze my own entanglement with the masculinization, normalization, and materialization of physics. Moreover, the impacts of my innovative teaching could be studied in greater detail than is provided by a standardized questionnaire for the annual evaluation.

Conclusion

With this chapter, first and foremost, I wanted to provide examples of teaching queering physics. I have shown how approaches which perceive gender, sexuality, desire, and matter as performative and material-discursive entities can be applied to physics in meaningful ways. Critical theories such as the performativity of gender (Butler, 1993), queer theory (Krass, 2003), and new materialism (Barad, 2007) act as a theoretical framework to scrutinize how physics contributes to the production of hierarchical differences. As teaching queering physics is a transdisciplinary endeavor, these reflections must draw from different fields of research. Historical approaches can help to challenge normative narratives about the progress of physics and the kinds of people who successfully contribute to it. Cultural studies, social science, pedagogy, and gender studies offer methods to analyze masculinity and heteronormativity in physics. A cross-national review of these diverse analyses could provide some orientation in this highly complex field and begin to trace gaps in the research. Higher education research needs to elaborate in a systematic way how the resulting findings inspire a constructive treatment of gender and sexual heterogeneity in the training of science and engineering students, as well as of future science teachers. Educational research can inform the production of higher education course materials to help instructors and students rethink physics as a cultural activity. In addition, scholars in higher education could support the curriculum development needed in STEM fields to open space for these endeavors. Although materiality and material practice are rising areas of interest in science education, further research needs to be done to understand material-discursive dynamics in the lecture theatre and teaching laboratory.

In my project of teaching queering physics, I face a complex problem of concurrently teaching and learning multiple things: imparting physics knowledge to engineering students, applying deconstructive and queer theories to my teaching of physics, offering new perceptions of physics, teaching competencies of queering to my students, and reflecting on my teaching approaches. Ruth Hubbard aptly described the situation as “like trying to look out of the rear window to watch oneself push the bus in which one rides” (Hubbard, 1983, p. 67). As the task is challenging on all these different levels, a collaborative research team would be my first choice. But I am still seeking funding for team research on understanding and challenging physics and gender in material-performative interactions. Drawing inspiration from deconstructive gender studies, queer theory, and new materialism, my approach so far has been practice-oriented and highly eclectic. Nevertheless, as I have shown in this chapter, teaching queering physics to engineering students can bring critical attention to normative narratives of physics, masculinity and heteronormativity, the negotiation and fabrication of physics, and physics as a performative act.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my valued colleagues Chris Baudy, Robin Bauer, Rylee Hühne, and Florian C. Klenk for stimulating discussions about queering and teaching. I am deeply grateful to Steve Fifield and Will Letts who gave me marvelous encouragement and extremely helpful feedback that strengthened this chapter.

Notes

1

In German-speaking countries, queer theory has been increasingly discussed within the subject of gender studies. Far from being mainstream, most of the discourses around queer theory take place in social sciences and cultural studies.

2

In recent years, the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*) has been extended in political and academic papers to LGBTIQQ to include intersexuality, queer, and questioning or other forms of sexual and gender identity. Often, the longer version is replaced by LGBT+. While trans (without the asterisk) is used to describe trans men and trans women, trans* (with the asterisk) includes all transgender identities such as two-spirit, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender-fluid, genderless, and other gender nonconforming identities.

3

My workshop was part of the Queer Week Series, which included 15 events, such as presentations by guest speakers, open seminars, political discussions, poster displays, and workshops. It was conducted in December 2013 by my colleague Florian C. Klenk and me in cooperation with the queer division of the General Students’ Committee at Darmstadt Technical University.

4

Mononormativity scrutinizes the production of knowledge, technologies of power, and praxes that create the dyadic heterosexual couple as the “natural” form of human relationship and that devalue other forms of living together as pathological.

5

Queerness, synonymous for peculiarity or quirkiness, describes the condition of being queer. Straightness would be the opposite, the condition of being “normal.”

6

Simply put, a performative-theoretical notion of matter means that we cannot assume existing objects. They materialize—in other words, they are created in the act of speaking and acquire their meaning during discourse.

7

New materialism theorists criticize social and cultural sciences for their “oblivion to material objects” in feminist theories, science and technology studies, and the philosophy of natural sciences. This criticism does not—as the term may suggest—refer to dialectic or historical materialism in Marxist sociology.

8

With her neologism epistemontology, also called onto-epistemology, Barad emphasizes the necessity to overcome the Western tradition of segregating ontology (what is in the world) and epistemology (knowing what is in the world).

9

In the 1920s, quantum mechanics, or quantum physics, had been established as a branch of physics that looks at the unusual behavior of matter at the atomic and subatomic level, (re)actions which at that time had not been observed with macro forms. Such processes allow for mathematical predictions, but the philosophical meanings of these processes are not easily discerned.

10

In German-speaking countries, “gender studies,” literally called “gender research” (Geschlechterforschung), is a program of study at some universities but “queer studies” is not. Therefore, I speak of gender (studies) researchers rather than of queer studies researchers in German-speaking countries.

12

For materials from this session and related resources, see http://lgbtphysicists.org/media.html

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About the Author

Helene Götschel is professor for gender in engineering and computer science in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Bioprocess Engineering at Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Germany. Qualified as a physicist, historian of science, social historian, practitioner in higher education, and researcher in gender studies, she is mainly interested in intersectional and transgressive knowledge transfers. This includes feminist science studies, curriculum development in higher education, and queer theory and new materialism in (science) education. Most of all, her research explores the entanglement of gender and physics in theory and practice. You can reach Helene at helene.goetschel@hs-hannover.de

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