MayX Snapshot: How animals – human and otherwise – shape society
May Experience 2023
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Animals, Culture and Society
Benjamin Haywood, associate director of the Faculty Development Center
An introduction to animal studies, the emerging interdisciplinary field devoted to the recognition and reexamination of the place of non-human animals in human life.
The topic was polarizing, but the students in the MayX class Animals, Culture and Society were determined to be diplomatic.
“I’m trying to word this in a way that doesn’t insult the dog people,” said Colin Clinton ’24.
“That’s all right,” said the instructor, Benjamin Haywood. “We’re all friends here.”
“It takes a certain fortitude to domesticate a cat,” continued Clinton. “You’ve got to associate with something that doesn’t necessarily want to associate with you. You’ve got to come to a mutual understanding. Whereas you tell a dog to jump, and it says, ‘How high?’”
The differences between cats and dogs – and the ways in which humans relate to both – is one lens through which the class explored a relatively new academic discipline. Animal studies, also known as anthrozoology or human-animal studies, is an interdisciplinary field that overlaps with biology, geology, anthropology, art history, communications, philosophy and sociology, among others. Interest has grown over the last few decades, with university programs and research journals continuing to emerge.
Coexistence and conflict
For Haywood, the central question is, “Where and how do non-human animals intersect with human lives?”
The course sampled just a few of the many contemporary social conflicts that surround that central question. Through in-class discussions of research and popular press articles, videos and reports, the students examined the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and psychological research, the conflicts between feral and domesticated cats and wild birds, and the Puritan tiger beetle, which has pitted conservationists against homeowners and developers in the Chesapeake Bay.
The MayX class is similar to one Haywood co-taught as an assistant professor of environmental science and sustainability at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
“I want students to question their assumptions about their relationship with non-human animals,” Haywood said, “and how that influences the way we treat and behave with members of our own and other species.”
The question of how animals helped shape human society is what drew Clinton to this MayX course.
“As a history major, it’s important not only to understand the chronicle of events, but also to catalog the evolution and growth of humans and the cultural traits that have manifested in humans over time,” he said. “We’ve talked about a number of interesting ethical conundrums.”
Kaitlyn Wills ’24 found the course fits in well with her psychology major as well as the classes she’s taken in sociology.
“The way we think about animals tells us a lot about the way we think in general,” she said. “I’ve never thought about how similar humans are to other animals. Their lives are probably as important as ours, but we never really respect them.”
The course will have one lasting takeaway for Wills, who plans to study evolutionary psychology in graduate school.
“I’ll be more mindful going forward,” she said. “I’ll have less of a human ego.”
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