Sowing Seeds

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Sowing Seeds

By John Thompson, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)

And that, in part, is why we are so gratified to see this extraordinary program take root and blossom. It is opening doors which, once opened, just get wider.

OK, it's shameless braggadocio, but enter "human animal studies" into a Google search box and ASI's Fellowship Program will top the list of references. ASI didn't pay for this placement. In large part, it results from the number of credible websites that link out to ASI's human-animal studies pages and the click-through count.

The ASI Human Animal Studies Fellowship deserves such recognition. As it completed its fourth year, this time on the historic Clark University campus, the Fellowship begins the process of finding a permanent home. That is a fitting graduation from being a good concept to a strong reality.

This year's Fellowship ended with seven scholars presenting original papers on aspects of the human-animal relationship. That work grew from five weeks of intense study, conversation, living and partying together. The event was reinforced and enriched by insights and commentary from faculty mentors and visiting scholars.

Fellows are awarded a stipend to cover travel, living and research expenses. Lifelong friendships were formed. New understanding was given birth. And, the results have been carried back to campuses ranging geographically from Oxford, England to Melbourne, Australia.

It seemed like intellectual horticulture. Seeds of knowledge planted in fertile minds were given an opportunity to germinate in a nourishing environment. Like plants that open their flowers to the wind, seeds from their work at the Fellowship will spread to and grow in other minds. Wherever the careers of these scholars take them that knowledge, and the spirit of active inquiry, will continue advancing our understanding of the human-animal relationship.

For many of the scholars this was indeed a life, and career, enhancing experience. It was a unique opportunity to blend understandings from their own academic disciplines with those from other fields. Indeed, several felt that living, working and interacting with peers coming from different perspectives was the exceptional ingredient that particularly enriched the experience.

The tangible product, a paper that will be submitted for publication in a journal or become part of a book, adds to a dynamically growing body of knowledge. Moreover, as such understanding of other species expands it invites questions of ethics and moral obligation to become central issues in our relationships with other species.

As Kathy Rudy, Associate Profesor in Women's Studies and Ethics at Duke University, one of this year's presenters sees it, understanding other animals and breaking down the communication barrier that separates us from them is a process of "de-throning" humans. We can begin seeing ourselves as one of many, not a dominant species.

Reflecting that concept of inclusion, Jane Elizabeth Harris, a MSt Candidate and Associate Counselor at the University of Oxford Counseling Service said that the fellowship caused her to realize that she was not bringing clients' relationships with animals into counseling. Indeed, studies of family systems usually don't include the pets even though they may be influential components.

Already, fellows from previous years are influencing the expansion of human-animal understanding as well as curricula. Amy Fitzgerald, Associate Professor in the University of Windsor's Department of Sociology, Anthrology and Criminology participated in a previous year's Fellowship. She writes, "The ASI Fellowship Program gave me the time and an intellectually stimulating environment to conduct research which culminated in two published peer-reviewed articles. These articles strengthened my CV and contributed to my receipt of tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this year. The Fellowship Program also gave me the opportunity to network and make connections with scholars who I am still in touch with today. I think it is common for animal studies scholars to feel isolated and perhaps even marginalized, and the ASI Fellowship program provides a welcomed corrective to this."

And that, in part, is why we are so gratified to see this extraordinary program take root and blossom. It is opening doors which, once opened, just get wider.