Animal Rights/Vegan Activists' Strategies Articles

Bringing Animals Into the College Classroom: My Experience

From Karen Davis, PhD, President, UPC United Poultry Concerns
August 2022

My experience inspired me to feel that the ethical blindness toward animals and nature that distorts our culture could be enlightened at the college level.

Karen Davis, PhD
Photo courtesy of Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario student interview with Karen Davis

Interview available on YouTube

A Student Outcry Led Me to Bring Animal Issues into My Classroom

In the 1980s I taught a writing course at the University of Maryland, College Park, designed for students in their sophomore year who planned to enter the nursing profession. One student wrote a paper on the case of the Silver Spring monkeys. In it she defended animal experimenter Dr. Edward Taub, whose treatment of the primates he used in nerve-severing experiments at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, led to his arrest and conviction on cruelty charges in 1981. Unfortunately, in 1983, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, ruling that state anti-cruelty laws did not apply to research conducted under a federal program.

At the time, the names “Silver Spring monkeys” and “Dr. Taub” rang only a small bell in my head. The paper stirred, without satisfying, my curiosity concerning the case against Edward Taub. I told the student she would have to supply the missing evidence and arguments on the other side before I could assign a grade to her paper.

This incident put the issue of animal experimentation before the class. These were sophomores, mostly young women, who were already experimenting on live animals as part of their pre-nursing course requirements. The surge of emotion on the subject was tremendous. It quickly appeared that students were very upset over what they were required by their instructors to do to animals, just so they could earn a degree that would allow them to “help people,” as they put it.

One student, whose mother was a registered nurse, vehemently insisted upon the irrelevance, based on her mother’s 20-years’ experience, of knowledge gained from hurting and killing animals in classroom exercises.

In the following weeks our discussion expanded to the whole question of how much of humane and decent sentiments and behavior a person should have to sacrifice to the demands of “professionalism.” Is it true, they wanted to know, and as they felt they were being taught by their instructors, that commiserative emotions and gestures have little or no place in the “healing profession”? At the end of the semester, one student captured in an essay something of the frustration that had been voiced by members of the class over animal experiments and similar desensitizing behaviors endorsed by our medicalized cultural institutions: “I would like to be merciful but I have to be professional also.”

From then on, I brought an awareness of animals, together with the idea of animal rights, into my composition and literature classes. I included essays, poems, and fiction, while interspersing thoughts, illustrations, and comments throughout my teaching which made students aware of not only the ranges of injustice toward animals practiced by human society, but the ranges of loving and respectful treatment of animals.

As a teacher, I sought to get students to see that the idea of animal rights, far from being cranky and alien, is actually an opportunity for us to enrich our lives. I linked animal rights with other major historical and contemporary movements on behalf of peace, justice and a creative nonviolent life.

Whenever I tell people that I integrated an animal rights perspective into my classes, they ask: How did you do it, and how did the students respond? I will touch briefly on each of these questions, drawing upon my experience as an English teacher who was and will always be a dedicated animal rights advocate.

Pitfalls to Avoid

I avoided coming across as a single-issue person. Instead, I tried to raise students’ consciousness to a level where they could begin to see, with Chief Seattle, that “All things are connected.” The single-issue approach can be self-defeating because instead of focusing attention on the topic of concern, it shifts attention to the person who is making the pitch.

From talking with colleagues as well as from the years I spent in the classroom, I see two major pitfalls that a teacher with an “extracurricular” ethical passion should be on the lookout for. One is that your particular matter of ultimate concern could dominate the classroom atmosphere to the point where even sympathetic students would be justified in complaining that the course was being taught off track.

The other is that, caring deeply about an issue, you shun it from your teaching altogether, refusing even to allow students to deal with it as a topic of their own choice. A colleague of mine, who was a staunch antiabortion advocate, did just that. Though a specialist in rhetoric, the “art of persuasive discourse,” she insisted she could not discourse rationally about abortion or stand to hear it tolerated by others. She thus denied the use of her specialized teaching skills, while relinquishing her opportunity, responsibility and right as an educator, to “profess” her (presumably) mature values to her students.

Teachers have to be on guard against a tendency in education to represent mainly strategies and techniques to students at the expense of ideas and substantive thought. I’d say that at times it is necessary to be a martyr – a witness to truth – in the classroom. By accepting the distress that comes from encountering hostility to animals and animal rights, we demonstrate our conviction both to ourselves and the students while strengthening our fortitude.

Teaching by personal example is the opposite of private crankiness. Students will see the difference because we are presenting the case for animal rights as a reasoned imperative, one that is inextricably linked, moreover, to the ecological imperatives now confronting us. And we’re showing them this, as animal advocate Ed Duvin wrote in his newsletter Animalines, “not in a self-righteous manner, but through factual presentations that stimulate reflection and corrective action rather than defensive behavior or futility.”

I feel I’ve done something of what I set out to do in the classroom when a student says, “This course and the manner in which it was taught have broadened my ideas about life and my cohabitation on this planet.”

A Richer Vision of Life

This leads to the second question: How do students respond? What sense do I get about the receptivity of college students to the idea of animal rights?

When asked this question in an interview, animal rights philosopher Tom Regan replied, ambiguously: “They’ve got to be ready to go back to some sense of alternative meaning of life other than having a BMW and the latest Sony stereo.” The animal rights movement, he said, is “a great opportunity.” Which is to say that the opportunity lies within the students themselves, a growing number of whom are fed up with the selfish-minded careerism being foisted on them in colleges and universities.

Similarly, the opportunity lies within the animal-rights, ecosensitive educator, who is obliged to try to get students to open their eyes to a new human way of being in the world.

I believe the time is past for insisting that humanism, ecocentrism, and animal rights can never meet, practically or conceptually. Petrifying constructs have to mollify. As Ed Duvin wrote, “We need a larger and richer vision to chart our course for the future, one that incorporates all the intricate interrelationships on this tragic planet.”

More and more students, I hope, are attracted to this kind of thinking, which makes how we conceive and present our subject crucial. Just as ecology should not be viewed as “a sterile discipline filled with intimidating scientific jargon, but a joyous opportunity to explore the mystery and magic of life” (Duvin), so should animal rights be viewed as the creative evolution that it is.

One way to bring this view into college English classes is to choose writings that describe an “existential encounter” with an animal or animals, entailing metaphysical and moral discovery in the human encounterer. Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Bird and the Machine,” from The Immense Journey; D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake”; and Sarah Orne Jewett’s story “The White Heron” are excellent examples, as is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Panther”; Isaac Bashevis’s story “The Slaughterer”; and Alice Walker’s story of a forlorn horse in her essay, “Am I Blue?.” Add to these Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel The Yearling; Clare Druce’s story of a battery-caged hen, Minny’s Dream; That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stanger; and Gone Forever: The Passenger Pigeon by Susan Dudley Morrison, When I assigned my essay, “Viva, the Chicken Hen,” to my honors course on Animals in Literature, in 1990, the students shared the deep and unexpected feelings my story evoked in them about Viva, a form of life – the life of a chicken – they said they had never thought about before.

These and many other writings featuring human-animal encounters and revelations create a wealth of opportunities for students to engage in critical and imaginative explorations of their own in a variety of ways.

My experience with my students convinced me it was time to form an animal rights organization on the University of Maryland College Park campus. In September 1989, the Animal Rights Club became an officially registered student group – the first of its kind at the university. Along with this, my proposal to teach a University Honors course on the role of animals in literature was approved for the 1990 spring semester.

Developed partly from themes set forth in philosopher Mary Midgley’s essay “The Concept of Beastliness,” in Animal Rights and Human Obligations, edited by Tom Regan and Peter Singer, the course examined the traditional Western concept of human nature, based on a supposed ineluctable contrast between humans and other animals.

We considered how far this supposed contrast is based on seeing other animals as they really are and how far it is based on seeing them as projections of human fears and desires. The question was raised: Have artists and philosophers been conceiving human nature with reference to a conception of “the beast” that is largely chimerical? If so, does there exist in our literary and philosophical heritage a healing Orphic strain1 that could help rescue ourselves and the animals along with the planet we are ruining?

These, then, are some of the ways I sought to bring the animal rights perspective into my classroom teaching. My experience inspired me to feel that the ethical blindness toward animals and nature that distorts our culture could be enlightened at the college level. I believe we can help students see, as one of my students said she learned from my class, that “we must become conscious of others’ feelings while trying to better the world, realizing that as an individual and as a species, the human is not the owner but an occupier of the earth along with many other creatures.” This, for me, is our true human heritage, without which the rest of pedagogy is dross.

1. The legendary Orpheus of Greek mythology was a mortal revered for the peace-bringing power of his music. Each morning, Orpheus greeted the sun with his song. His melodies attracted the birds and other wild creatures, and even the mountains and stones were moved by his music. Orpheus charmed animals, but he did not deceive them. He lured animals to himself, but he did not harm them. He welcomed his fellow earthlings.

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds - From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl published by Lantern Publishing & Media. Karen is also the speaker of a biweekly New Podcast Series: Thinking Like a Chicken - News & Views!

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