Animals, Ethics and Food Syllabus

Yesterday was my first day teaching my new course, Animals, Ethics and Food: Deconstructing Dominant Discourses. The first day of class is always spent taking care of the nitty gritty details–introductions, learning names, reviewing the syllabus and answering any questions that may come up. We had time yesterday for all of this, plus we watched most of the documentary, Food, Inc. I wanted to show Food, Inc. because it’s a more general review/critique of the food system, industrialization and the changing face of agriculture (i.e., from agriculture to agribusiness). Even though I think Food, Inc doesn’t make a rigorous enough critique of animal agriculture, it certainly shows a good introduction to the way animals are raised and slaughtered in industrial settings. It also does a nice job of explaining how food is still sold by promoting pastoral, family-farm images and values, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of food production in the U.S. looks nothing like this. I’m enthusiastic about the quarter–it seems like a really interesting group of students and it’s small enough that we should be able to have good discussions about the readings. 

A Description of the Course

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them […] the process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt (Orwell 1963).

In this advanced seminar, students will have the opportunity to explore the place of animals in the United States food system through various lenses. An interdisciplinary exploration of animals in the food system pushes us to encounter in the course issues of emotion and intellect, living and dying, discrimination and oppression, and the discourses that run as undercurrents throughout these issues. Most of all, drawing on an interdisciplinary body of work from both scholars and activists, we will introduce creative possibilities for pushing new boundaries in how we think about ethics and farmed animals in our private and public lives.

Week one of the course introduces students to thinking about how discourses are constructed about animals as food in the United States. This is a major theme throughout the course, and we will utilize Cathy B. Glenn’s ‘doublespeak’ and George Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ to provide a frame for thinking through what work discourse does to obscure the current relationship between humans and animals in the food system.

The first part of the course is dedicated to understanding the way animals live and die. Beginning with the industrialization of the food system is integral to understanding the experience of farmed animals. As a response to the industrialization of animal agriculture, alternative producers have gained more popularity in recent food localization and organics movements. Contemporary ethologists and animal behaviorists are contributing to a growing body of work on animal emotion and intellect that helps us to understand their lives more fully. Students will be encouraged to engage in conversations that explore questions such as: What do we gain from trying to understand and respect animals’ intellectual and emotional lives? How have notions of place and space in the industrialization of agriculture affected consumers’ understanding of the implications for animals of this kind of system? In alternative animal agriculture, how alternative is alternative?  

This course focuses on animals’ experience, but it also engages with important academic debates about the relationship between animal oppression in the food system and human experiences. Geographer Joni Seager (2003) asks us to consider ‘species’ alongside ‘race,’ ‘class,’ ‘gender,’ and ‘sexuality,’ as significant sites of oppression. How can studying familiar (or not-so-familiar) histories of discrimination and oppression help to inform an understanding of animals? How can dialogues about animals interrogate intersections among various sites of oppression?

Finally, this course synthesizes what we learn throughout the quarter about animal lives and deaths, emotion and intellect, and discrimination and oppression in order to push the conversation further and in order to rethink discourse. During this portion of the course, we will take a field trip to a local animal sanctuary where students will have the opportunity to meet and interact with the animals we have learned about throughout the course. This final portion investigates ways to re-imagine our relationship to the animals we eat. What can we do with this information, and how can we grow as scholars and global citizens by taking seriously the plight of animals in the food system? What new possibilities emerge for animals and for humans?

Access the Syllabus:



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  1. This is so cool, you are so smart. I wish I could take your class. It would be interesting to see how many students in your class are vegan now and how many will be by the end of your course.

    1. Thanks, Holly! I know there is at least one vegan in the class–he mentioned that he was vegan when we were doing introductions and was wearing a cool black hoodie with a big ‘VEGAN’ patch. 🙂

  2. This is going to be soooo amazing! Thanks for sharing the syllabus. I can tell right now that I won’t be able to read a lot of it…I’m such a wimp. But, I’m so very, very glad for this amazing work you’ve already done & the work you’ll be doing throughout the quarter! xoxo

  3. I like the idea behind the course and discussing how humans use animals both as pets and food, but you always need to consider the essence of life. We certainly do not treat our animals destined for human consumption with dignity in many situations. An entity be it plant or animal that has the ability to reproduce has an equal right to exist. Humans have decided that the ability to “reason” and express some emotional interaction with their species makes those organisms “special”. Plants interact with insects, birds and other organisms within their personal environment but because they do not interact on a personal level (I personally feel I do interact with plants) humans have no problem eating them without the same sense of life ending consequences that they do for animals.

    1. Randy-Great point about plants! Thanks for bringing it up. I definitely agree that plants are not afforded the same critical attention to human-plant interaction as human-animal interaction. I’ve seen some interesting work, in fact, that focuses on the high-frequency sounds emitted when broccoli is cut, for example. And also the complex interaction of plants with the surrounding environment and other organisms. Thanks for posting! Lots to think about.

      1. Katie,
        You must always realize and think about the possibility that we are not capable of understanding the interactions between organisms in our environment. Though I am certainly am a meat eating that doesn’t mean that I am not capable of understanding the reasoning behind a vegan. The only way that any idea moves forward in society is that the idea has reason behind its core concept. If we become a totally vegan society are we altering the biological basis of our existence. It is never a good idea to accept a monocultural philosophy. I had 12 deer in my front yard the other night as seen by my night vision camera that certainly were hungry eating my few plants under my pin oak. Is it better to let those deer naturally control their population by starvation or systematically reduce the population by hunting? The philosophy of life and death is very interesting and worth exposing your students to during the semester.

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