I’ve been absorbed these last few weeks in teaching a new course at the University of Washington. A variation on my Animals, Ethics and Food class, this course is called Animals, Ethics and Food: Doing Multispecies Ethnography. It is a condensed course, meaning that instead of a 10-week quarter, the term lasts only 4 1/2 weeks. We meet three times a week: two days a week for over two hours in the classroom on campus and one day a week at Pigs Peace Sanctuary. During our time in the classroom, we discuss documentaries, the readings we’re doing, and our time at the sanctuary. We read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating last week (read my blog post about that book here), this week we’re reading Eating Animals, and next week we’re reading Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows.
During their time at the sanctuary, the students are doing an ethnography of pigs and the sanctuary. ‘Ethnography’ literally means the study of culture (or more literally, ‘culture writing’). Thus, the students are doing a study of social life at the sanctuary. I have paired each of them with a pig to work with during the quarter and they spend their time at the sanctuary observing the pig and the others around him/her. And they wander around the sanctuary, trying to understand what the sanctuary is as a place. What guidelines and values define the sanctuary as a bordered place in the world? How do the pigs flourish there? What ethical and political questions emerge at the sanctuary? How is the space designed with the pigs (and not humans) in mind? Who are these pigs? How have they healed from trauma at the sanctuary and how do some still carry trauma with them from their time before the sanctuary? These are the kinds of questions we are exploring with these ethnographic projects.
So far, it’s been going really well, I think. The students love the time at the sanctuary. There are only seven people in the class, so our group is intimate and we get to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas about the material we’re exploring. In many ways, it’s a dream-come-true class for me. Working together with the students to explore ideas related to how to come to understand animals, and how we might think differently about other animals in world is an amazing way to spend the summer.
It’s hard to explain, but spending time at the sanctuary is like nothing else. We can talk about animals in the classroom and we can theorize about what ethical responsibility we have to them. But when you’re face-to-face with a pig, it’s entirely different. Being with animals changes us and it teaches us in ways we can’t anticipate.
You can check out the syllabus here: AnimalsEthics&Food_DoingMultispeciesEthnography