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Animal Studies Cross Campus to Lecture Hall

Once, animals at the university were the province of science. Rats ran through mazes in the psychology lab, cows mooed in the veterinary barns, the monkeys of neuroscience chattered in their cages. And on the dissecting tables of undergraduates, preserved frogs kept a deathly silence.

On the other side of campus, in the seminar rooms and lecture halls of the liberal arts and social sciences, where monkey chow is never served and all the mazes are made of words, the attention of scholars was firmly fixed on humans.

No longer.

This spring, freshmen at Harvard can take “Human, Animals and Cyborgs.” Last year Dartmouth offered “Animals and Women in Western Literature: Nags, Bitches and Shrews.” New York University offers “Animals, People and Those in Between.”

The courses are part of the growing, but still undefined, field of animal studies. So far, according to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the field includes “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.” Art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, religion — there are animals in all of them.

The field builds partly on a long history of scientific research that has blurred the once-sharp distinction between humans and other animals. Other species have been shown to have aspects of language, tool use, even the roots of morality. It also grows out of a field called cultural studies, in which the academy has turned its attention over the years to ignored and marginalized humans.

Some scholars now ask: Why stop there? Why honor the uncertain boundary that separates one species from all others? Is it time for a Shakespearean stage direction: Exit the humanities, pursued by a bear? Not quite yet, although some scholars have suggested it is time to move on to the post-humanities.

The Animals and Society Institute, itself only six years old, lists more than 100 courses in American colleges and universities that fit under the broad banner of animal studies. Institutes, book series and conferences have proliferated. Formal academic programs have appeared.

Wesleyan University, together with the Animals and Society Institute, began a summer fellowship program this year. A program at Michigan State allows doctoral and master’s students in different fields to concentrate their work in animal studies. At least two institutions offer undergraduate majors in the field. And just this fall, New York University started an animal studies initiative, allowing undergraduates to minor in the field.

Dale Jamieson, director of that program, said that activity in animal studies had been “somewhat inchoate” up to now, but that he hoped N.Y.U. could help “to make it a more cohesive and rigorous scholarly field.”

Animals have never been ignored by scholars, of course. Thinkers and writers of all ages have grappled with what separates humans from the other animals and how we should treat our distant and not-so-distant cousins. The current burst of interest is new, however, and scholars see several reasons for the growth of the field.

Kari Weil, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan whose book “Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?” will be published in the spring, said that behavioral and environmental science had laid a foundation by giving humans “the sense that we are a species among other species” — that we, like other animals, are “subject to the forces of nature.”

Full article at The New York Times

New ALTEX: 4/2014

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