Monday, December 31, 2007

The Brock "Miracle"

I am referring to the blossoming of critical animal studies at Brock University, which is located in southern Ontario, Canada, in the city of St. Catharines. Although the language of miracles is a superlative, it may still be thought to sell short what is actually occurring there. It did not just appear spontaneously, but due to years of effort primarily on the part of my mentor and senior colleague, John Sorenson, Professor of Sociology at Brock. For years he has pioneered new courses in Animals and Human Society, Animals and the Law, and has recently had approved other courses in critical animal studies, as it is called, including one for animals in cross-cultural perspective, and another for students who seek a Master’s in Social Justice and Equity Studies. Recently approved too has been a Minor in Critical Animal Studies.

The success of these efforts is mainly, but not solely, due to Professor Sorenson. His colleagues also deserve credit, paradoxically, for extending to animals what is perhaps only their just due. However, in unjust times, when animal oppression is so widespread and acute, it takes a certain generosity, if you will, to rise to justice when injustice is the norm. It is a kind of breaking of the mold, and even a setting of new molds. There are a total of seven courses in Critical Animal Studies which have been approved by the Department of Sociology at Brock. Of course, these offerings are not literally molds meant to turn out robots to prefabricated specifications, like widgets in a factory. Rather, freedom of inquiry in the area of critical animal studies is being opened up at Brock: a mold for a large and ongoing intellectual conference, metaphorically speaking, leaving students free to learn and come to their own conclusions. Freedom of inquiry requires structures and resources, after all. Are there conclusions that everyone should arrive at, such as universal rights? Authors may argue this in earnest with respect to animal rights, even as many already do with universal human rights. However, it is up to every individual scholar to arrive at his or her own conclusions. Indeed, it is futile to say that someone simply “must” think a certain way. Minds and spirits always contain their own precious freedom. Dogma is an insult to intellectual freedom, although reasoning is not. In any case, the miracle is due not only to Sorenson’s colleagues, but also to students, who demonstrate a strong interest in this area of study by their strong enrollments in these courses. Those are the people who are coming to their own conclusions in this visionary program. And helping them are a stream of dedicated and hard-working teaching assistants and still others crucial to the success of this academic program.

One T.A. in particular is exceptional and therefore deserves note: Jillian DiTillio. She has TAed critical animal studies for 4 years now and has been noted for her valuable contributions in terms of facilitating discussion, grading, and learning. The unusual thing about her is that she hopes to continue in this role, unlike most TAs, just because it reflects her passion for educating others about animal issues. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this passion manifests itself in a marked pursuit of excellence in this educational field.

The Brock Miracle is not just a small blip on the academic map. It might even be called a leader in critical animal studies in North America. I have been in correspondence with Dr. Kenneth Shapiro, of the Animals and Society Institute. He is in the business of publishing in critical animal studies, long been chief of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and editor of the journal, Society and Animals. He also promotes critical animal studies programs and majors throughout North America. According to him, the only place that compares with Brock is Notre Dame de Namur University in California. Now this program offers a Major in Critical Animal Studies, which I believe is on its way at Brock given the slew of new course offerings. Indeed Brock has approved 7 courses, which compares with the 6 now in the program in California. On the basis of such reflections one can safely conclude that Brock is a leader in North America in Critical Animal Studies. It is one of the top two such programs, and perhaps even the top one, depending on which criteria are used.

I have been pleased and honored to participate in “the Brock Miracle” this past term in the Fall Term of 2007, during which time I have been given the opportunity to teach a course in Animals and the Law. I am teaching three more courses this current Winter Term 2008. I had full enrollments, and many of my students either became animal liberationist, or came to have a stronger intellectual respect for the position. Many students felt obliged to surrender their personal investment in animal slaughter as a result of the course. It is not something the course pushes, but rather what the data and the arguments draw many compassionate and just students towards, as plants growing towards sunlight. The arguments can be laid out impartially as possible, but I do not think that speciesism can really be made any more attractive, intellectually speaking, than racism or sexism in the end. There are many more critical animal studies at Brock than most universities, which do not have any sociology courses devoted to animals. At most, a philosophy department might have a course in “environmental ethics” which examines animal ethics as a supposedly subsidiary issue (really it is not, since animals are no more merely part of the human “environment” than humans are merely part of other animals’ “environment”). An exception was Queen’s University’s Philosophy Department, which offered a course in Animal Ethics as well as Environmental Ethics.

I am grateful for the Brock Miracle also at a personal level since I had a five-year unchosen hiatus from university teaching. I do not take it for granted that I have access to such job opportunities, and I have no reason to. I was earlier planning to write a much more sombre blog entry on being an animal rights scholar “in exile.” Let me explain this. When I graduated with my Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Toronto, the professor who was in charge of helping graduates market themselves took a look at my c.v., and although I had more publications and international conference presentations than most of my fellow graduates, he said, “You know David, hiring committees are going to take one look at your c.v. and toss it in the garbage. They’re going to say, ‘He’s just an animal guy.’ I don’t mean to discourage you by saying this.” He said this even though I had instructed a few courses in philosophy at the University of Toronto, Canada’s most prestigious university, with excellent reviews, and I was given the chance to run the Philosophy Essay Clinic in the U of T for my year after graduation.

I think he was right about how people would narrowly view my c.v. though—until the Brock Miracle, that is. I was in telephone communication with the Philosophy Chair at McMaster University at one time, and I asked if I could help fulfill their teaching needs. He had received my c.v. electronically, and intoned snobbishly over the phone, “We don’t do your kind of philosophy here.” He was really saying that I am an animal guy. I am fully qualified to teach ethics, and indeed I outlined a new ethical theory in my dissertation, but since I am so much “about animals,” suddenly my other abilities were papered over or tossed into mental garbage cans. That, of course, is garbage thinking, since any Philosophy Department does “my” kind of philosophy, and should care about it, if they are against prejudicial discrimination, inequity and injustice, and are in favor of rigorous philosophical argumentation and open-mindedness, as well as academic freedom to specialize in any area that one pleases. I “do” ethics, the most popular of the subdisciplines in Philosophy. The Chair’s statement was just a reflection of prejudice. I “do” the justification of ethical theory as much as other moral philosophers. In no other area of study would one be criticized for academically presenting and publishing in one’s area of specialization. On the contrary, that is usually praised as “the right path” and encouraged. This kind of secondary speciesist prejudice (applied to animal advocates rather than the nonhuman animals themselves) was also evident in Unleashing Rights: Law, Meaning, and the Animal Rights Movement (University of Michigan Press, 1996, p. ix), in which the author, Helena Silverstein, offers a study of the animal rights movement but is quick to add in a preface that she "was hesitant to study [the animal rights] movement out of fear that [she] would be labeled and animal rights activist masquerading as a scholar." Can you imagine a human rights supporter and academic being dismissed as “an activist masquerading as a scholar”? We see speciesism rearing its unattractive head once more.

I managed to win a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Queen’s University with a research proposal to study anti-vivisection ethics. I was shocked, as were others, that an animal rights idea won out over post-doc applications to all other Departments at Queen’s, which is a top research university in Canada. It was a great year there, with my own corner office and supervision of graduate students, but I could not so much as get an interview after that. This, even though I was credited by many experts as developing the strongest (devil’s advocate) case for anthropocentrism in ethics. In any other area of study, any recent graduate who came up with the best version of any given argument would get interviews at the very least. I am not trying to brag, by the way, but merely to illuminate that merit does not necessarily figure into a supposed meritocracy when speciesism rules.

This brings us back to Kenneth Shapiro, and the journal he edits. In 2002 Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies did a special issue on their tenth anniversary. It features 15 articles profiling the marginalized status of human-animal studies. The latter is roughly defined as any kind of academic study that takes animals seriously as more than just objects or resources, and it could occur in any discipline such as anthropology, sociology, literature, psychology, political science, economics, law, etc. In any event, this study which was breath-takingly sweeping (in both time and space) found that over a twenty-year period in countries such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, among other nations, people who graduated with a doctorate degree in human-animal studies were not found—ever—to go on to supervise other such doctoral candidates. In other words, doctors of human-animal studies never, quite unlike their colleagues, landed prestigious professorial jobs which involve the supervision of graduate students, in particular, doctoral students. There are indeed professors who profess animal rights, but they all got their credentials in other areas of study that are not regarded prejudicially as animal rights is. For instance, Peter Singer did a doctorate on Marxism. Tom Regan studied the philosophy of G. E. Moore. They did not encounter the furry ceiling because they were not then associated with anti-fur campaigns and the like. This wall of prejudice was referred to by the authors as “the furry ceiling” as an analogy to “the glass ceiling” concept which is used to refer to the fact that women tend to be invisibly limited in the opportunities that they may rise to.

At a recent conference at, yes, Brock University in June 2005 many scholars complained that their human-animal studies have been marginalized, and that many such scholars lack an academic home. I was among the homeless, so to speak. I was trying to land a job, any job without much success. I would gladly sell books, or usher people into movie theatres. I was jealous of anyone who had any job at times. I was judged overqualified or inexperienced, and in any case had oodles of competition from any number of other seekers in a rather desperately competitive job market. In the last three years I retrained as a high school teacher. I now work part-time as a substitute teacher in the Board (Durham) to the east of Toronto as a second job besides Brock. I was picturing myself teaching high school up till retirement until I got caught up with the sweep of the Brock Miracle. I was appointed as Fellow with the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, but it seemed that no one in academia who is a “gate-keeper” cared how much I accomplished as an “animal guy.” I had many fellow graduate students who found jobs, and it seemed to me that these people did not write particularly important theses or articles (if they had any publications, which many of them didn’t). Toeing the speciesist line has an unspoken premium value in academics, it would seem.

I had actually applied to teach Brock courses on animals before, but could not make the interview stage, a pattern I was getting resigned to. One can only go through so many years of rejection in university teaching before changing careers becomes a practical necessity to attempt. In any case, I was not prepared to give up easily. My publication record is already stronger than many tenured professors, and I was happy that writing is one area of opportunity that the speciesists could not deny me, which is more valued by me than the capacity to teach at any university.

Then Brock advertised a Canada Research Chair in Social Justice. I applied. I put a lot of effort into the app. I did not make the interview, but Professors of Sociology there were so impressed by my arguments that my background is relevant in an interdisciplinary way that they were convinced I could teach their “animal sociology” courses. This turned out to be crucial, as I was granted the opportunity to teach these courses without even needing an interview. This is because I am a known quantity to Sorenson, as I have presented at each of his three interdisciplinary conferences in Critical Animal Studies. These were great conferences that were part of the miracle at Brock. Negative discrimination on the basis that I am an “animal guy” turned into positive discrimination where I was actually sought for my academic interests, abilities, achievements, and experiences.

Did I say that referring to a “miracle” at Brock does not do justice to the honest real-world efforts of John Sorenson? Not necessarily. Him I call “the miracle worker,” although he would be roundly embarrassed by any such talk. Just as Helen Keller's teacher earned that name helping a child struggling in her own world of blindness and deafness, so Sorenson persevered through peoples' blindness and deafness in relation to conscious beings of other species, and effected startling change that many would have thought improbable or even impossible. To him we owe the Brock Miracle, and I especially am much indebted to him both professionally and personally.

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