Posted April 2, 2012

Classroom companion helps writing students understand non-human emotion

A new participant enters Dan Featherston’s First-Year Writing class and takes a seat at a desk near the front of the room in Gladfelter Hall. She looks up at the professor, glances over her shoulder at the rest of the students, and moves on to her next activity... sniffing a shoe.

Mazzy, the pit bull companion of Featherston and his wife Rachel McCrystal, was visiting the class as part of a unique exploration of human-animal interaction.

“Giving students the opportunity to see how a non-human animal interprets the space of the classroom is part of the point,” said Featherston, assistant professor in Temple’s First-Writing Program. “One of the topics we have been talking about is animal capacities, such as the ability to have emotions, and I wanted to try out these theories and show an animal in the classroom," he said.

First-Year Writing is a required writing-based course that introduces students to the demands of writing academic essays as well as reading scholarly writing. The course is part of the General Education program at Temple and fulfills the analytical reading and writing requirement.

Students in the course learn to organize ideas in a coherent and logical manner; connect multiple texts through an issue or an idea; identify authors’ key arguments; create and defend arguments; and demonstrate correct grammar, syntax and acknowledgement of sources.

The theme of Featherston's three sections of First-Year Writing is human-animal relations. His classes read about, discuss and construct arguments regarding a number of topics, including theories of animal ethics; animal capacities for pain, emotion and consciousness; the intersectionality between human exploitation and animal exploitation; eating animals; cultural constructions of the animal; and animal law/activism.

"I thought it was important to have a dog in the class at least once because what we are discussing — non-human animals — is conspicuously absent otherwise," said Featherston. “When a class discusses other issues related to humans, such as ethnicity, race or class — things that pertain to humans — humans are present in the room. But when we talk about animals, they are often absent.”

Featherston and McCrystal adopted Mazzy after she was found left behind in a crate in the basement of an abandoned house in South Philadelphia. She's comfortable visiting classrooms, although the students she sees are usually much younger than college age. McCrystal, who works at Best Friends Animal Society, brings Mazzy to elementary schools to teach humane education.

“Mazzy got into the habit of sitting at the little desks during those visits. And of course she responds to the smiles and laughs she gets for doing so,” Featherston explained.

His students are encouraged to consider their experience with Mazzy in the context of their current assignment — to write a persuasive argument about an ethical issue involving companion animals, such as breed-specific discrimination, puppy mills or feral cats. The students are free to incorporate their experience with Mazzy into the essay just as they would use material from a secondary source.

While Featherston's sections of First-Year Writing are the only classes to use human-animal relations as its theme, the course is part of a growing trend in universities nationwide. Across the academic disciplines, there's been increased interest in studying the connections between humans and animals.

“Scholarship in the humanities in recent years has expanded beyond the species boundary to study ethical issues involving animals," said Featherston. “I am excited to part of an interdisciplinary process where people investigate that relationship between the human and the animal.”