‘Humanimal’ University: Teaching To Awaken Consciousness of Human and Animal Suffering Amidst Politics of Big Business


“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – [attributed to] Mohandas K. Gandhi


Introduction:  Resisting Neoliberal Big Business Erasures, Misportrayals and Mistreatments of Sentient Beings

essays_5aIn the past 15 years or so, I have begun to conduct research on scholarship that resists neoliberal commands to automatically view animals as mere “units” of production for human usage and consumption.  I have also experimented with incorporating a unit of such readings into some of my classes where relevant.  I offer readings and assignments that invite students  to view and ponder non-human animals as sentient beings who merit reconsideration and improved treatment at the hands of their human counterparts, specifically within the factory farm and industrial food system.  At the same time, the readings and film viewings profoundly link commercial enterprises that often abuse animals to the dehumanization of human beings who work in those same enterprises.

There are other important and widespread examples of animal usage for sports and entertainment, such as animals as pets, trained dancing dogs or talking parrots on America’s Got Talent, or horse-racing, -showing, and -eventing, rodeos, 4H, and the like (Regan, 2005).  There is insufficient space here to elaborate further on the constellation of issues surrounding animals which are used—and, sadly, often abused—for companionship, therapy, or sports and entertainment.  Therefore, for the purposes of this brief discussion, I will focus on productive ways to channel media and film as a means to illuminate for students the key ways animals are used and frequently abused for human consumption as food products.

Enabling students to  ponder the reality of sentience in nonhuman animals casts a light that resists neoliberal urges toward militarized violence against both human and nonhuman animals. Media as tools of pedagogy can be particularly effective in revealing the inhumane ways that factory farmed animals are treated and killed in vast numbers by low-wage, working-class human beings who are also being devalued within the larger neoliberal consumerist culture and system.

The Power of Self-Disclosure To Disrupt Neoliberal Consumerist Violence

In full disclosure, as an occasional animal products consumer and as a pet and horse owner, I myself am grappling with the ethics of non-human animals being used for food, companionship, and therapy. By positioning myself not just as a teacher/facilitator via readings, media examples, and class discussion regarding abuses of animals, but also as an imperfect human struggling with the ethics of animal uses and abuses, I join the ranks of a life-long student learner.  This move assists me in disrupting the endless neoliberal pressures to view animals via a lens of speciesism, which posits that human animals are superior to non-human animals and therefore that human needs supersede non-human animal needs.  Like my students, I become  vulnerable to self-awareness and self-disclosure about the ethical quandaries posed by the often dysfunctional or abusive relationships people have to animals.

My teacher/facilitator role shifts to more of a shared role as a regular human being who, just like students, is confronting the often unseen and seldom discussed reality of animals being consumed within neoliberal consumer culture on a massive scale like never before (Henning, 2011).  I state my participant status, framing class discussion with something along the lines of this: “As a pet owner and occasional animal products consumer, I, too, struggle with the issues we will discuss. As Regan puts it, I’m a ‘muddler’.” By opening class discussion and debate in this way that references course readings but also shows my position as a seeker rather than a neoliberal, ‘multiple choice correct answer-evaluator,’ I can help to foster a more student-centered classroom environment that is open to open-endedness and uncertainty. Neoliberalism thrives on scientific certainty, as in statements such as, “this economic course of action has proven to be beneficial in cases X and Y, as well as in big data studies…” Uncertainty, then, is the tiny pin-prick of opposition to neoliberal certitude. The act of self-disclosure and admitting uncertainty ideally challenges the frequent student perception that faculty are not human beings, but are rather robot-like, techno-pedagogical staffers within the neoliberal university system, who merely run classes, crunch test scores, and spit out grades.

Such self-disclosure by the instructor hopefully fosters communicative immediacy and curbs the distance instantiated by what Henry Giroux (2014) calls neoliberal “discursive creep,” in which faculty become reduced to worker bees within a violence-rationalizing, military-industrial university system (p. 78).  Reminding students of the status of teacher/facilitator as a vulnerable, imperfect self, who is a work in progress, sets a tone that invites inquiry and open-ended discussion of course materials on the ethics of animal usage. This is a barrier-breaking move to reduce the deleterious effects of neoliberalism within higher education. As Giroux (2014) puts it, “neoliberalism undermine[s] civic education and public values as well as confuse[s] education with training; it also treats knowledge as a product, promoting a neoliberal logic that views schools as malls, students as consumers, and faculty as entrepreneurs” (p. 87).  Taking the ironic stance of students within higher education being seen by many administrators as ‘customers’ rather than as learners, the readings and other materials I assign both implicitly and explicitly ask students to reflect on their roles as consumers in the university and elsewhere, of foods, electronics, fashion, pop culture, and so forth.

Giroux’s point enables instructors to think about how the neoliberal university operates along the same lines and based on similar assumptions as food industries. In this case, my self-disclosure as a pedagogical practice is designed to challenge (although it could perhaps also reinforce) the neoliberal model that replaces independent thinking student with ‘automaton consumer’ or free-agent faculty member with ‘robotic instructional staffer.’  While self-disclosure could be seen as an entrepreneurial move designed to “entertain” the student-consumer, in my experience, it’s more about making a persuasive case to students to question their unthinking habits. I present to students a rhetorical means to assess and expose some of the discursive and symbolic power maneuvers of neoliberalism.  The persuasive case I present through course materials is, in all, designed to puncture students’ consumerist catatonic state. Consumerism relies on the myth that both non-human animals and working-class humans are not sentient beings worthy of our consideration. There is a distinction between the rhetorical type of self-disclosure I have used to invite student participation, and to explode the ‘consumerist’ model, versus the neoliberal type of categorization and habits (e.g., “Do you have the new i-phone yet?  what about the i-watch?”) that dehumanize students, faculty, and their subjects of study as mere links in the consumerist chain.

Assignments and Discussion: Asking the Right Questions within a Non-threatening Classroom Environment

In courses such as Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies, and Discourses of Power the unit on animal depiction and usage ethics starts from the premise of simple class discussion questions, such as:

  • What is each student’s personal intake of animal products?
  • How do students personally view the treatment of animals used as pets versus animals used as foods?
  • How many of us work now, or have worked in the past, for a fast-food operation?

Questions such as these may be assigned as homework to be posted by students in an  online class discussion board. Or, the questions could be asked in a way that preserves anonymity posed and written in class, with the answers then shuffled by the instructor and read aloud to the class by peers.  In this way, each student would have a voice, yet not be put in the position of outing themselves for holding contentious, unpopular or in any way worrisome views.  This usually works well as an ice-breaker and an entrée into  productive discussions.

Media is an incredibly helpful tool to foster awareness in a non-judgmental way that invites debate and dialogue among students in the class.  There is  an ever-growing array of resources that range from serious and troubling (see anything featuring former Montana cattle rancher Howard Lyman) to humorous or satirical (such as videos on ‘pink slime’) to films on larger issues of animal rights and welfare.  I show snippets from them all as a means to open and facilitate discussion.  In my experience film and video clips tend to enable students to learn and to engage with the course readings and other material in a visually and aurally sensory-rich way.

For hands-on activities or homework assignments, students may bring in a sample of an animal product that they typically use. In the case of vegans, students may  bring in a potentially harmful fruit or vegetable, since their peers may be unaware of the implications of using genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Vegan students may also be asked to consider the extensive usage of petrochemicals required for the ubiquitous plastic wrapping required for products such as ‘tofurkey’ or other tofu-based, alternative proteins and non-meats. GMOs and environmentally harmful plastics are just the tip of the neoliberal iceberg’s serious consequences for both human and non-human animals. Other consequences include vast agribusiness-scaled farm-field ecosystems of mice, rabbits, birds and other species, whose nests are crushed and whose lives are lost via large field harvesting machinery or the usage of ever escalating powerful insecticides.  Like many people, I live in an old farmhouse surrounded by farm fields, and my home and property are regularly ‘dive bombed’ by aerial spraying planes with drenching sprays of killer insecticides for the crops in the fields surrounding my property on all sides. Insecticides have been linked to all kinds of diseases in humans and animals; we are, after all, what we eat:  if we are eating or breathing or drinking (via groundwater wells) poisons that kill large grasshoppers, could these chemicals not kill or harm us, too?

The course material not only features a variety of traditional media (film, television, web), but also puts such media in conjunction with evolving social media, such as geomaps of cancer clusters or poison spills. These  can be uploaded and shared globally via cellphone apps, as a way of demonstrating the  problematic links among seemingly disparate practices that involve both human animal and non-human animal exploitation. Using page-turner non-fiction books like Jonathan Harr’s New York Times bestseller, A Civil Action (1996, which was made into a bad Hollywood film), complements the use of visual media noted above. Reading selections from Arran Stibbe’s book, Animals Erased (2012), also provide a chilling wake-up call into ways discourses that objectify non-human animals are used by animal products industries to deceive consumers while harming human animals as employees as well as the consuming public. Such integrated applications of a host of communicative media introduced throughout the course can interrupt neoliberal claims to the absolute separation of spheres occupied by the human and non-human world.

Some of my courses include a community engagement (service learning) assignment in which students provide and reflect on service to animal related organizations, such as animal rescue operations that provide shelter for abandoned, abused, or neglected cats and dogs and botanical organizations that advocate against the use of artificial and highly dangerous chemicals applied to lawns and plants. This assignment requires a research component so that each student gains expertise on a variety of links between social harms and animal abuse, such as the connection between abusing animals and abusing children, women, and the elderly, not to mention linkages to many human diseases and other social or economic problems. Over the years, some students have inevitably complained about having to do service as part of their coursework, but I have been continually surprised that just as many students, and possibly more, have expressed how much they learned about and were sensitized to human animal to non-human-animal interconnections and other socio-economic justice problems.  Above all, many students have said that they so enjoyed their service, that they planned to continue to do it on their own, even after the semester ends.

Working Away from Conclusions

It is alright for the course unit to lack a sense of closure. There are few fast and easy answers when it comes to human beings’ incredibly ancient and complex relationships to other sentient beings such as non-human animals, which we use for work, pleasure, food, clothing, and many other purposes. Above all, it is important to ask the hard questions, even if we have no answers to them.  Asking questions that help to awaken us all from the neoliberal dream is a worthwhile and possibly at times even subversive activity. As many universities seek to follow the inhumane and desensitizing neoliberal formula that Giroux critiques, in which faculty are being laid off in lieu of hiring ever more ‘enrollment managers’ and students are being dehumanized by administrators as RPUs (‘revenue producing units’), it is clear that significant numbers of both students and Ph.D.-holding faculty members are ill-equipped to offset these trends. However, finding and debating the true stories of courage in the face of the neoliberal machine, which resonate with students’ appreciation for the human impulse to fight injustice, is both a rhetorical and substantive appurtenance of opposition. Using readings, in conjunction with the web, video, films and other media supplements, enriches and unsettles student awareness about the interconnections of species in an ever technologized and dehumanizing world. Students can be participants in making powerful personal, political or cultural changes toward fostering a more peaceful coexistence among all sentient beings in the human-built and natural environment.


Works Cited

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (1999). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. [online collection.]

Gandhi Sevagram Ashram.  Retrieved from:  http://www.gandhiashramsevagram.org/gandhi-literature/collected-works-of-mahatma-gandhi-volume-1-to-98.php

Giroux, H. (2014).  Neoliberalism’s war on higher education.  Chicago, IL:  Haymarket Books.

Harr, J. (2011).  A Civil Action.  New York, NY:  Knopf Doubleday.

Henning, B. (2011). Standing in livestock’s ‘long shadow’:  The ethics of eating meat on a small planet, Ethics and the Environment 16, 63-93.

Regan, T. (2005). Empty cages: Facing the challenge of animal rights.  Oxford, UK:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Stibbe, A. (2012).  Animals erased:  Discourse, ecology, and reconnection with the natural world.  Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press.


Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University (BGSU).  She is also affiliated faculty with BGSU’s Critical and Cultural Studies program and the undergraduate minor in Peace and Conflict Studies.  Dr. Gorsevski researches and teaches about contemporary peacebuilding rhetoric, featuring political, social and environmental advocacy for peace and justice.  Her research emphasizes undiscovered, less well known, or often forgotten rhetorical records of diverse women activists in socio-political and environmental justice movements.  Her recent articles analyzing the discourse and leadership communication of nonviolent activists for social, political and environmental justice have appeared in Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; Journal of Communication and Religion; and Environmental Communication.  Her books are Peaceful Persuasion: The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2004), and Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Troubador Publishing, Ltd., 2014).

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