Teaching reflections: Multispecies Design #1

Posted on Aug 2, 2014 in Ordinary Madness of Academia

This term I’m teaching two courses: CCDN233: Design Ethnography and CCDN384: Multispecies Design. I had originally planned to blog weekly reflections but the first three weeks of classes have been such a blur that I’ll have to start now and hope I can do it weekly from now on. I’ll also split my reflections into separate posts for each course.


This is a new third-year class of 21 students from all three of our design specialisations, and they’re all quite attached to animals through personal experience and intellectual interest. The course lecture content is organised according to types of human-animal relations such as people & pets, people & livestock, people & wildlife, experimental animals, pest animals, etc., and how different kinds of design have intervened to maintain and/or challenge these relations and interactions. There are two main assignments, each submitted as concept proposals and as final designs. The first is a visual narrative of an existing human-animal relationship (done independently) and the second is a product/service design that supports animals and/or ecological well-being, or intervenes in a particular human-animal relationship (done in small groups).

I’ve also set up a tumblr for my research and things related to this course: more-than-human design. In addition to the books cited below, you can find links to additional sources and readings on our first two lectures: human-animal relations and people & pets. But otherwise, it’s really just a huge jumble of content without much, or any, commentary; part of what we do in our tutorials is ask and try to answer questions about all of it.

When it comes to understanding human-animal relations, the challenge for design students seems to involve getting beyond the personal to more actively engage with, and interrogate, social interactions as well as broader cultural implications. By the end of the first week I wished I had called the course more-than-human design instead of multispecies design; I think it might have better helped orient us towards these concerns. I also find that the primary pedagogical challenge of teaching content from other disciplines is figuring out how much detail is necessary. I’m constantly afraid that I’m doing a disservice to the complexity of the field, but I also have specific learning objectives for these students and even if everything is interesting, not everything can be equally relevant.

The first full lecture allowed me 80 minutes to sum up the why’s, what’s and how’s of human-animal studies. Following Margo DeMello’s Animals and Society, I described the field as concerned with the varied relations people have with all kinds of animals, and with assessing the costs and gains (cultural, environmental, economic, ethical, etc.) of these relationships. Focussing on the contributions of posthumanism, science studies, multispecies ethnography, and more-than-human geography, I talked about understanding how animals serve people’s needs and desires. I explained that the most commonly given reason to study human-animal relations is the potential for learning more about ourselves. Modernism has tended to privilege the human and the technological, and human-animal studies offer us the opportunity to assess the consequences of these decisions. A related reason to study human-animal relations is because we do not live–and indeed never have lived–without nonhuman animals. Recognising this not only helps us understand ourselves, but also to question how much of our understanding of nonhuman animals is related to assumptions about ourselves. Another reason to study human-animal relations is because a lack of understanding and empathy may lead to antisocial behaviour. Research suggests that speciesism is linked to racism and sexism, and studies have indicated that people who abuse animals are more likely to abuse other people. We talked about the roles that anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism play in these matters of concern, and I identified three main (if not always clear-cut) ethical frameworks or perspectives for assessing these relations and interactions: animal welfare, animal rights, and animal abolitionism. Students were encouraged to start thinking carefully and critically about which positions they would take on human-animal relations, as they would inevitably become embedded in their designs.

In our first tutorial, I introduced the first assignment, which is to independently research and propose a visual narrative (illustration, photography or video) and draft a supporting creative non-fiction essay on the cultural (symbolic, political, economic, ethical, etc.) and/or environmental implications of a particular human-animal relationship. And we looked at Jo-Anne McArthur’s We Animals photography project, asking what kind of stories her photos and captions tell, as well as which stories are absent or under-represented.

“Living with an animal forces a rethinking of some of the most important issues involved in what it means to live.”

– Erika Fudge, Pets

The next lecture looked at people and pets. I chose this as the first topic because it is the most intimate and familiar human-animal bond that most of the students would have. I started with the observation that poverty, social and political instability, and other obstacles make pet ownership less likely in some places, but it is high—and growing—amongst the middle classes and above in all industrialised nations. In fact, the global pet care industry is predicted to reach a value of $97 billion this year. We also talked about the prevalence of companion animals in New Zealand, including the fact that NZers keep more cats than any other country in the world. But the majority of the lecture focussed on how one of the most familiar boundaries in Western culture is that between humans and animals, but our relationships with our pets do a great deal to break down those boundaries and challenge our assumptions about what makes us different from each other.

I introduced the concept of domestication in both biological and cultural terms. Because so many people choose to live with pets, these animals can tell us a lot about domestic spaces, or what “home” means. Unlike most animals, pets are given individual names, share our interior home spaces, are fed human or human- like food, and are generally not eaten. As such, they’re treated more like kin, or family, than as “others.” While this is generally more accurate when describing dogs, cats and other mammals, it is also true for less common pets including birds, fishes, and reptiles. Dogs are descended from grey wolves and were originally kept as guard animals, hunting companions, beasts of burden, and as sources of food and fur. The dog is humanity’s oldest domesticated animal. However, some researchers argue that it was dogs that domesticated people, by facilitating more permanent settlement and eventually agriculture. We’ve been breeding dogs for at least 15,000 years and have lived together for as long as 30,000 years. Cats have only been domesticated for around 5000 years, although there is evidence we have lived together for at least 9000 years. Evidence also suggests that cats historically served primarily as pest-control in human settlements and houses, allowing people to store food for long periods. They are also generally considered to have been self-domesticated or not even fully domesticated, as they are genetically closer to their wild predecessors and less genetically diverse than dogs.

The emotionally close relationship we now associate with pets is a relatively new phenomenon associated with the rise of industrialised, urbanised life. As Fudge explains, some reasons for keeping pets since the 19th century have been to make up for a (perceived and real) lack of closeness and affection in human social relationships; to satisfy our desire for stability and predictability; to help us maintain control of some boundaries in the face of boundaries lost, (e.g. meat-eating vs. vegetarianism and interior vs. exterior space); and to help us live with ambiguity and uncertainty, (e.g. by standing in for humans but remaining animals).

“Dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”

– Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets

We looked at cultural attitudes and practices around missing pets; few things indicate the integration of pets into our ideas of home more than what we do when we lose one. If we say someone is “missing,” we mean that they are not where we expect them, or where they’re supposed to be. And if we “miss” someone, we mean that we feel their absence or loss. Extending these sentiments, we looked at “saving” pets, and grieving pets (e.g. pet cemeteries and pet taxidermy), and we watched Eliot Rausch’s beautiful and heartbreaking short film, Last Minutes with Oden. And, of course, we looked at pressing social and cultural issues related to human-pet relations, including pet control (e.g. identification and licensing); overbreeding (e.g. health problems, puppy & kitten “mills”); overpopulation (e.g. abandoned animals, strays & ferals, mass euthanasia); animal hoarding; animal cruelty and abuse; and the often overlooked phenomenon of veterinarian and shelter worker “burnout” and PTSD.

This week’s tutorial was focussed on the students’ visual narratives, and how they would position both people and animals. Deciding what kind of story they want to tell is a real–and wonderful–challenge for them because it requires an explicit wrangling of their beliefs and assumptions, and not “simply” aesthetic choices.

“In the stories [about pets] we tell and are told can be found some of the hopes and anxieties of our lives … Imagination permits us to anthropomorphize: to make pets into pseudo-humans. This is a transformation that allows for a conversation between the species … Imagination offers us the opportunity of thinking about other lives (both human and non-human) and exploring the possibility of other modes of perception.”

– Erica Fudge, Pets

As a final thought, I’m not quite sure how to capture the parts of class that are, I think, most valuable and fruitful: our tutorial discussions. I want to respect my students’ privacy, and make sure that I provide a safe place to explore ideas that aren’t yet fully baked and sometimes rather emotionally-fraught. I’ll ask them about it next week, and see what they say. In any case, I do hope that they will be keen to share their design work and that I’ll be able to feature it here in due course.

Next: Week 4 reflections