NCAS Professor’s Course Crossed an Ocean While Linking Cultures and Academic Disciplines

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It was a chance meeting that led to a bold idea that eventually crystalized into an adventure in teaching for Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) English Professor Dr. Fran Bartkowski and 21 students in two countries.

It started in May 2015 when Bartkowski was invited to give a lecture at the University of Warsaw’s Collegium Artes Liberales. Bartkowski’s talk, "Tickled, Touched and Terrified: On the Spectrum with Our Animal Others,” especially appealed to attendee Dr. Thurston Cleveland Hicks, an American on faculty as an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and a guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. As a primatologist, Hicks was intrigued by Bartkowski’s interests in the area of kinship across human-animal boundaries.  Both were also eager to establish ties between Rutgers and Warsaw, and working via Skype and email, they jointly developed a syllabus for a team-taught interactive distance learning course at their universities.

“Humans as Great Apes” was offered in spring 2016, bringing together 10 students in a 10 a.m. class on the RU-N campus and 11 students at the University of Warsaw, where it was 4 p.m. 

The professors’ goal was that their students would “never think in the same ways as they had previously about humans, as animals, and humans and animals--whether in terms of issues of commonalities, issues of preservation of habitats, issues of captivity, hunting, food sources, etc.,” says Bartkowski. “This course took questions that have been most fully developed in the areas of critical race theory, feminist theory, disability studies, and other fields that examine relations of power and oppression, and moves those debates into the realm of animal studies, a field at least two decades old, which draws upon philosophy, religious studies, bioethics, evolutionary psychology, literature, cultural studies, and more,” according to Bartkowski.

“My hope was to facilitate discussions between two different human societies and also between two very different academic disciplines, about our relationship to other forms of life on this planet, and what it means to be human,” says Hicks.

Hicks’s students all were fluent in English, so the cross-disciplinary, for-credit course was presented in English, attracting both undergraduate and graduate students from across all majors, including literature, anthropology, business, and criminal justice.

For teaching materials, the course drew on written and video resources from across disciplines: the sciences, ethics, law, the arts, and literature. Bartkowski notes that there were “remarkably few cultural/linguistic failures to communicate,” while Hicks observes, “The friendly, respectful and at times eye-opening exchange of ideas between the Polish and American  students, centered around the idea of rethinking our relationship with our fellow animals, was one of the most stimulating experiences I have had a teacher.”

Bartkowski also gave her students creative leeway in their final assignment, allowing them to meet with her to choose a topic of particular interest, and choose a format to discuss it. So, for instance, a student in the MFA in Creative Writing program wrote a short story, another a critical paper on animal studies, while some of the undergraduates presented in-depth research papers that went beyond the materials presented in class.

Students on both sides of the ocean were enthusiastic about their unusual course. Criminal justice major Rosa Torres (May 2016), who was initially attracted to the title, “Humans as Great Apes,” declared it to be “definitely different from what I’ve experienced in a regular classroom setting.”  The Plainfield resident especially enjoyed hearing “different perspectives from different countries and different students.”

University of Warsaw student Katarzyna Sendecka says the “mixing of cultures and backgrounds made for a very enriching experience in general, but particularly because we were focused on such questions as our identity, our place within the animal world and similarities (plus differences) to great apes. The fact that half of us students and our teachers were from a completely different culture meant that what they brought into discussion was priceless. I can only hope this side of the Atlantic delivered as well.”

She also praises the interdisciplinary nature of the course. “Hearing an anthropologist argue with a student of forensics about chimpanzees, humans, and war was delightful” and raised issues from class readings “that we otherwise would have missed or taken for granted,” she says.

Neither Bartkowski nor Hicks had ever team-taught a long-distance course and both say this was a one-time project, but Hicks hopes that “this will be but an early step towards classes of the future, in which we will transcend national boundaries and have worldwide discussions in real time.”