Being Goat

One of my favorite passages in Goat Song comes at the end of the chapter where Lizzie the doe nearly dies from an infection of meningeal worms. Lizzie’s illness evokes a passionate and compassionate response from Kessler, who is torn between his desire to save her at any cost and the anguish of seeing her suffer. He offers us a lovely meditation on the contradictions of empathy as he faces the agonizing decision to put the goat down (p. 144).  A friend reminds him that just because Lizzie was miserable did not mean that she wanted to die: “You can’t give up on an animal until it’s given up on itself. You owe them that much” (p.145).  Returning to the main component of empathy (recognizing the emotions of another being from their perspective), the friend states the obvious and the ineffable: “All she wants to do is be a goat.”

How do we, as humans, understand and empathize with other animals? Lizzie’s struggle brings issues of common experience and the nature of animal minds to the forefront.  What was she thinking?  How does a goat experience the world?  What does it mean to be a goat?  And how do people and goats — whose experience of the world is both very similar and profoundly different —  make their way through the relationships of domestication?

The conference I attended last week on The Science of Animal Thinking and Emotion offered many insights into these questions.  Some of the perspectives I found most compelling include: 1) Con Slabodchikov’s conception of a “discourse system” that sees instinct, communication, consciousness and language as interactive parts of a continuum shared by humans and animals.  Check out his very cool work, including his prairie dog studies here.  2) Ian Duncan‘s research on farm animals using preference tests. Duncan concedes that affective states are subjective — they are only known to the individual experiencing them, and therefore not open to direct scientific investigation. But we can learn about animals’ subjective states by asking them (just like people) what they want. 3) Brian Hare’s fascinating citizen science project, Dognition, which offers ordinary people (that’s us!) a chance to evaluate the cognitive profile of their dog. Do you think your dog is a good problem solver? Pretty sure he has a great long-term memory? think he’s moody? or sneaky? For $30 you can put your dog through a series of tests and find out whether he is a “renaissance dog,” a “socialite,” an “ace” or a charmer.  You’ll see what parts of his personality are uniquely his and where his universal doggy nature asserts itself.  And you’ll be helping scientists flesh out the cognitive map of the oldest domesticate. I can’t wait to try this on my own dogs!  Dr. Hare said that the results of his dog’s test really surprised him, and that many people find they’ve been “misreading” their dog all along. For the record, I’m going with “Ace in disguise” for Betty and “neurotic Einstein” for Andi.

Betty (left) and Andi (right)
Betty (left) and Andi (right)

 

Russia-Ukraine-Crimea: Media, Social Media and the Experts

I am sure I’m not the only Russian historian who has been asked in recent days to field media queries about the unfolding crisis in “Russia/Ukraine/Crimea” (the shorthand itself suggests the confusion and conflation of history, geography and politics), and I am pretty sure I am not the only one who has demurred. Developments in Ukraine are unfolding with a bewildering speed that compounds a devilishly complex situation. People want to know what’s going on. They want to fix it. They want reassurance that this won’t get out of hand. I have no sound-bite-insights that can satisfy those desires, and I don’t want to make things worse by adding to the confusion and controversy surrounding nearly every aspect of the crisis.

In the space of two weeks we’ve seen the ouster of Victor Yanukovich, the formation of a new government in Ukraine, Russia’s occupation of the Crimean penninsula, rising alarm over Russia’s violation of international law and its own treaties, controversy about an appropriate response, and concern that the crisis will spread to other Post-Soviet spaces.  This morning’s announcement that Crimea will hold a referendum on March 16 to leave Ukraine and join Russia suggests that the next ten days could be even more unsettling than the last.

As a historian I don’t now-cast or armchair quarterback current events. But I can guide people to sources that will help them form their own understanding of what is happening. I’ve been spending significant time each day sifting through major news outlets, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the blogosphere in an effort to keep up with the crisis and pass the worthwhile nuggets on to friends and colleagues. This experience has given me some perspective on the perilous and empowering ways that the media and social media of our global community shape our lived experience and the history we are making.  The shelf-life of some of these resources may be brief, so I’ll keep the following recommendations and observations short:

1)  Traditional news outlets can obscure more than clarify.

Examples:  Stephen Cohen’s controversial defense of Putin’s actions on CNN and a New York Times op-ed connecting his agenda to nineteenth and twentieth-century Russian religious philosophers on March 3.

2) The magic of the internet puts good (clear, detailed, thoughtful) analysis and background at your fingertips if you know where to look:

Examples: Charles King’s background interview on Crimea on HNN and the fine analysis of how history has shaped the current crisis in “Ukraine, Putin and the West,” published in N+1 on March 4.  There are several good posts on Sean’s Russia Blog as well.

3) Yes, Virginia, there are experts on Ukraine, and we should read what they have to say.

Examples: Ukraine Scholars of North America brings together eleven prominent social scientists working in the US and Canada. William Risch, (Georgia College) has been exceptional in his efforts to collect and collate information through the Facebook group he administers (Euromaidan News in English) and his chronicling of the Euromaiden protests.

4) As the previous two items suggest, social media are key.  They provide a window into events as they unfold, they allow for the immediate dissemination of information and ideas, they put people in touch with each other, and they shape as much as they present the story.

Other examples:

Buzzfeed of people in Crimea taking selfies with Russian soldiers.

The Twitter hashtag “Россия своих не бросает” (“Russia won’t abandon its own”) originated in Russia as a way to galvanize support for annexing Crimea but is also used by anti-Russian groups to mock that effort and deride the authenticity of the campaign.

A volatile and complicated crisis such as this defies generalizations and easy answers. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to embrace simplistic explanations, or let confusion turn to apathy.  Let’s use our collective expertise and the power of crowd-sourced intelligence and analysis to do what we can to keep this from being another Syria.  Let’s not let The Onion have the last word.

It’s all about (historical) perspective

When we start delving into the histories of particular domesticates it can be challenging to keep everything straight.  We’ve talked a lot about how domestication is a process and a relationship rather than an “event” or a given, but getting perspective on what that relationship looks like from both sides (the human and the non-human) at the same time is tricky. We need to think carefully and question our assumptions about what we think animals “do,” and what our interactions with them mean.  Last week I found this post by Patricial McConnell to be a really helpful example of how 21st century Americans misread dog behavior and affect due to our own sign systems. This week, I stumbled on this very cool story about a polar bear and a husky.  The article offers a pretty interesting explanation for a 180-degree shift in public perception of the same bear-dog interaction over the course of thirteen years. While thirteen years isn’t very long at all when compared to the much longer history of human-animal interaction, this example reminds us that perspective is relative and the context in which we observe and evaluate things is changeable and important.

DO Save the Time of the Reader/ Researcher

As a historian, I self-identify as a “super searcher.” I was trained to identify and track down whatever evidence I need, regardless of the time, effort, and tedium involved. As a researcher those skills stand me in good stead every day, but as a teacher, I want my students to spend at least as much time working with materials as they do identifying and locating them. They need to develop strategies for searching and acquire the content expertise to search intelligently, but they also need to start with “the good stuff” so that their curiosity will take over and spur them to dig deeper. For the project Brian Matthews cited in [Don’t] Save the Time of The Reader, my goal was to bring the teaching and learning of Soviet history into the networked age by using blogging and googledocs to contextualize sources available in at least three formats: print, the open web, and proprietary databases.

I’ve provided some background on the design of the course elsewhere, but the basics were as follows: Each student (38 total) had a blog that served as their digital portfolio for the semester and contributed to the content of the course. The individual blogs were syndicated to a motherblog with a magazine-style layout that included a slider and a featured post section. We curated the content from the individual posts into a “weekly edition,” highlighting the most engaging and sophisticated research in the slider or with a “red star.”

The class used a number of openly accessible collections, especially Seventeen Moments in Soviet History — a rich multi-media repository of translated primary sources for the Soviet period.  Other high quality internet sources for Soviet history include Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives —  a browseable archive of video, artifacts and film, that immerses viewers in the history of the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced labor camps; Making the History of 1989 — a digital history repository for studying the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe; and 1917: Did the War Cause a Revolution?  an interactive teaching module about the Russian Revolution based on primary sources (part of the Digital History Reader created by a team of faculty at Virginia Tech with funding from the NEH)

Students find topically coherent, multi-media repositories like Seventeen Moments appealing and user-friendly. The images and audio files are engaging, the translated primary documents are selected for their significance and interest, and the scaffolding of the web site makes it easy to dig more deeply into a particular topic or branch off on a different one.

Getting students to use (and like) the proprietary databases held by the library presents more of a challenge. Every vendor has a different search interface, the scope of the resource (i.e. The New York Times) is far broader than Soviet History, and the sophistication of the database can be daunting for the novice researcher. For this project I wanted students to take advantage of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, (now called the Current Digest of the Russian Press) a translated monthly compilation of articles from Soviet newspapers dating back to 1949. I was pleased that once the class got the hang of finding, analyzing and citing materials from the openly accessible sites, they also found it easier and more interesting to work with the Current Digest. Providing a link directly to the search interface for these resources helped, as did using class time to work together on finding articles about particular topic.  In classic crowd-sourced style, our collective networked searching proved far more efficient and productive than our solitary forays would have been.  The student’s post became more sophisticated in terms of analysis and source base as the semester progressed.

In this context, the first step in saving time for student researchers involved helping them build proficiency with openly accessible repositories that are relatively easy to use and cite. Once the students’ interest in the subject, content expertise, and searching skills had developed, they were more willing to add the Current Digest or the Historical New York Times into the mix and invest the extra time and attention to detail these resources require.

“Saving time” like this allowed the class to use time more productively. Class-sourcing the content for an entire course required a significant investment of time and energy from all of us, but had numerous benefits, including:

1) Giving students a bigger role and larger stake in developing historical knowledge and presenting history to audiences outside the academy;  2) Bridging the conceptual and technological divide between the resources of the open web and the proprietary knowledge of commercial databases; and 3) making the walls of the classroom and the library more porous and transparent.

Expert researchers still need their super searcher skills, but we also need to acknowledge that the world is changing.  Tomorrow’s super searchers will be just as competent as we are, but they will arrive there by different means.

Remembering Alika

The posts this week about the first section of Part Wild have made me think a lot about a wolf-hybrid I lived with in the late eighties. I thought I’d share some of my impressions of life with an Inyo-like creature as part of our ongoing discussion about the distinction between tame and domestic, and the liminality of the domestic condition.

Big Sticks
Big Sticks, Frozen Pond
Leaping Shadows
sharing-the-big-stickBweb
Sharing the Big Stick

 

The photos here show Alika, who was 75% wolf and 25% husky playing with my German Shepherd, Alyosha (named after the kind brother Karamazov, but known to his friends and family as “Loshy”).  Anyone who has read Part Wild will recognize the wolfiness of Alika’s lithe, leggy frame and note how it contrasts Loshy’s burly, more softly contoured silhouette.  They were both amazing creatures, fast friends and allies.  They shared a love of big sticks, woodchucks, swimming in the pond, and doing anything the humans were doing (writing dissertations being the most common activity). And yet they were also very different, and many of Terrill’s difficulties with integrating Inyo into a domestic space rang true with my days with Alika.

Loshy was one of those incredibly perceptive dogs who never needed “training.”  He was eager to please, played outfield on an intramural softball team, worked as a therapy dog in the University of Michigan hospital, and took his duties as mascot of the girl scout camp where I lived very seriously.  He loved everyone but feared pizza boxes. He was a vigilant guardian of my person but would have watched quietly while thieves took my last possession.

Alika was different. (See Corinne’s reminder that we need to consider animals as individuals as well as representative of a species.) Her powers of perception could be extraordinary, but I would not characterize my interactions with her as “training.”  She was extremely attentive to her “pack” of humans, domestic canines, the living room couch, and a large grey cat. She was very gentle and very shy. She ate normal dog food and whatever the campers gave to her. But she could not be confined.  Like Inyo, she would destroy or thwart the most elaborate and expensive containment system out there. When we were home all was well, but if she got loose while we were gone she would run. And run, and run and run. We spent hours, sometimes days, searching for her, only to have her reappear at the camp when she thought we were home. Loshy taught her to hunt woodchucks and she taught him to chase deer. She could not fathom why the humans discouraged this activity.  Unlike Inyo, she figured out a way to live in mixed company, but the part of her that was wild – intractably, genetically, evolutionarily not domesticated – eventually undid her.  These old photos remind me of her gentle, ghostly beauty.

I could go on for quite a while, but will stop for now. Kara’s insightful queries about dogs’ “sixth sense” also reminded me that we still need to talk about cross-species communication.  So if you get a chance, have a look at Patricial McConnell’s latest post about how humans misinterpret dog affect due to our own sign stimuli.

What are they thinking?

It seems that many of our discussions circle back to this question.  What animals think and how they experience the world are big questions that impinge directly on how we understand domestication.  So I was delighted to see that NOVA is putting out a three-part series in April called Inside Animal Minds.  I’m eager to see it and hope everyone else can watch it as well.  There should be lots there for the scientists as well as the humanists in our group. I’m also excited about a conference I’ll be attending in March on Animal Thinking and Emotion. I’m sure there will be lots of material relevant to our class and I’ll definitely post my thoughts about it here.

In the meantime, some of you have indicated that you’d like a more scholarly reading about the domestication process and it occurred to me that Melinda Zeder’s recent article on “Pathways to Domestication” might be really helpful as you begin working on your research projects.

Pretending and Intending

“Animate pretension with intention” enjoins Bum in a Suit, in what is surely one of the most engaging and conflicted “about” posts I’ve yet to read on a new blog.  Taking his cue from Kurt Vonnegut, Bum in a Suit zips straight to the heart of that ambivalence many of us confront when we begin to blog.  For if the internet and its affordances are increasingly implicated into every aspect of our work and daily life , starting a blog is often one of our first deliberate endeavors to create content by claiming and building on a piece of digital real estate.  As Bum in a Suit notes, beginning to blog can feel like an act of pretension: How could the tiny droplets I offer here ever matter in the bottomless ocean of the web?  What agency might my lone ideas exercise against the ever-more-sophisticated algorithms of Google, Facebook and the like? Starting a new blog might also seem futile and /or passe.  As the internet of things rises over the horizon of the internet of information and communication is there really any point to continue to talk to each other?*

I’m going with YES to all of the above (some with more certainty than others), and affirming Bum in a Suit’s decision to blog as an intentional, affirmative and creative act —  one that can, should, must even, make the life of the mind richer and more interesting.  I realize these are bold propositions and not everyone will agree with me.  And that’s fine.  I hope we take all of them up during the seminar this semester. For now I want to note just a few of the many benefits of blogging:

1) Blogging offers an amazingly easy, fast, and durable modality for sharing ideas and research

2) The medium naturally lends itself to thoughtful, documented, distributed conversation about problems and ideas ranging from the practical to the esoteric.

3) Blogging makes it easy to leverage the affordances of a networked environment and tap the infinite and expanding knowledge that the web places at our finger tips.

4) If you are an academic searching for a broader audience or a parachute out of the ivory tower — a blog is your best friend.

I look forward to a seminar loaded with pretentiously intentional posts.

*John Udell has some timely thoughts on the need for “engineered filter failure” here.