I don’t know if I can express to you just how apropos it was to see this video pop up as the latest post on City Farmer News, which is currently set as my browser homepage. I was
procrastinating checking my email, you see, between paragraphs of the paper I’m writing as part of my comprehensive exam requirements. It’s meant to be an exhaustive rigorous literature search on a particular topic that is relevant to one’s currently-ephemeral dissertation. I’m writing on animals.
More specifically, my paper is about how environmental historians have written animals into their histories, spanning topics as disparate (though they’re not that disparate-that’s my point!) as colonial biological exchange, working animals, animals as food, ‘wildlife,’ and urban animals, to name a few. (The implication of the cheeky video is that cows are not appropriately urban but this belief is a recent historical development.)
Really, this post is not procrastination so much as an attempt to get my thoughts in order. I’ve been trying to be all zen-like about the writing process by invoking Thomas G. Andrews, a historian who ruminates (ha!) on animals and pedagogy in a 2010 issue of Radical History Review. He writes:
“Failure is a generous pedagogue-in teaching as in life….we serve our students best when we eschew pedagogical safety, bid failure into our classrooms, and try as best we can to learn from whatever happens next.”
I’m certain the same goes for essay writing, though it’s only recently that I’ve begun to consider what ambitious and pedagogically ‘rich’ academic writing might look like. It’s not quite working. I’ve been hammering out words (3288 at last count) and each and every one feels like a failure. Am I being melodramatic? Okay, the writing feels forced, unnatural, an awkward mish-mash of academic-speak and whimsy. I’m trying to be all zen-like, putting down sentence after sentence and ‘bidding failure’ into this paper. But I’m afraid of failure (not the grading kind, but the perfectionist kind), and clearly bad at zen. When I express such concerns, most people raise their eyebrows, give a soft cluck of the tongue, and reply: ‘You always say this. The paper will be just fine.’
They’re right, but that’s the problem. I fear this paper will turn out like most others I write: technically sound and thoroughly researched with one or two semi-compelling ideas. While valuable, these skills they hardly make for an exciting read.
In my paper I suggest that the animal subfield of environmental history has consistently eluded any significant discussion about the ‘nature’ of animal agency, even though most scholars invoke it as a key causal component in their histories. They treat it differently than human agency in that animal agency is read through effect only, through unintended consequences. The most common way of doing this is by stressing animals’ mobility. Agency is thus reduced to movement, to innate function.
The effect is that the literature can conveniently sidestep some pretty fundamental moral questions by re-objectifying animals (wittingly or otherwise). It’s not just questions about animal ethics that are obscured, but ones about the desirability of politically active historical engagement. Hence my wry smile at the video. There are the cows, being mobile. Or are they, perhaps, mobilizing?
Anyway, such debates have prompted me to email my supervisor (repeatedly) about how I might craft my dissertation, with the latest note proclaiming I’ll write a chapter from the perspective of a cow, to which he replied, “A chapter from the cow’s perspective is fine, but NOT if it’s written in the first person.”