As part of a class this year, a group of Franklin & Marshall first-year students read the 2001 novel, “Life of Pi,” watched part of the film adaptation, and then researched the four animals symbolized in the book – tiger, hyena, orangutan and zebra.
They then wrote two papers: one on the biology of the animals and a literary analysis of the book’s animal symbolism. Welcome to “Animals Through the Ages,” a Connections II course taught this spring that encourages students to think across disciplines.
“We’re teaching them the process of scholarly inquiry,” said Associate Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Lonsdorf, chair of the Biological Foundations of Behavior program. “We want students to learn how a process of inquiry works in two different disciplines.”
Lonsdorf teaches the course in tandem with Associate Professor of Classics Gretchen Meyers, chair of the Department of Classics.
“The topics we chose for the course can be discussed from a humanities perspective and a science perspective,” Meyers said. “One of our early classes was about humans and dogs.”
“We talked about the unique bond between humans and dogs, that is the result of thousands of years of domestication,” Lonsdorf said. “For example, we have the same hormonal physiological response to dogs as we do to our babies.”
Lonsdorf, whose research focuses on primate behavior, said students studied how dogs became domesticated, how they became integral to the lives of humans, and the kind of physiological and cognitive changes that have evolved as a result of the human-dog relationship.
The biology of dogs and their role in human lives have implications for how they are represented in human cultural products. As a classicist and an archaeologist, Meyers’ perspective on dogs originates in the texts of classical literature and in ancient art and architecture.
“I start with Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’” Meyers said. “There’s a famous episode where Odysseus comes back from his long travels after 20 years and his loyal hunting dog recognizes him even though he’s in disguise. It is a poetic depiction of the human-animal bond.”
Students have found this multidisciplinary teaching approach beneficial to their overall studies.
“It’s been really unique to dissect a subject from two different perspectives,” first-year Ashley Atcavage said. “I have seen an improvement in my research skills, which will be super helpful since I am an intended biology major.”
The professors demonstrated that scientific method is entirely different from the humanities method of scholarly inquiry, yet scholars in these fields can benefit from each other’s perspectives to better understand the subject -- in this case, dogs.
In class, which meets once a week for three hours, students collaborate to research particular topics and present their work in teams, which are all key elements of scholarly inquiry. A field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City allowed further exploration of the human-animal relationship.
First-year Angelo Torres said the tandem instruction provides a greater dynamic to the subject.
“Their perspectives work harmoniously to create an understanding of the complexity of human-animal relationships,” Torres said. “The course exposed us to several writing assignments that require different writing styles and techniques. That allows us to hone in on writing skills that are diverse, and to critically analyze text, media, and various other sources.”
The professors provide an academic contrast, which was displayed when Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sara Petrosillo lectured the class about falconry and how the sport is depicted in Medieval literature.
“Gretchen and I asked very different kinds of questions,” Lonsdorf said. “This highlighted for the students that as scholars in unrelated fields, we observe through different lenses.”
“Students get the opportunity to see connections between science and humanities while also seeing methods of science and humanities working simultaneously. That’s the point of the class,” Meyers said. “We want them to think beyond the field to which they aspire. That’s liberal arts.”
"We want them to think beyond the field to which they aspire. That's liberal arts."