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Some grew up on farms. A few work in labs. Many own pets. Several don’t eat meat. But all of the students enrolled in Literature and Animal Studies bring their own unique, and often complicated, relationships with animals to the class. 

Mario Ortiz-Robles

That’s what Mario Ortiz-Robles, a professor of English, intends for the course, which delves into British and American literature, from Black Beauty to The Island of Dr. Moreau, to explore how animals are depicted. 

“In certain literature, why is it that animals speak? Why do we represent them as human?” he asks. 

As Ortiz-Robles leads the class through novels, as well as writings on animal rights and works of philosophy, history and science, he wants students to consider the contradictions of the human-animal relationship. 

Starting back in the 1800s, he says, animals began to be more visible than ever before. But as they showed up in zoos, circuses and museums, they also became hidden away from public view in laboratories and factory farms. 

The troubling paradox that continues today, and it’s at the heart of animal studies, an emerging, trans-disciplinary field within the humanities that complements longer-standing scientific inquiry of animals. 

It’s also part of an exciting new initiative designed to engage students on pressing contemporary issues from multiple perspectives.

Making better scientists 

Constellations are clusters of courses grounded in the humanities. Modeled after the popular First-Year Interest Groups, the program allows students to take three classes — one core humanities course and two linked classes — concurrently and draw connections across disciplines. 

“The concept revolves around pressing contemporary interdisciplinary questions that benefit greatly from humanistic inquiry,” says program coordinator Meridith Beck Mink. 

Constellations are open to all UW-Madison students, but they’re intended to appeal to STEM, pre-med and pre-vet students in particular. Not only do they help fulfill general education and degree requirements for science majors, but they also complement their typical course load and provide a more holistic understanding of complex topics they’ll face in their careers. 

By blurring boundaries between disciplines, students will be able to find interesting connections, and dig deeper into topics. They will also complete projects that they could show to a medical or veterinary school interviewing committee, says Mink. And she expects the program to spark interest in taking additional humanities courses or earning a certificate like Health and the Humanities or Integrated Liberal Studies.

“It’s creating additional pathways into the humanities for students,” she says. 

The concept revolves around pressing contemporary interdisciplinary questions that benefit greatly from humanistic inquiry.

Learning links 

The first four Constellations will begin in the spring 2019 semester, led by four faculty members who have received Mellon-Morgridge professorships for the excellence, innovation and passion of their teaching. 

In 2015, the A.W. Mellon Foundation awarded the College of Letters & Science and the Center for the Humanities a $2.5 million grant to develop a new model of humanities education in the 21st century. The grant was compounded by a $2 million match from John and Tashia Morgridge to fund rotating professorships for the program. The professors are also supported by Mellon-Morgridge Fellows, graduated students dedicated to exploring interdisciplinary teaching, research and public humanities. 

All four constellations will include an introductory biology course. An Animal Studies track will also combine Ortiz-Robles’ Literature and Animal Studies course with a path-biological science class.  

Meanwhile, a Health Constellation led by associate professor Communication Arts Jenell Johnson will link her Rhetoric & Health course with a sociology class focusing on population issues. Together, they’ll explore what “health” means and how those meanings change in different times, places and populations. 

Laura McClure, a professor of Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, will lead a Bodies & Society Constellation that brings together her course on gender and sexuality in the classical world with a Gender & Women’s Studies class on women and their bodies in health and disease. 

And a fourth Constellation, The Planetary, will explore what happens when environmental humanities meets planetary science. Led by Frédéric Neyrat, a professor in Comparative Literature, this Constellation combines comparative literature and geography to consider the planet earth as a human, cultural, environmental reality, and as a stellar body belonging to the interplanetary universe.   

Plans are in the works for additional Constellations to be offered. But all will allow students and faculty alike from different majors and departments to intellectually collaborate on timely and thorny issues. 

“Ultimately, the program aims to bring coherence to the undergraduate experience and prepare students to face the challenges of the future,” says Mink. “It’s a task not truly possible without the tools and perspectives that the humanities offer.”