The EATS 101 Experience at UNC
Yesterday was my semesterly Chapel Hill visit to Professor Jim Ferguson’s legendary EATS class, now in its 29th semester. The format of the course is elegant and simple. Students read some of my work (in this case two Atlantic articles on animal rights and a chapter from Just Food), they write a response, I read what they have to say, and then we meet in person to discuss. If you are ever in the position of designing a course, and have the luxury of inviting guest speakers, this is the way to do it.
In the past, the majority of students—some of the brightest at UNC (it’s an honors class)—predictably come at me from a sustainable foodie, local foodshed, point of view. They’re mildly sympathetic to the idea of animal rights, but any deeper interest in exploring such a perspective, much less trying to work it into their preconception of “sustainability,” is countered by a near religious commitment to eating animals raised under comparatively humane and local and organic conditions. Blah blah blah.
Interestingly, refreshingly, this semester was different. Two observations stand out. Before I elaborate on them, I should say that the class discussion was of the highest quality, perhaps the best I’ve had on my many visits to the seminar. The students were impassioned and more than eager to delve into the most intellectually challenging topics. With two hours up, I very much wanted to keep going (which is rarely the case for me), and, given the complexity that students were game to take on, there were a lot of places to go.
The first change I noticed was in the way students positioned themselves in their response papers. There was little hesitation or doubt about their stance on eating animals. There was, in other words, an honesty that I greatly appreciated, whether it was an honesty that condemned the unnecessary suffering of animals as categorically immoral, one that admitted that it was wrong to eat animals but that the person would continue to do so because animals “tasted good,” or if it was a firm belief that humans were at the top of the food chain and had evolved to eat every other species that moved so, you know, get the hell out of my way. These opinions, laid bare on the page, gave us much to talk about. And we did. And it was productive, at times, I hope, correctively so.
The second change I noticed was, perhaps, the presence of too much honesty. What I’m about to say here is not a complaint so much as a neutral observation, one I’ll elaborate on momentarily with an attempt at a useful takeaway. Those readers put on the defensive by my ethical arguments were remarkably aggressive with their rhetorical weaponry. I say this not to whine because, frankly, I don’t really care about my ideas being dismissed as “silly,” “ridiculous,” marked by “a gaping hole in logic,” and coming from “a righteous vegan trying to proselytize.” But, nonetheless, these phrases—and others like them— were all written, for me to see before I visited, by students who have yet to graduate from college. That’s something new for me.
My elaboration/analysis of this phenomenon—one that, I’ll admit, had me choking on my airplane coffee as I read them on the flight to Raleigh-Durham—begins with this observation: the students who wrote these words were, in person, engaging, friendly, and smart. Their tone in no way reflected their character. Instead—and this is my sort of terrifying hypothesis—their tone, which sounded quite familiar to me, reflected the bitter writing culture that has evolved out of online commentary, a dungeon of expression in which you hide away and throw verbal and sub-verbal bombs because, well, you can.
I think these students were just as freaked out to see the physical me—a real live individual with passions and personality and a beard—as I was to see them. My message was, on this particular score, simple: when you want to throw an insult, hold back and use your turbo-booster brain to make an eloquent and well-reasoned argument. Because, if my hypothesis is correct, it would genuinely pain me to see so many intelligent students fall victim to the ubiquitous boorishness of online ranting, a form of communication that leads nowhere.
Either way, it reminds me of the power of personal contact to shape the tone and demeanor of personal interaction, whether it be between humans and humans or humans and animals. Just as it’s much harder to sit next to a person and call his ideas “silly” or “ridiculous” or “illogical” or whatever, it’s also harder to spend time with an animal, see that he has a personality, and then kill and eat the poor creature.
Not a bad thought to have the morning after a first-rate seminar.